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RE: MARGARET TAIT Reverberation, Recognition, Rediscovery Mitchell Miller The renewed interest in the ‘film poetry’ of the Orcadian poet Margaret Tait (1918-1999) ‘changeling’ in the crib of Scottish Film history was possibly the most significant event in Scottish cinema of 2004. Despite a long and productive career stretching from the 1950s to the 1990s, Tait had been a marginal, neglected figure, ill at ease with the predominant documentary tradition and near invisible under the masculine shadow of Scotland’s much-lauded literary ‘renaissance’. And yet her Hugh MacDiarmid, A Portrait (1964) finds vulnerability and sympathy in its edificial subject and demonstrates a sure touch in uniting the moving image with the moving word. A line from the film, read by MacDiarmid from his own chapbook speaks of poetry ‘that like the breadknife cuts three slices at once’ and is a fitting coda to Tait’s own corpus. Her film Rose Street, made in 1964 about the side avenue overshadowed (as was Tait) by the national thoroughfare of Princes Street, is a triple cut from the cosmic loaf. On the one hand it functions as a documentary record of Edinburgh in the fifties, an aspect only reinforced by her later much more experimental ‘follow up’ On The Mountain (1974), which reproduced many of the original shots to capture both change and continuity between time periods. It is also a poem of a place and one artist’s particular sense of the local, the poetic elements derived from its interplay of visual forms – shop windows, hands working at workbenches, the constant criss-crossing in front of the lens. Finally, there is its function as simply straightforward realisation – this innocuous backstreet could be any street in the Western world, the ‘shock’ of the film stems from the recognition of what is common to all. Quite apart from the ‘local colour’, it conjures the nature of a street recognisable – and reverberant with – anyone. By showing films such as Rose Street as part of a touring programme of shorts along with Tait’s only feature Blue Black Permanent (produced by Barbara Grigor, whose husband Murray kept tabs on Margaret’s career and wrote admiringly of her

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appearances at the Edinburgh Film Festival in the 1970s) this unique filmmaker has enjoyed a rapid (posthumous) rehabilitation, securing a place in all subsequent histories of Scottish art and culture. This revival has been UK-wide and indeed, initiated from outside Scotland – the agency of personal friend Peter Todd, an English filmmaker whose own work similarly focuses on the cycles and variations of daily life. He came to know Tait on the art-film and independent circuit and created the tour and the generous retrospective given to her work at the 2004 Edinburgh International Film Festival. But why, is a filmmaker who made only one feature so important – is obscurity not indicative of artistic isolation and subsequently, little that is transcendent or influential? Tait’s singular style and technique is only a partial answer – there are trends here that her curator has successfully harnessed. The Tait collection demonstrates a startlingly contemporary approach to filmmaking, and there is an innate historical value in a filmmaker whose long career spanned the days from nitrate film to the openness of video and the emergence of digital. In interview, Todd relates an alternative history of filmmaking, of subcultures of amateurs and experimenters that amounts to a genealogy of such genres as video art and video films. Tait was an active part of these tight but influential circles, and far from isolated, was well known on these tight circuits. Video as a form of poetry, even punning, has been fruitful territory for the likes of Peter Smith, whose works such as Gargantuan and Aum work as poetic jokes, playing on words that work somewhat counter-intuitively against an initial image. In the case of Tait however, it is perhaps more remarkable that as an independent whose work defied easy definition, she got to make a feature at all. In Scotland Todd has struck a fertile ground for cinematic revivalism. Part of the reason for this is just good PR – the morale boost derived from the fruitful Scandinavian-Scottish collaborations (such as Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself and Beyond the Waves) that has brought Dogme values to Scottish film. This infusion

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of is still, admittedly a modest contribution to a national cinema in permanent identity crisis, but then there are also the personalities – such as Lynne Ramsay, Peter Mullen and Ewan McGregor – that have at least stimulated activity and given the impression at least, of relative (if precarious) good health. Add to this Ken Loach’s increasingly tiresome obsession with the West of Scotland and a number of home grown schemes and initiatives to encourage filmmaking, such as This Scotland, Cineworks and the much maligned but still useful Tartan Shorts and the industriousness of Scotland’s non-film industry makes some sense. Another factor is surely the blossoming of the Scottish Screen Archive into an active and proactive resource for preservation and rediscovery. The work of its experts has been appreciated by the BfI, BBC and STV, and recently featured in the television series based on the Mitchell and Kenyon archive. Through cataloguing and distributing its contents, frequently extraordinary footage has been rediscovered and encouraged the re-emergence of lost talents such as Enrico Cocozza and Frank Marshall, while the professional expertise of its staff was instrumental in restoring many of Tait’s films, such as the audacious abstract animation Calypso (1956), which makes an interesting comparison with the work of Germany’s Walter Ruttman in Die Seiger (1923).

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Scottish filmmakers, including the Grierson coterie. Cocozza and Tait attended the Centro Sperimentale Cinematographia in Italy at roughly the same time, both schooled in what would become Italian neorealism. Their editing, framing and ethos reveal their debt to the latter, as well as, in the case of Cocozza, soaking in American movies that were already overspilling national boundaries (albeit scented by a whiff of Cocteau and Bunel). Modest as their surroundings were, both filmmakers were thus learning from the techniques of an international discipline and indeed industry but brought to it an ethic suited to their time and their place. In Cocozza’s mad fantasies, an industrial town became a Blakean dystopia, a utopia or the mean streets of film noir. For Tait, the camera was far more personal. It became an existential amputation, a means of understanding the world as it surrounded her. ‘I sometimes use it,’ she relates, ‘to actually see the thing.’ As Todd remarked of her work: ‘One of the things I find very interesting about her work is that she has filmed these things quite often to deal with times and changes, but they are not sentimental and they are open to a more meditative way of viewing, which I think people can bring their own interpretation to.’

The process of restoration and restitution of Tait’s films and reputation is told in some detail in A Margaret Tait Reader (Lux 2004) and it unlocks a third aspect to the Tait revival. The unprecedented explosion in no and low budget digital filmmaking has led to a renewed interest in the history of amateur, independent and experimental filmmaking, the spiritual sires of today’s independents, guerrilla and activist filmmakers. Tait was unabashed in running contrary to the ‘documentary’ motive popular with her contemporaries. Her aim was not to record, but to make films that had an everpresence, an impact and immediate reverberation. A similar impulse, albeit much more politically directed and enraged, drives much low and no budget filmmaking, film becoming, for the first time, a democratic medium through the perfection of the camcorder and the ability to film with minimal crew or auxilliary equipment. Hence, an atmosphere of rampant autodidactism, of grassroots and activist films, homespun shorts and even CGI produced on a laptop. In such an environment, the work of gifted ‘amateurs’ such as Cocozza, working out of an ice cream shop in 1950s Wishaw has immediacy and relevance. Likewise Tait’s work is at once very specific and universalist, avant garde and neo-realist yet homespun

Indeed, in Tait’s extension of herself through the camera, incrementally liberated through trial and error from its tripod are to be found the somewhat seditious joys of a language that attacks or questions its own grammar, a trait associated with the work of Tait’s contemporary Tom Leonard. ‘The demotic’ in his poetry, where Glaswegian is a valid language because it allows an individual his own form of native existential expression, led him to investigate further the role of ‘the local’ in relation to the wider environment. Similarly, an interest in the ‘secret’ history of Scottish film, outside of the auteur or industrial worldview has grown along with the posthumous reputations of Tait and Cocozza. For the first time, amateur filmmakers are the subject of disciplined, critical appreciation, and there are bound to be more discoveries’ of this type as reel by reel, the archives open up – and when they do are, we find the shaky, vulnerable yet emotionally immediate ‘unsteadycam’ of Tait, surveying an Orcadian farm in Land Makar, or the stream near her house in Orquil Burn. In fact the latter film led her, organically, to unseat her camera from the tripod for the sake of attempting to capture local detail and nuance – self-consciously akin to the unconscious process experienced in local dialects.

Autodidactic as such filmmaking approaches sound, they were hardly bereft of external influences – not least through the nearest picture-house. It was rather a local and homespun interaction with an international language of cinema being developed in various difference countries in a profusion of ‘dialects’, some of which would go onto to become a lingua franca. Italy’s postwar cinematic stylings were just one, but their effect on Scotland was significant – evident in Lynne Ramsay’s work today, but also strong in a number of

But to return to the ivory towers for a moment, one could be cynical and argue that film academics will naturally seek to exploit new areas such as amateurism. Professions and Professors depend on it, after all.

