Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The E Room: Archivist as Sleuth

Kartemquin Films, né Kartemquin Educational Films, reserves four storage units at The Hall. These rooms are named after Kartemquin's former initials: K, E, and F. The fourth room is humbly named "the DVD room" despite contents ranging from tape masters to financial records. We'll return to the topic of unhelpful labeling later in this post.

There's Ryan in the K room! The K room is where our story begins. The materials that make up Kartemquin's official films, the ones you'll find listed here, live in the K room. The boxes are shelved in roughly chronological order, wrapping around the room (almost a whole wall devoted to Hoop Dreams) and then spiraling in to the center shelves. The last movie housed in the K room is Stevie. After that, the canon picks up again in the F room with The New Americans, etc etc.

Kartemquin stopped shooting on celluloid after Golub in 1988, so my work in the K room ended there. (With a few exceptions, such as Hoop Dreams' 16mm internegative and Stevie's original, S16mm, footage). Jenna, queen of video formats, has gone on to archive the F room while I have begun a much more gruesome project: the E room.

The E room holds the other stuff. The E room is a shadow to the K room, the side of the coin that hit the floor. Commissioned films, unfinished films, test rolls, bin trims left by visiting filmmakers using Kartemquin's machines - even boxes of vintage periodicals, college essays, photographs and correspondence live in the E room. I found the original sound recording unit for Camera #1 in the E room, which you can look at and read about in Carolyn's great blog post.

The E room's contents originate as far back as 1964, when Gerald Temaner and Gordon Quinn were just figuring out what Kartemquin would become. Most of the room falls under my material jurisdiction, and boy, is it weird. But before we delve into this fascinating hodge-podge, let's revisit the K room and give the archive team a pat on the back.

Gosh, isn't it pretty! Taping the top of the last K box closed, I couldn't believe how far we'd come. This room alone contains 7145 inventoried elements, in 435 boxes. Our original estimate hypothesized 9000 elements in all three rooms! We were way off.

Working my way through the K room, I thought I had seen it all. I found a forgotten film. I re-canned a lot of smelly film rolls (see my repulsive yet beautiful mold porn post). There were stacks of loose reels, boxes with no numbers, and film unspooling higgledy-piggledy in disintegrating, amorphous envelopes. To be fair, a lot of the materials were in good, even pristine condition, especially moving into the 1980's. Handwriting that I recognized on elements from the mid 70's had, by the next decade, developed more rigorous organizational technique. By the time I got to Golub, the items practically inventoried themselves.

These are rolls of original negative. Every can is consistently labeled with stock number, exposure index, footage count, edge code, roll number, exposure date, processing date, and project title. I had little to do aside from assigning inventory numbers, testing for non-existant disintegration (all these rolls are sealed in plastic bags), and entering the obvious data. Stevie's original footage is similarly straightforward.

Not only are the Stevie boxes properly labeled inside and outside, but they bear additional marks of computer precision by way of barcodes, inspection records, and timecode assignment.

As an archivist, I have a complicated relationship with cleanliness and order. Of course I want everything to end up in this state, and finding elements like the ones in these photographs is heartening. Someone before me did their job well, and these precious materials will last longer, remain more accessible, than the rolls I rescued from rust and re-spooled. On the other hand, clean elements are boring. Where's the heroism in data entry? (There's plenty of heroism in data entry.) Where's the mystery in a box like this?

So anyway, back to the E room.

There is no shortage of mysteries here. My familiarity with the archive helps me identify many items, especially picture rolls. I will recognize a face, or a shot, or a proper noun (location, minor character) written somewhere on the item. Audio rolls are harder, since I have no visuals to reference, and can't listen to the material.

But what to do when the project I become familiar with has no name, and no remembered history? Increasingly, I am finding bundles of items that obviously belong together but are difficult to inventory, because I have to decide whether to assign them their own collection, or list them as 'Undetermined'. The dreaded 'Undetermined' collection is a last resort. Every element inventoried therein must be exhaustively described in hopes that it will someday be reunited with its true clan.

Often, the critical decision hinges on the existence of a title. When I started on the E room, I found a lot of funny footage of a man and woman in trench coats engaging in chase scenes, exploring a demolished building, approaching strangers at the beach, and conversing in a luxury hotel room. This was obviously not a documentary film. When I talked to Gordon about it, he recalled: "It was going to be Gerry's [Gerald Temaner's] masterpiece. Like a Chris Marker film, lots of different footage with voiceover, a film essay. He never finished it." Gordon can't remember the title, and neither can Gerald.

I need a title before I can create an element record in the database. I need a title to write on the new label before I pack up the box and return it to the Hall. Often, as was the case with Gerald's movie, I have to continue blindly collecting like objects until I stumble upon a label consistent enough to assign as title. Then again, sometimes, I find one element bearing labels from four different collections. I'm up to my elbows in mystery.

If I'm wearing mystery sleeves, they're attached to a grime jacket. This photo makes me laugh. That's a staple in the middle of a roll of film. Strands of film are generally attached with cement adhesive or tape. Making a splice with a staple is detrimental to several feet of film, more if the staple disintegrates and rusts (which it will). It's comically hardscrabble. That scrappy attitude permeates much of the E room.

These two boxes (sitting on top of E-019) were once taped together and declared a single box. When I got to them, they were sticky as well as flakey, the tape's yellowing, skeletal sinews preserving the illusion of a whole. There is so much of this tape in the E room.

Here are some creepy film cans. Instead of putting them in a box and giving the whole box a box number, which would have been easier for everybody, someone assigned a box number to each individual can. Carolyn and I were relieved when we realized 20 out of the 350-something E boxes were actually individual elements.

Here's my desk after hauling in the first batch of E boxes. Up on the top shelf, you can see two examples of the let's-pretend-this-is-one-box taping technique. Here's my desk after I finished inventorying these elements:

Wowie zowie, look at that! Fresh boxes, nice big labels, and everything inspected and tucked away safely! This is the kind of cleanliness that I find most satisfying. The kind that comes after arduous physical labor and exhaustive research. I love the E room. It transforms my data entry duties from a bran muffin into the icing on an exquisitely complex cake.

Here's me in the E room attempting the aforementioned physical labor. Onward!

Post by Lyra Hill

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is fascinating! But then again, I handled the archives for a period in the 1970s. If you run across a black ring binder with a sign-out sheet for each of the documentaries we lent out to various community groups ...

    I always felt like the KTQ geek for secretly enjoying the process of organizing a film library and being the guard dog for our copies of docs from other groups like NY Newsreel, Third World Newsreel, etc. Once I'd left Kartemquin in order to seek my fortunes in the outside world, I eventually let my organizational freak flag fly: I designed and organized databases, online image banks, and training systems. I met people who had gotten graduate degrees in archival curation! Kraft Foods, for example, has an entire building where they house all sorts of "assets," including the artifacts from companies they've absorbed over the years. They have the original writing desk of Josiah Baker (Baker's Chocolate), which dates back to the late 18th century.

    I eventually became an information architect with a dot-com. These are the people who make online information useful by making it accessible. If you can't find it, it doesn't exist, at least not in the split-second world of online activity. For awhile, everyone wanted to be an information architect, or so it seemed. It was during this period that archivists and librarians became the rock stars of the online design world. And a new appreciation developed for traditional archiving: the identification, labeling, and storing of artifacts. This is not to say that archiving is new to filmmaking. Film editors know all too well the importance of finding the right take, and finding it quickly. But once a film is in the can, there is a tendency to throw all the rest of it in a box and exhale. I imagine this is part of what you've been systematically organizing.

    Thanks for this peek into the archives, and into your process. I found it fascinating!