The filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait was an uncompromising, singular talent and her work deserves to be more widely seen.
Even during her lifetime, sightings of Margaret Tait were rare. Although she spent time in the Far East during World War II and studied film in Rome in the 1950s, most of her life was lived in Scotland: in Edinburgh in the 50s and 60s she was close to, but not part of, the Rose Street poets, a group that included Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig. But mainly and most productively she lived in Orkney, where she was born in 1918 and died in 1999. She made 32 short films and one feature (Blue Black Permanent, 1992) and published three books of poems. The feature is not available on DVD, and rights to half the films are held by the artists’ moving image agency LUX, which does its best to ensure that they are always projected, as intended, in front of an audience. Admirable, doubtless, but the effect is to make Tait’s work even more diffcult to see. Rara avis indeed, but an artist with one of the most singular visions in British cinema.
The latest Tait sighting, in February, was in Pamplona in Spain, at the Punto de Vista Film Festival (back, after a one-year hiatus, under the enthusiastic leadership of Basque flmmaker and writer Oskar Alegria). Among other things, the festival offered a Tait retrospective, introduced by Sarah Neely from the University of Stirling, who edited a 2012 collection of Tait’s poems; she also helped put together a booklet including texts by and about Tait, together with some of the poems.
The retrospective contained 19 films ranging in length from two to 35 minutes, divided (not entirely comfortably) into three programmes: ‘Portraits’, ‘Poems’ and ‘Landscapes’. Watching a feature-length programme of Tait’s short films can be daunting, a little like reading an entire volume of poetry in one sitting, but the riches revealed more than make up for that.
The first thing to be said about Tait is that she did it her way. She detested the idea of artistic fashion, whose dishonesty and hollowness she excoriated in a 1957 poem:
Empty it out and put in what they said.
Sshh! Don’t mention the truth.
Fill it all full of tricks and gewgaws,
Then you’ll win.
Tait didn’t care about winning. Indeed, one of the key questions about her work – who
did she make her films for? – can only really be answered: herself. She cared passionately about film – its rhythms, its colours, the images it could bring to and hold for our attention. If there is any link to other parts of British film history, it is to the 1940s work of Humphrey Jennings, who steered the documentary film into poetic waters. But Tait is not a documentary filmmaker: she is a poet of the everyday, constructing films like lines of verse or (the analogy she was most fond of) pieces of music, the syntax determined by the image, not the subject the image refers to. Even when she is apparently portraying a person or an action – in A Portrait of Ga (1952), Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964) or Land Makar (1981) – the films work through imagery and the rhythm of editing rather than any correspondence to the external world. The green dress worn by Ga (Tait’s mother) and the purple of the hillside heather are the overwhelming signifiers of the film, as is the Orkney landscape into which the indomitable farmer Mary Graham Sinclair (the ‘subject’ of Land Makar) seems to blend.
Tait felt that she was written out as a poet by the early 1960s, whereas with film she felt she “could go on forever”. Her films observe a series of very ordinary scenes – a beach, a hillside, a stream, a room, a flower, a window – to the point where something more vibrant appears. It was the editing phase she loved most, since that was where the ‘poem’ began to emerge. The result is hypnotic, as much in the early films – there are few more perfect images of happiness than the flowers, bees, and children playing in Happy Bees (1955) – as in the later, more complex Where I Am Is Here (1964), which may well be her masterpiece.
Tait’s films are home movies in a special sense of the term. Place of Work (1976) begins with a cursory pan over some filmmaking and editing material before devoting the rest of its length to her house and garden. Home was where she worked, but work was also home.
The house in Place of Work was demolished shortly after it was made, so the film is a kind of in memoriam – a phrase that could apply to Tait’s entire career. Like her near-contemporary Dylan Thomas but less flamboyantly, she was in the business of seizing the light before it died.
Originally published in Sight & Sound, Vol. 25, Issue 6 (June 2015), p. 54
Nick Roddick (1945–2019) was a celebrated British film writer and academic.