“Orcadian Rhythm”


Still from 'Aerial'

The Poetic Cinema of Margaret Tait

I didn’t want you cosy and neat and limited.
I didn’t want you to be understandable,
I wanted you to stay mad and limitless,
Neither bound to me nor bound to anyone else’s or your own preconceived idea of yourself.

– Margaret Tait, “To Anybody at All,” from Origins and Elements

In a career spanning nearly half a century, Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait created a unique body of films that express reverence for the sublime power of the commonplace. A native of the island of Orkney, she divided much of her time between there and Edinburgh, where she situated her Ancona Films studio. Her visual means of expression are very much continuations of her writing, incorporating, and often paying special attention to, the mundane and often overlooked elements in daily life. Gareth Evans, in Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader writes, “the democracy of her looking… becomes a unity. There is only one thing, and that is all things. Film and gardens tell us this.” With a style that feels both stream of consciousness and delicately ordered, both homemade and transcendental, Tait draws on the tremulous whispers of grass, the crush of sea foam, a plaintive traditional song offhandedly whistled or played on a piano. Do the poems summon these things or is it the other way around?

After getting a degree in medicine in 1941, Tait served overseas as a nurse during World War II. 1950 found her in Italy, where she first got into film, attending the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, and was impressed by the neorealist style that was so prominent in Rome at that time. While her earliest three films, done in Italy, are very much inspired by that type of filmmaking, upon returning to Orkney her work took on a more personal hue.

What she did retain from De Sica and Rossellini was the sense that films could surge forth from a particular place and moment and, as she says, “reverberate back” to the people – a local and inimitable filmmaking, in other words. However, her infusion of visual compositions with her own verse was at once too paradigmatic (being referential to elements of a poetic vocabulary) and too related to imagism, to have much in common with neorealist cinema. Indeed, the concrete imagery that breathes life into her poetry, sometimes heard on the soundtrack and sometimes not, informs the films both on a literal level and, in a deeper way, cultivates their structure from the root upward.

Still from 'Portrait of Ga'

Portrait of Ga (1952)

A brief and loving look at Tait’s spry, milkweed-haired mother, Portrait of Ga stresses the subjectively ruminative recollections of the filmmaker, very far from direct or exhaustive documentation. We see the old woman in snippets of film, sometimes playing on the edge of the frame and sometimes in medium shots, but always there, walking jauntily through the moors and delicately unwrapping a sticky piece of candy. In her narration, Tait remembers her departed grandmother, also referred to as “Ga,” faintly-recalled, but very much connected to her through her mother, the current “Ga.” This is how Tait ties the past to the present; the interplay of narrative and images shows that the filmmaker is exploring her own memories, her mother being a living, constantly moving arena for giving them context.

During a break of a few years in her cinematic career, Tait published three books of poetry and two of short stories. Done after a return to filmmaking, Where I Am Is Here is a cinematic poem broken up into stanzas, which effectively begins with the author sitting at her desk with pen in hand. The sort of visual ‘rhymes’ one will notice (in Portrait of Ga it is the red scarf draped on the ground, juxtaposed with red flowers of the garden) crop up frequently, things not necessarily related but that nonetheless guess at one another over the excising of time and distance that occurs through editing – the circular ripples on the surface of a pond and the reflective metal of a hubcap; a dim light bulb and a gloamy skyline; workman laying mortar and an animated house of cards that magically builds itself.

Day to day business, the moods and environments of Edinburgh (where Tait worked at her Rose Street studio from 1954 through 1973) are represented throughout the film, but the focus is on a certain playful subjectivity, with the titles of the individual chapters spelled out in children’s toy lettering, a wispy and faint Scottish aire heard now and again, and the overall feeling of a melodious lullaby.

