The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

The Drift Back: Margaret Tait at 100

Portrait of Ga. Courtesy of LUX and the Margaret Tait Estate.
Portrait of Ga. Courtesy of LUX and the Margaret Tait Estate.

I didn't see the petals moving.

I didn't see them opening.

They were closed,

And later they were open,

And in between I noted many phases,

But I didn't see them moving open.

–Margaret Tait, Now (1958)

The films of Margaret Tait often portray a contradictory sense of time, one that seems suspended while also rushing or galloping forward. The effect, while hinting at philosophically grand ideas, also reflects the founding principles of cinema: moving images borne out of sequential still frames. It's a phenomenon that Tait herself expressed wonder in. "It's mysterious, isn't it?" she opined in a 1983 interview, "That photographs joined together and passing in front of you in the order that they do—at the same time as a track of sounds is heard—can produce an effect."

In a multifaceted career that extended from the 1950s until the late 1990s, the Scottish-born Tait repeatedly returned to ideas of time and its passing, approaching such themes through her poetry, a lone narrative feature, and several shorts that might most inclusively (if anachronistically) be described as "experimental nonfiction." While her work was varied, her overall project might be described as cinematic portraiture, with her subjects typically places as often as people.

Following decades of un(der)appreciation, Tait's reputation and influence is now more firmly established, both in institutional capacities and as a touchstone for other artists invested in a clarity as rich as it is resonant. In addition to currently-underway centenary celebrations, since 2010 the Margaret Tait Award has been granted to significant emerging Scottish artist, including past recipients Charlotte Prodger, Duncan Marquiss, and Kate Davis. Elsewhere, Tait's talent for melding portraiture and place extends to the work of contemporary Scottish-born or -based filmmakers Luke Fowler and Margaret Salmon, while her eye for the hushed elegance of life can also be spied in a number of recent shorts and features, like James Edmonds' A Return (2018), Jessica Johnson's Hazel Isle (2018), or Ute Aurand's Rushing Green with Horses (2019), with Aurand a noted admirer and occasional curator of Tait's work.

Born and raised on the islands of Orkney off the northern coast of Scotland, Tait worked during and after the Second World War as a medic before pursuing filmmaking, studying at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. While she eventually abandoned medicine, Tait's hand-drawn graphic of a heartbeat became a signature symbol of her practice, again a suggestion of time that exists both as a continual flow and as a punctuation.

Two of the films Tait produced in Italy in 1951 introduce key themes of her work, as they wed exploration of particular sites with a nascent interest in portraiture. Produced in collaboration with filmmakers Federico Birri and Peter Hollander, One Is One is a silent narrative that follows a young tourist couple separated in Rome. The camera films the street scenes and people with a sense of wonder and admiration that lingers as Tait returns to more familiar locations. The silent Three Portrait Sketches delivers on its unadorned title, as Tait and Hollander film a trio of figures in parks and apartments, with a formal play between observation and direction that hints at a suspended narrative waiting to be resumed.

Upon her return to Scotland from Italy Tait founded Ancona Films with Hollander, named after a street she had called home in Rome, releasing almost all of her films under the auspices of the DIY enterprise. Forgoing more traditionally successful routes, she dedicatedly remained in Scotland, eventually returning to her home in the Orkney Islands after some initial years in Edinburgh.

Tait's fondness for her home is evident in several of her films. "My mother lives in the windy Orkney Islands. It's certainly a wonderful place to be brought up in," she says at the end of Portrait of Ga (1952), an intimate portrayal of her mother long considered to be one of the artist's most iconic and enduring films. Save occasional intrusions the film is largely wordless and observational, and replete with subtle shifts in scale that place "Ga" against the dramatic landscape before focusing on details of her face and hands. Elegant and efficient, in less than five minutes the piece incorporates and distills themes from across her career, variously touching on portraiture, place, and heritage.

Tait took the same independent approach to her writing as well as her filmmaking, self-publishing collections of poetry and prose throughout her life. Like her films, the published written work is defined by an unadorned style that manages to be all at once quaint, playful, and clever. Following a steady burst of work in film upon her return to Scotland, a period in which she produced Portrait of Ga and the Edinburgh-shot documentary Rose Street (1956), Tait temporarily turned to her writing in earnest for six years, during which she published several collections, before returning to filmmaking with the multipart Where I Am is Here (1964).