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First Cousins? Which also goes for critics – and this writer by no means excuses himself from such processes of professional self-perpetuation. Critical immortality is

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often achieved through consistent negativity – the method being to clutch tightly to the wickerwork of the hand-basket as it bounces down Dante’s circles. Mark Cousins, however, is not a basket-case of this type. In his fondly remembered Moviedrome programmes for BBC 2 he resolutely sought out the merits of B-movies, cult films and box office flops, alongside more distinguished, if lesser known features. His Scene by Scene series trod a delicate line between measured critical appreciation of various cinematic careers – such as Scorsese, Connery and Shohei Immamura – and an often infectious, incorrigible enthusiasm for the medium. But is it enthusiasm or a historical sense that leads him to open his new book The Story of Film with this challenging proposition ‘… it is proposed that far from being a fallow time for cinema, filmmaking from the 1990s has undergone an unparalleled revival’? Already a prolific essayist on the medium, ex-Director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, film producer and documentary maker in his own right, The Story of Film feels like a defining moment in Cousins’ career. From its outset the book is audacious, attempting as it does to recast the last century of filmmaking across the world into a coherent narrative. His timing is precipitate. Film is undergoing a period of renewal and rediscovery, where grassroots has snaked its way deeper into a renewed interest in roots and beginnings – before the late-industrial model of film production came into existence. Just how dramatic this process of rediscovery can be was emphasised in Bill Morrison’s masterful Decasia (2002), a feature constructed from offcuts and fragments of old and neglected film stock that in an age of re-mastered prints and director’s cuts, made an aesthetic virtue of disrepair. The thrill (and pathos) rests in the lost or rare nature of the footage and its state of advanced decay, a whirling Dervish spins himself into oblivion as the degraded film stock deteriorates into blots and gashes before us. The scarring of age is an abstract animation made by the course of time – a reminder that film, whatever its promises of preservation and posterity, is in fact frail and mortal, something Tait would have appreciated. The painful aspect of ‘rediscovery’ lies in the realisation that sometimes there is rarely any opportunity for recovery; the lost artist might gain recognition but remains beyond reach. Beyond the visceral thrill of rediscovery, there is also its importance in reclaiming a sense of perspective on the development of cinema as a form. Post-modernism, sociology and the establishment of film studies in universities has mitigated against this process, as it has in other disciplines, fragmenting the discourse into various sects and specialist enclaves. For film though, as opposed to painting, music or even photography the impact is much more meaningful. It is a young

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artform, only a century old, and postmodernism came too quickly before parallel processes of settlement and maturation could take place. Instead, Film Studies has found (and in some respects owes) its theoretical space to the rise of sociology and cultural studies, where the hyphen replaces Grammar as the godhead of language and ‘the construct’ is identified in order to be demonised. Yet Cousins constructs a story, a sweeping, inclusive purposively broad narrative that attempts to encompass the multiple aspects of cinema: ‘Film theorists are suspicious of such attempts to see the history of the movies in story terms, as if doing so is trying to shoehorn it into a formula. This is to underestimate narrative, which can be as fluid, multi-layered and responsive to subject as a writer wants it to be.’ His hope is to plot a ‘reliable path’ through the world of cinema and on to the ‘more learned volumes’ that currently fuel film studies. Fluidity is achieved through techniques analogous to the medium, flashing back and forward between Edward G Robinson and Reservoir Dogs, David Lynch and Luis Bunuel. Then there is the montage – Cousins knowledge is encyclopaedic, and this allows him to present side-byside, well worn critical favourites such as Das Kabinet der Dr Caligari (1919) with Alfred Hitchcock’s early film The Lodger (1926) and Teinosuke Kinugase’s ‘asylum film’ A Page of Madness (also 1926). His propositions, while occasionally bending the proverbial limb, are frequently interesting – remarking on the advent of sound (1939), he notes that it took 45 years before any philosophical capital was made in mainstream films. It was Francis Ford Coppola (see The Drouth Issue 3 for past character assassinations) whose The Conversation (1974) has Gene Hackman succumb to the voyeuristic thrills of eavesdropping. True to the ideals of rediscovery and restoration, Cousins is out to confront his readers with rediscovered facts and new understandings about cinematic givens. Most important perhaps, is that contrary to conventional beliefs, the first filmed images were shot and exhibited in Leeds in 1888 by the Frenchman Lousi de Prince. He also adds to existing knowns – it is widely known that the early documentarian Francis Doublier filmed Pancho Villa’s battles in real-time, but Cousins also tells us that eventually, Villa was planning his battles for maximum cinematic effect – the tail wagged the dog, easily surpassing Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog in every conceivable way. There is a definite dialectic edge to Cousins’ analysis that attempts to bring in wider concerns and movements into the debate, a refreshing change from the autistic style of many film critics who speak of films entirely with reference to other films

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(think Mark Kermode at his most tedious). Such tendencies are probably a hangover from the defensiveness of early film critics who had to defend the medium as well as their views. Yet while admittedly pushed for space and time in such an ambitious project, there are some missed opportunities for Cousins to emphasise the direct physical, even political effects of film on society as exemplified in Villa and Doublier’s grisly collaborations. He is somewhat cursory in his survey of Weimar Germany, the key cultural ferment of German Expressionism and could have said more on the influence the Nazis took from German directors in the 1920s and 30s. Yet he is very good at exposing Mad Max as an extension of Rupert Murdoch’s gradual takeover of Australia, if not the world, the battered bruised yet ‘proved’ body of Mel Gibson (plus wide-eyed stare) was a Vitruvian proxy for Thatcherite viscerality and puritanism, and sure enough Cousins brings in Leonardo’s famous drawing as an illustration of the precedents to cinema’s interest in and centring on the body. Western though the precedent was, it was the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu who pioneered this form of composition in the 1930s. Juicy, political provocations are nevertheless balanced by a sufficiency of lean meat; a section on Japanese documentary makers such as Noriaki Tsuchimoto and Kazuo Hara in the 70s and 80s is enlightening and timely given the contemporary vogue. But Cousins’ largely successful attempt to establish a coherent chronology for developments in technique makes the best argument for his broad approach. A good example of this is his treatment of the development of the ‘dolly-shot’ – where a camera moves into and around the mise en scene. An old orthodoxy was that the Germans first developed the means to do this, namely the world famous UFA which produced talents such as Lang, Murnau and von Sternberg. But the rediscovery of Evgennii Bauer, the Russian preRevolutionary filmmaker in the 1990s pushed back this invention, and Cousins shoves it even further back to the earliest films. Cousins’ appreciation of the importance of such technology and developing technique is the critical basis of the entire book. This is a ‘Gombrichian’ adventure, taken for E. H Gombrich, the famous art critic, who denied the existence of Art, seeing only artists. His ‘schema plus correction’ approach centred on the perfection of technique, is adapted and upgraded by Cousins to ‘schema plus variation’. Hence the book focuses only on Directors whose work took existing techniques and expanded, improved or added to them – there are no Ealing Comedies or

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Jean Rohmer, but paragraphs on the ‘stick’ used in early Hollywood films to keep Douglas Fairbanks at an equal distance to the camera while fencing. It makes for an exciting, or dramatic read, but risks esotericism and myopia (it does seem at times as if Directors are only listening to and learning from other film Directors), though Cousins deserves credit for largely avoiding it. His other innovation – and his greatest risk, which fully bends the critical limb while stretching the neck – is to challenge the predominant orthodoxy that terms mid-century American Hollywood films as ‘classical’ or ‘classic’. The term has been used, often cynically, by Hollywood to promote their cinema and inflate its importance. Fired by a revisionary zeal Cousins takes dictionary in hand and dismisses the label. ‘Classicism’ in fact refers to a harmonic balance between form, content, emotion and ideas, and in only one country and period did this happen, and that was Japan. Cousins refuses to apply this to ‘golden age’ American cinema, which ‘draws in’ the audience, encourages them to forget the line between reality and invention, revels in excess and grandeur and finds ‘form for feelings that are missing’. He quotes Richard Dyer’s astute assessment of the genre: ‘What Utopia might feel like rather than how it would be organized.’ Cousins instead suggests the term ‘closed romantic realism’ as an alternative definition. It does not exactly roll off the tongue, but is pleasing in its accuracy if not its aesthetics. It is in this surely, that his bid for critical prominence, even immortality rests – few things guarantee it more than the invention of a new cliché. But the risk of hubris is considerable if the term is not accepted or adapted by his fellow critics and it is hard not to admire his gambler’s guts. Or the often surprising and amusing way in which he plays with his new invention. He casts Laurel and Hardy as being the first significant rebels against it; Hardy’s suffering glances to camera have a wider significance than this master clown could ever have thought – breaking the fourth wall not just of cinema but of Cousins’ critical detachment: ‘The 1920s had three master comedians, but only as I write about Laurel and Hardy, their successors, do I laugh.’ The duo return at the end of the book for Cousins’ optimistic denouement – his hopes for the digital era are high, even as cinema audiences decline. In the end of chemical film he sees a beginning, citing Sokurov’s Russian Ark as a digital feature that fully opens up the possibilities of the new format, a single take, many shots within one, the dolly shot and its clones worked to the limit. Admittedly, the Gombrichian approach does lead Cousins to overlook much of filmmaking at what would have been Margaret

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Tait’s highly local level, and tends to favour the industrial, mob-handed films of studios over the singular and grassroots – video does not feature, although art and experimental films are tackled. Yet the gaps show the value of narrative existing as a construct as something to attack, question and interrogate. He gives non-academic film theory and history a centre as much as a path. In fact, the rediscovery of Tait’s work compliments Cousins’ own rediscovery of the creative dialogue between auteurs as a critique of the partial and incomplete nature of current film history/theory. Tait’s re-existence emphasises the need to go beyond the fragmentary processes of post-modernism and attempt to consolidate our sense of how film came to be what it is. This gives us a better understanding then, of how singular and independent spirits such as Tait, in their own way, ‘varied the schema’ at their particular level. One of Tait’s most startling variations on the cinematic schema occurs in her own act of artistic revisionism and self-rediscovery, On the Mountain (1974). In the middle of this film, without warning and with all the theatrical trimmings of certificate and credits, Rose Street re-appears in its entirety. It is a startling reminder of the artist as a presence and a part of the environment being predicted, and a brutal fracture of any sense of ‘Closed Romantic Realism’. Perhaps it even precludes any need to ‘rediscover’ Tait as she had already rediscovered herself.

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January 2005

‘Hold it – Hold it simple – Hold it direct.’ Margaret Tait’s reverberant notes

had adopted (Edinburgh’s Rose Street) or felt for. She zoomed in on rubber boots blowing gently in the wind, or watched with autistic fervour the bubbles in a stream. She let these things exist in themselves within the frame, ever-present and forever. She applied the skills taught her by the neo-realists to create a demotic style of filmmaking routed in her surroundings that nevertheless has found a wide appeal. By demotic, I mean that every day she took her camera and filmed, like the poet, adopting a contingent understanding of her world as it changed around her. The ‘language’ she used was that of cinema – but here was local variation. Her concerns extended equally towards people – her A Portrait of Ga (1952) captures her mother as a mobile, animated individual of quirks, ticks and fine, smile-stretched creases, indulging a daughter who had come, in her own words to ‘… peer at things, I really peer at things through my camera viewfinder … I do sometimes actually use it to help me to see the thing.’2 The poetic impulse, at its most basic, is about forging links and finding a resonance within that link. It is a quest, or to be more exact, a question. Tait’s films are a collection of questions she asked of her surroundings through her camera lens. As with all simple questions, the answers run deep. The Dialect Since the 1970s Scottish culture was preoccupied with matters national or supra-national: the return of a Parliament to Edinburgh, the often savage forces of modern phase economics – heavy industry, inward investment and the inevitable bust waiting to happen. Yet running parallel to the argument over self-rule, home rule or status quo was a more (apparently) introspective strand, best voiced by the Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard in ‘On Reclaiming the Local’:

Mitchell Miller Speaking of his late friend Margaret Tait, Peter Todd said this of her filmmaking style: ‘... the dialogue she has with people when she is filming them – they are aware of her, it is not like taking an image or something, it is quite a unique engagement. It is not like “I am running away afterwards … I am here to do a documentary and then I am going away.” I am here like the fabric. That may or may not cause problems with people.’1 ‘Here like the fabric’ is an apt way to sum up Tait’s corpus of film poetry, a director who elevated the commonplace to a cinematic art of power and dignity. Place and time served as theme and medium. She filmed places she belonged to (Kirkwall in Orkney),