Still from 'Where I Am Is Here'

Where I Am Is Here (1964)

Here Tait works with the motif, which would dominate much of her subsequent work, of successive images shown in brief shots underneath lengthier blocks of sound, which are related to the pictures in a thematic or atmosphere-setting capacity. Using a more contiguous soundtrack with edited visuals is strongly tied to a poet’s structural sense translated to film, for Tait, as anyone who works in verse, invariably thinks of both images and sound in terms of their duration. With poetry, it is two elemental considerations coexisting on the page – that is to say, the sound of the words, and the pictures that they signify or create as a whole – whose length is at the forefront of the poet’s intuitive reasoning. Interestingly Tait seeks to create a discontinuity between those two by having them exist not only on separate layers from one another, but also on a different pace and scale.

Tait uses as inspiration Hugh MacDiarmid’s own poems, their words and images, for her structuring of her film about him. While he recites his poem “Somersault” on the audio track, we see the elderly MacDiarmid (née C.M. Grieve) traversing the ledge of a short wall in downtown Edinburgh, and then walking carefully along the curb as if it were a tightrope, while walking an invisible dog. These sequences at once portray the poet as an eccentric, somehow existing at odds with the concrete city of other people, and also as a burdened dreamer, imagining, as Tait put it, the Earth rotating around his foot with him as an axis point, indicative of the precariousness in both inhabiting the world and being at pains to represent it the way one sees it. These scenes of self-conscious playacting are coupled with very candid shots of MacDiarmid talking to various locals inside of a crowded pub. So he is an outsider, lost in his writing, but also a native and well-loved part of the landscape.

Did you say it’s made of waves?
Yes, that’s it.
I wonder what the waves are made of.
Oh, waves are made of waves.
Waves are what they are,
Rhythmical movement which is the inherent essence of all things.

– Margaret Tait, “Light,” from The Hen and the Bees

Still from 'Hugh MacDiarmid, a Portrait'

Hugh MacDiarmid, a Portrait (1964)

Continuing in Tait’s rarely abating playfulness, films such as Calypso (1955), Painted Eightsome (1970), and John Macfadyen (The Stripes in the Tartan) showcase Tait’s style of direct animation, and are some of her only works whose soundtracks use synchronous music. A more consummate and absolute rendering of the rough-hewn, handmade style that pervades all of her work, Tait’s colorful abstractions dance across the frame in restless layers. Endearing, challenging, homespun: her aesthetic, regardless of the medium, is a liberating one.

Fire, used so often Where I Am Is Here, figures prominently in Aerial, whose basis is the four elements. In the earlier work it is represented in bonfires, alternately glowing in a lonely darkness or, disconcertingly, in the bacchanalia of an Edinburgh street with boys dancing about and feeding it with furniture. What it means for Tait, so concerned with light in terms of its distinguishing of a particular moment or setting, is the energy of light in its most immediate, destructive, but still diabolically ephemeral form.

The later film, Aerial, travels through phases of a tinted monochrome with exaggerated soundtrack (for instance, the tape-wobbled sounds of bells) corresponding with the pictures, and full color scenes set to environmental noises. Air comes to her windowsill in the form of birds, water falls slowly as snowflakes or seeps gradually into the ground. These things mingle but exist on their own time scale, shown in what Lucy Reynolds calls Tait’s “subtle interventions into the order of things.” In a different sense, the dirt, upset with a pitchfork to reveal a village of worms, is most strikingly redolent of Tait’s tactile approach to film; she turns it over in her hands, feeling through it and revealing the vibrancy that underlies every subtle shiver and gleam.

Still from 'John Macfadyen (The Stripes in the Tartan)'

John Macfadyen (The Stripes in the Tartan) (1970)

What Where I Am Is Here is to Edinburgh, Aerial and Colour Poems (1974) are to Orkney, being affectionate explorations of the details that find themselves in front of the camera, at a particular moment, with location being incidental. Colour Poems moves through very affecting, introverted scenes along the shoreline (Tait compares the words “incense” and “innocence”) and a young girl secretively opening a box whose contents is a moving frame of hand-scratched, animated lines. From there it goes on to the bustling scrape of progress in a small city, with all its cast-off, modern effluvia, only to feel grounded again in a serene field of poppies. And then, through the stone shingles of an ancient house, shoots of grass have emerged.

