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Out-Takes (2021)

Peter Davis


“Out-takes”, often abbreviated to “Outs”: a term in film production, and now for video, to describe those scenes not used, left over after a project has been edited. Typically, little value has been given to Outs. I use “Out-takes” as a rubric for those memories I have managed to scribble down relating to various productions of mine, the background to the foreground that was the completed production. In a sense, a way of illuminating the process of production. Chapters from a life, randomly edited.

Once upon a time, in the mid-‘Sixties, I was working at Swedish TV as an independent producer. I had just made a film there about my 1964 Cuban visit, and I went to the archive to collect the out-takes. The archivist, a good friend, pointed at a chopping-block, a large log with an axe embedded in it. That was what Swedish TV did with out-takes, chopped them up to save storage space. They were doing that efficiently enough; they were also destroying images of Che, of Fidel, of the early years of the Revolution, thrown into the dustbin of history.

About the same time, my dear friend Bob Elfstrom had returned to Swedish TV after making a series of films on Civil Rights in the USA. This series of four films included interviews with Whitney Young, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, Malcolm X, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, James Farmer, Elmer A Carter, Bob Moses, Joe Lewis, Rev. Dukes, John Lewis, and James Baldwin - leading Black figures at that time. From those interviews, which may have taken an hour each, a few minutes only would have been used in the completed documentaries. The out-takes, hours of invaluable valuation, chopped into obscurity.

This was by no means an unusual practice. When Hollywood switched from silent to sound movies, thousands of silent films were jettisoned. In 1978, 533 reels of silent films, features and newsreels, were discovered buried under an abandoned ice-rink in the Gold Rush city of Dawson, where they had lain since 1929 - the great switch-over date from silent to sound. In those days, there may have been some justification for failure to conserve these titles, because they were on nitrate film - highly inflammable, the cause of many devastating accidents in theatres at that time, and even later. In 1937, spontaneous combustion destroyed a 20th Century Fox archive, and the American National Archives lost 12 million feet of valuable history in 1978. It was not in fact until the 1950s that nitrate film was replaced with the safe cellulose acetate base.

So much of history lost because of the unsafe film stock used, and by deliberate and accidental destruction. Working at a studio in New York City, when I went at the end of the day to get my car in the basement, I often found reels of film discarded as garbage; I remember in particular salvaging a reel of a 35mm print of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Later, in Zimbabwe, leaving the television station there, I noticed a number of 16mm prints that had been discarded, and naturally I plucked them out of the dustbin. Among other things, there proved to be newsreels from the Civil War, unique and irreplaceable historical records.

When film began to be replaced by tape, conservation became much easier, because the space needed was much less. However, there was still the vexing matter of economy: because tape, unlike film, could be re-used, studios and television stations got into the habit of wiping clean whatever was on a tape so that it could be re-used, an apparently economic act. The storage problem was partially solved by the introduction of digitisation, which nullified the problem of space. This was fine for digital cameras, but there still remained the issue of preserving film, which for proper conservation and access needs to be digitised, a very expensive procedure. Each step demands a vision that anticipates an as yet opaque importance for the material. As a result, thousands of feet of film lie in television, university, and hundreds of other archives, where they cannot be viewed.

In 1967, when I was in the United Kingdom, a friend who was then working for the BBC alerted me to an upcoming event titled the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation and the Demystification of Violence. Organised under the auspices of anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing, it was to be a two-week gathering of counter-culture, cultural New Wave, and politically activist personalities such as Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, Carolee Schneemann, Gregory Bateson, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Beck, among many others whose significance has only increased in the past fifty-plus years.

A Canadian company, Allan King Associates, had a studio in London which serviced the New York City PBS station, and through them I arranged to film the two-week event, held at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, for airing on Channel 13. I came a few days late to the Dialectics, and with a very tight budget, so I could not cover everything. In those days, due to the expense of film, we had to virtually edit in camera, choosing those scenes that we would most likely select from; unlike today’s video, where the cost of digital filming is no hindrance. But I managed to cover many of the featured speakers and side debates.

I edited a half-hour film for Channel 13 at Allan King’s, accepted by Channel 13, which covered all the expenses - except my pay as director! Turns out that Channel 13 thought that this production was part of the regular service covered by their agreement with Allan King, whereas Allan King thought it lay outside their purview - a draw, which left me unpaid.

But I did own the product. In the following years, I have made my unpaid fee a hundred times over from resales of the edited film, and of the out-takes, from which I have reconstituted lectures by leading speakers. And as I considered the out-takes to be as historically important as the edited film (called Anatomy of Violence), I have spent some time since around the year 2000 in tracking down audience survivors and interviewing them on their impressions of the Dialectics, an event that echoed some of the leading concerns of that time to the present - ecological disaster, economic inequality, war, racism. This is an investment in history, as yet to be fully realised in terms of finding a market. So the follow-up interviews languish on a shelf at home.

The lesson is that whether we value something or not at this moment, it is still a part of history. I dare to say that some elements not included in my edited documentaries may, in the fullness of time, actually prove to be more historically important than what was included. I took the Swedish chopping-block lesson to heart, and seldom throw any of my work away. I assumed for myself the name of a character from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale - Autolycus, “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”. My principle income now comes from everything I preserved, edited and unedited. Out-takes have significantly helped my financial in-takes.