While presumably in reference to the tenement construction site and workers that Tait shows, the film's opening chapter's title, "Complex," also serves to define the larger film and a number of her subsequent projects, including Aerial (1974) and Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964), a portrait film marked by flourishes inspired by MacDiarmid's poetry. Where I Am is Here is more expansive in its scale and scope—as if after a break from movie-making she seemed eager to capture as much life as possible in 30-some minutes. Tait's sound design also evolves dramatically with the film; where she utilizes music in a relatively straightforward manner, as she'd done in earlier films, she also introduced structured and more abstract plays with soundscape as well as contrapuntal sound/image relationships, including distorted birdsong over an image of a dead sparrow.

Tait's signature approach to rendering time is evidenced in her film Place of Work (1976), as well as the complimentary Tailpiece (1976), described by the filmmaker as a coda. In both films Tait documents her family home in Orkney in advance of its sale and vacation. Here, all that seems familiar and consistent is embedded within a sense of the fleeting and the ephemeral. Images of lovingly cared for gardens invite imaginings of their manipulation or abandonment, while interiors full of books, food, and other objects draw attention to their supporting shelves, soon to be emptied.

"I'm not really interested in 'recording for posterity'," she said in the same 1983 interview, one of few she gave in her life. "That's an incidental, or accidental, value that my films might have, not what I'm making them for. I'm making my films for audiences who are there at the time—or a response, at the time." This accidental value, however, was variously explored in a number of the filmmaker's films, including On the Mountain (1974), which incorporated the entirety of Rose Street and placed the changes of the street into stark relief. The development of specific locales was also explicitly explored in Some Changes (1981), part of the four-episode series Aspects of Kirkwall, dedicated to Orkney's largest city.

Tait was resistant to several of the terms and generic limits that have been used to describe her work, whether the diary film or the neo-realist movement active around her during her studies in Rome. Likewise, upon her initial return to Scotland she forewent an invitation to work with John Grierson due to what she saw as an incompatibility between her work and his philosophy of documentary.

More often, Tait returned to poetry as the ideal reference-point for her films, at one point describing her life's work as the making of "film-poems." While she only occasionally combined the two forms, through portraits of writers or the use of poems as accompaniment to her films' images, she famously adopted the expression "stalking the image" from Spanish poet Federico García Lorca as a shorthand for her own practice, with the phrase serving as the title for a recent exhibition dedicated to Tait and her influence at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art.

For all that she held additional reservations about the term "avant-garde", Aerial might be considered Tait's most traditionally experimental piece, with her signature glimpses of street life impressionistically edited alongside footage of grass, clouds, and leaves. Incorporating solarization techniques and paired with a sparse music and at times dissonant sound design, in four brief minutes Tait moves from reflecting the world around her to constructing one of her very own.

Despite Tait's lifelong work on short- and medium-length projects that might be best described as documentaries, as well as her commitment to working independently in locations without strong film industries, she long harbored ambitions to write and direct narrative features. While she had produced scripts and screenplays since the early 1950s, it was only in the early 1990s that she was able to realize her first feature film, which also became the first feature film directed by a Scottish woman. Produced with support from the British Film Institute, Blue Black Permanent (1992) expanded and activated themes that mark the rest of Tait's filmography using new means, employing a nonlinear structure that subtly shifts between the lives of a family of women across three different epochs, with echoes of trauma and other traces of the past carried forward, marking places as well as people. Tait never has the opportunity to complete a second feature and, indeed, only made one more film in her life, the elegant triptych Garden Pieces (1998).

Averse to having her own photo taken, claiming it to be "the wrong side of the camera," Tait's self-effacement and presumed modesty is taken up explicitly in one of her poems written in the late fifties, which, subtly, succinctly asserts her artistic mastery and role as a conduit between the beauty of the world and the work of art:

Water was made for one purpose only, —

So that I could come to being and write down these

words here now. Do you believe that?

I don't,

But it could be argued.


Jesse Cumming

JESSE CUMMING is a researcher, writer, and film programmer based in Toronto. He is an M.A. candidate in York and Ryerson University's joint Communication and Culture program.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues