Recent accounts of Scottish cultural expression suggest that one of the specific and most distinctive and productive characteristics lies in the ability to express interiority. In a survey of twentieth century Scottish literature, for example, Roderick Watson identifies ‘the penchant for dealing with other realms, mixing metaphysical questions and fantastic inner experience.’ While the beginning of Duncan Petrie’s seminal account of Scottish cinema makes a similar claim through Adrienne Scullion’s contention that:
‘the role of mythology, legend and fable, the Gothic, the supernatural and the unconscious within the development of the Scottish imagination is not a symptom of psychosis but a sophisticated engagement with the fantastic that other cultures might celebrate as magic realism.’
In the light of such positive claims for Scottish cultural expression, this essay will enquire how and where this imaginary capacity to render inner experience is registered in recent Scottish cinema.
Two recent films, which offer the opportunity to pursue such questions, are Blue Black Permanent (1992), written and directed by veteran experimental film-maker Margaret Tait, and Stella Does Tricks (1996) scripted by the Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy and directed by Polish born Coky Giedroyc. Both films are the creative vision of women, feature female protagonists, and address the respective Orkney and Glasgow childhoods of these protagonists from the present perspective of an adult. The articulation of the recalled past in these films represents an expression through film, of the inner experience of the central characters with a particular engagement with the passage from childhood to adulthood that Phil Powrie has categorised as ‘the rite of passage film.’ John Caughie has argued that – Scottish films about childhood such as Venus Peter are often marked by a backward look and tend to express a preoccupation with the feeling of loss that inhibits representations of Scotland. The reproduction of longing, loss and elegiac nostalgia that marks such films is staged within a topos of home, family and community, and is often guaranteed by the figure of the mother. The female protagonists and imaginary dimensions that characterise Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks however, can be examined as a potential challenge to this formation. The summoning of the past through the flashbacks of female protagonists foregrounds the enunciation of gendered subjectivities. These are demonstrative of the capacity to articulate inner experience through film where the linguistic terms associated with the medium are not singularly contained – as they are in the form of a book.
Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks are not set in a restored and reconstructed past, but the protagonists in each return to a remembered past through the use of the flashback which Maureen Turim defines as:
‘a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history.’
For the women in these films – Barbara and Stella, the desire to return to the past is motivated by a need to work through, as daughters and adults, their personal histories via remembered relationships with mothers or fathers. Barbara in Blue Black Permanent endeavours to find out why family history appears to repeat itself as her mother and grand mother apparently took their own lives by drowning, while Stella in Stella Does Tricks recalls the past as a means of both coping with both her present predicament as a prostitute in London and her abuse as a child by her father. In both films the production of the subject, and the authorship and enunciation of women’s subjectivity is significant. The lengthy flashbacks of Blue Black Permanent depict Barbara’s mother, – Greta, an aspiring poet, cultivating a meditative connection with water and the Orkney landscape. These flashbacks are replete with images that reflexively invite the spectator to investigate the problem of rendering a poet’s consciousness of place and environment through image and sound rather than words. This concern with the thresholds of language and medium was an enduring interest of Margaret Tait, for whom, as Penny Thomson observes, there was ‘only a mechanical difference between paintbrush, typewriter and sixteen millimetre camera.’
As Tait’s first and only feature length film, Blue Black Permanent represents a literalisation of her ongoing concern with the relation between word and image, and between poetry and film – not least because the cast of characters in the film include a poet, a painter and a photographer. Greta describes herself as needing her domestic life as a mother as well as her creative life as a poet. However, the flashbacks to Greta’s past emanate from the present of her grown up daughter Barbara and as the narrative develops these become more than the sum of a daughter’s memories in serving to reconstruct the life of a mother before she took her own life by walking into the sea. Greta becomes a subject within a restored as well as a remembered past. This is illustrated by Greta’s reaction to being outside in a heavy rainstorm is a state of reverie that she endeavours to convert into written words. She describes her situation to her painter friend Andrew as being “torn between languages”. Moreover Tait’s tendency to cut away from the speaker to the artefacts and materials of expression such as the trace of watered down paint splashed on to a wall above a sink, the paintings mounted on a wall, or the books and objects that line a shelf, further underlines her concern with expressive form and its materiality. None of Greta’s poetry is quoted, rather it is the sources of poetic expression that the film endeavours to make visible. She describes her dreams as being “like the sea” and sleep being “like the sea” and consequently this functions as a recurring image as Tait strives to give visible expression to the connection between inner consciousness and outward expression – a process Greta articulates as wrestling with available language as she struggles to make words out of sensory experience and subconscious images.
Greta’s need for domestic life to anchor her is demonstrated when she returns to see her father in Orkney and revisits the location of her childhood. This journey home also represents a return to the place where her own mother, Barbara’s grandmother, was also swept into the sea and drowned – a tragic scenario that Greta is fated to repeat. Greta isn’t necessarily killed by domesticity but what apparently ends her life is a consequence of her subjective desire to reconcile her creative life and her domestic life. The extended sequence of shots of the Orkney coastline and sea that ends Blue Black Permanent suggests that what remains is the relative permanence of creative endeavour. Greta leaves behind the poetry that was formed out of her response to her natural surroundings. The cost of expressing inner experience is the unconscious reproduction of the death drive that saw Greta’s mother take her own life too. The balance that she desired between expressing herself through writing and her domestic life ultimately eludes her.
Barbara’s investigation of her mother’s past meets the present when she consciously makes a statement that arrests the impending repetition of history. After a dream of her own she declares: “I know now, I know what it is, it’s not just finding an identity, not that, forget I’m my mother’s daughter, I’m me, me”. Through the act of remembering Barbara doesn’t resolve the narrative question of why her mother took her life but she does assert the necessity of relinquishing the past rather than mourning its loss, in order to realize her own identity in the present.
Stella Does Tricks concerns the experience of a young London prostitute whose past is located in Glasgow where she was raised by her father Francis and aunt Aileen. Stella’s father, a stand up comedian, had promised her that he would become famous and they would go to London together. What happens instead is that this dream is unfulfilled. Moreover it is revealed that Francis sexually abused Stella as a child, something she clearly holds as responsible for her present predicament. At the same time her relationship with Francis is depicted as complex and ambivalent, in addition to being abusive, he is also loving and nurtures Stella’s own capacity for fantasy. Stella’s memories have more than one function, her inner life involving a combination of remembering, fantasy and dream. She uses her past to suggest a possible means of escaping her present – her pimp describes this as “going away in her head” during her encounters with clients. But Stella also modifies the past through her imagination, she fuses past and present when she imagines introducing her clients to her Dad and the moralistic and frigid Aileen. She also imagines a harrowing scene in which her Dad, in his role as a comedian, addresses a Catholic congregation through making jokes about his daughter’s rape. In Stella Does Tricks the past is summoned and imagined as a means to hold it to account and suggest a more positive future. It is both a refuge from the reality of the present and a cause of her present situation. Stella’s desire to hold her past and its consequences to account becomes a quest when she returns to its source in Glasgow. Indeed, the most positive moments of the film show Stella leaving her pimp and returning to Glasgow to enact her revenge on Francis and Aileen before returning to London with the desire to change her life. Douglas Gifford describes the typical protagonist of A.L. Kennedy’s writing as ‘a traumatised mind using displacement and fantastic imagination to simultaneously avoid and redeem the damage from which it hides.’ The difference in Stella Does Tricks is that Kennedy’s ability as a writer to combine the imagining of psychological thresholds is balanced by the director’s commitment to making explicit reference to the reality of women’s experience. Stella’s subjectivity does as Charlotte Brunsdon suggests represent a departure from ‘the tradition of naturalist representation of the prostitute as victim.’ However, ultimately Stella is unable to hide, she is unable to get away. Even after she has avenged her past abuse, she continues to find herself in a cycle of circumstances that lead to further abuse by men as her partner uses her to feed his drug habit.
Having endeavoured to show Stella’s inner experience of the past and her attempt to overcome her past the film reaches the expressive limits of her subjectivity in the ambiguous final scene. Stella is shown addressing an unseen audience from a stage, recounting in the manner of stand up her own experiences at the hands of men. She ends her confessional/performance with a meta-commentary on the artifice that separates reality from fictional storytelling: “I’m lying it’s a story, but that’s why I’m here, to tell you stories. So picture this scene”. This is followed by a cut to a blank screen that carries a caption that highlights the truth claim of the documentary research that motivated the making of the fictional film: “with thanks to the girls we met in Glasgow, Manchester and London whose lives inspired the making of this film”. The accompanying first person words of the closing song “all of this is mine” by Polly Harvey serve to locate Stella as a representative of real women like the protagonist portrayed in the film. But Stella’s subjective imagining of her past is effectively used up by the film and having reached this point there is no future that can be imagined for Stella – unlike Barbara in Blue Black Permanent who manages to arrest the recurrence of the past and release herself from it. Stella has nowhere to go other than to a premature death by suicide as she imagines being encouraged to take an overdose of pills by her father and aunt. The scene serves as a précis of the film and underlines the material artifice between dreams, stories and reality.
The assessment of Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks as films which serve as examples of the Scottish imagination described by Watson and Scullion inevitably raises the question of the expressive possibilities and limitations of film as a language. The unconscious processes that occupy the protagonists of these two films result in a gendered mode of subjective expression that foregrounds the materiality of film and the transition between the language of words and the film image. The use of the image in these films remains primarily veridical but is used to articulate the unconscious and metaphysical imaginings of the protagonists. The act of summoning the past in both films is expressive and affirmative rather than mournful and nostalgic, which brings with it an accompanying death drive with divergent consequences for the differently located protagonists. The psychological and metaphysical thresholds between parent and sibling, life and death, fantasy and reality are given a filmic materiality by the self-reflexive strategies of each film. While, the locations of Orkney and the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and London are key to these imaginings, both films ultimately suggest that thresholds are psychologically manifest as a state of mind rather than a physical or topographical feature – as Powrie suggests of the rite of passage film. Stella’s rite of passage cannot be assumed to proceed from childhood to adulthood but rather from a deprived childhood into a life of recurring struggles for self-determination. While Barbara’s passage contains a similar need to rebut what might be passed on to her as an adult. In each case the passage is a transitory state where the threshold between the continuity of life and the finality of death through suicide is negotiated by the protagonists. The imagining of these movements occurs as a consequence of Scottish settings and viewed together Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks can be positioned as potential departures from the tradition of realism that defines so much of British Cinema and critical approaches to its objects. They also challenge the overtly masculine focus of many Scottish films.
Ian Goode, “Scottish cinema and Scottish imaginings: Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks” (2005)
Originally published in Screen, 46, 2 (2005), pp. 235-9.
 Roderick Watson, “Maps of Desire: Scottish Literature in the Twentieth Century” in T.M. Devine & R.J. Finlay eds., Scotland in the twentieth century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), pp.285-305; p.285.
 Adrienne Scullion “Feminine Pleasures and Masculine Indignities: Gender and Community in Scottish Drama: in Christopher Whyte ed., Gendering the Nation: Studies in Modern Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995) quoted in Duncan Petrie, Screening Scotland, (London, BFI, 2000), p.8.
 Phil Powrie, “On the threshold between past and present. Alternative heritage” in Andrew Higson and Justine Ashby eds., British Cinema, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 2000), pp.316-326, p.316.
 John Caughie, “Representing Scotland: New Questions for Scottish Cinema” in Eddie Dick ed., From Limelight to Satellite: A Scottish Film Book (London: Scottish Film Council, British Film Institute, 1990), pp.13-30, p.25.
 Maureen Turim, Flashbacks in Film. Memory and History (London: Routledge, 1989), p.1.
 Penny Thomson quoted in Jan Moir, “Public Lives: First person highly singular,” The Guardian, 31 March 1993, pp.8.
 Douglas Gifford, “Contemporary Fiction II: Seven Writers in Scotland: in Douglas Gifford & Dorothy McMillan eds., A History of Scottish Women’s Writing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp. 604-629, p. 620.
 Duncan Petrie, Contemporary Scottish Fictions. Film, Television and the Novel (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp. 71.
 Charlotte Brunsdon, “Not Having It All: Women and Film in the 1990s,” in Robert Murphy ed., British Cinema of the 1990s (London: BFI, 2000), pp. 167-177, p.172.
 Powrie op. cit. p.320, p.322.