It seems at first flush that the film is more about shapes than it is about colors. But ultimately it is shapes and contours that comprise the superficial impression of what we see, and color, in all its minute variations, is the more profound element that invites amazed appreciation and a lasting imprint. Tait returns to Lorca often in her discussion of her technique, namely his concept of “stalking the image” – that is, not discounting the significance of even the smallest or most commonplace things in one’s careful search for composition. With one’s forethought and observation, these things will begin to speak their own language. Tait even mentions Lorca’s “numen of the bough” (from Vals de las Ramas) in the opening narration of Colour Poems, talking about men she remembers seeing who had returned from fighting in the Spanish Civil War. While it contrasts greatly with the glimpses of life in Kirkwall that we see, miles away from any conflicts and devoid of franticness, the narration works more as a mining of personal consciousness, of memories playing back at the unlikeliest of times.

Still from 'Aerial'

Aerial (1974)

When seeking contemporaneous counterparts to Margaret Tait’s work, one might consider the films of Jonas Mekas and Marie Menken, at least in terms of aesthetics. However Mekas really created film diaries, distilling particular experiences and compressing them into a cinematic form. Tait’s films are much closer in character to Menken’s, ones like Notebook (1940-62) and Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958-61), consisting of images accrued over time, selected finally for their individual and conjunctive impact. One can imagine Tait collecting images and sounds that caught her fancy as Joseph Cornell would collect the right objects to put into box constructions; there is a similar feeling of found, and in some cases readymade, perfection.

Place of Work and Tailpiece, two related films done after Tait’s return to work in Orkney, are intimately linked to their particular place. The first shows the childhood home in Kirkwall that Tait went on to renovate and do her film work out of. The title refers not just to the place as a staging ground for artistic efforts (although at this it was quite successful) but also to the daily, domestic work and the construction work that typified life there – not just her work but the work of everyone. It begins in Tait’s modest studio, and moves outside, exploring the yards and passageways around the house. Most of the outdoor activity is seen from inside, filmed through the windows or over the garden wall, stirring nature ensconced in geometry. The windows themselves are also surfaces for communicating with nature; Tait shows a frustrated bee flinging itself against the glass, trying to get outside, and then she cuts to a free bee happily settling on a flower. This reflects her desire to get her work out into the open, but not lose that sense of home-ness.

Still from 'Place of Work'

Place of Work (1976)

Tailpiece, completed in the same year, is meant to be a follow-up to Place of Work, a more sober, but not any less happy, piece. It shows Tait in the process of giving up the old house, reminiscing and moving furniture out. It is as if she wants the camera to soak up the accumulated memories of the place before it is emptied altogether. Still resolutely not a documentarian, Tait wrote in 1997, “the contradictory and paradoxical thing is that in a documentary the real things depicted are liable to lose their reality by being photographed and presented in that ‘documentary’ way.” The last thing Tait would want is for the house’s reality, or its realness to her, to drain away. After the movers have left, their accompanying pop music soundtrack faded, Tait goes outside to the familiar poppy flowers and thick trees, which, along with the stone walls of the house, will not simply vanish into time. Tait seems keenly aware of the transitory nature of film, populating her work with equally fleeting thoughts and impressions. Her memories, the intangible essence of mortality are themselves observational tools, used for divining a certain inner reality from impermanence that would be otherwise lost to the moment. We are the summation of the moment in which we are existing. Where we are is here.

But too much food is poison,
Comfort a permanent anaesthetic,
And too many paint-brushes, cameras, books
Waste away as toys.

– Margaret Tait, “For Using,” from The Hen and the Bees

Still from 'Tailpiece'

Tailpiece (1976)


One Response to ““Orcadian Rhythm””

  1. […] film blog Night in the Lens — a site I haven’t seen before — has an article on Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait, whom I’m not familiar with. But blog author Chai Walla compares her work to Jonas Mekas and […]

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