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‘Locality by Locality, by A to Z of behind-the-counter library stock, old newspaper by old newspaper, people must go on with the work of release.’3 Like his contemporaries Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, Leonard saw art – in this case literature – as a constant interplay of past, present and future in relation to the individual. That is, it was not institutional, it was not businesslike and it took place at all times, in the locality. Local concerns (in their case Glasgow and its outliers) were not parochial. Far from it. They were Universalists who saw the urban neuroses of Pollok or Renfrew as different from those in Clapham or East Berlin only in the language it was expressed in. The demotic may differ, but the demos, as always, faced the same problems, issues and woes, such as the decay of the

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industrial city. They did not expect the OED to replace standardised English with Clydeside demotic, but did make a case for the validity of this everyday language as a means of expression, thinking and simply being. While all three writers were committed small n nationalists, part of the somewhat bizarre project of cultural nationalism that attempted to write a Scottish State into existence, their work emphasised that a parliament was (and is) nothing unless it recognises the dignity of ‘the local’ – that space where the individual engages and negotiates a relationship with the rest of the world. Furthermore, old library stock, newspapers and documents in general were to be seen as more than record or history – they were living material that had agency in the modern era, once you understood it as a part of this continuing dialogue between past and present. The Film-Makar (Mah-kar) Past and present, especially in relation to the land is a useful way to understand Tait’s late masterpiece Land Makar (1981). Makars were Scots language poets, and we associate the title with Dunbar, Henryson and Lindsay, contemporaries of Chaucer, compulsive flyters and satirists. It is possible then that Land Makar may have been ironically intended – a film about the rural cycle and the poetics of making the soil fertile referencing urbane Renaissance court poets. In any case, Tait as a filmmaker (or Makar?) can only be fully understood through her other career as a poet and prose writer. The word in both its formal and expressive values was important to her, despite the scarcity of her notes or set film-scripts. Indeed, size was hardly everything – Where I am is Here (1964), one of Tait’s most sustained and complex pieces began with a six line script. One example of her linguistic fastidiousness is in the careful distinction she makes between ‘landscape’ and scenery in her writings4 –

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Portrait (1964). The old poet’s broad Langholm cadences accompany a set of strange, comical setpieces, in which he tightropes along Edinburgh kerbs and bowses in the capital’s pubs, setting himself to his own words – the poem being somersault, the circus performer being the poet. MacDiarmid’s features are a gift to photography and his antics – as discordant and unexpected in an old man as Ga’s girlish spinning in her portrait – as he imagines himself turning the earth with his foot are strangely moving, an old man’s undimmed delight in working mischief. The onscreen capers mesh effectively with the poet’s linguistic capers on the soundtrack. ‘Gangs wallopin owre’ booms out, a well-made pun in Somersault that accompanies as the onscreen avatar teeters on the kerb. To gang in Scots is to go, in English a body of people (presumably, Grieve’s Raidin’ Reiver ancestors with some poor sap’s severed hand bouncing on their pommels). The Scots seize the land, the English its owners, trying to control it with nothing more than a placing of the foot – multiple meanings spring from a single root, ‘poetry’, as MacDiarmid says ‘that cuts three slices at once’. Via Documentary? Even as debates over matters of constitution and identity played themselves out in Glasgow and MacDiarmid’s Langholm, Tait had set her own process of reclaiming the local in her twin homes of Orkney and Edinburgh. Ancona Films was an independent company she founded with the help of Alex Pirie, the title often scrawled onto a blackboard and filmed at the start of her pieces, the ultimate in Dogme style making-do. Ancona was sited on Rose Street, ‘local doppelgänger of the national boulevard’ of Princes Street. A place of tenements, pubs and closes, the subject of her 1956 film Rose Street on which Tait writes:

seemingly very fine, but they are at the heart of her work. A landscape is inclusive (of warts and all), scenery is selective, and she was less than interested in the latter.

‘Rose Street, Edinburgh, is a street I knew well in all the years that Ancona Films had premises there. I saw it changing from a place of overcrowded tenements, children playing in the street, pubs and small shops serving people who lived there, among others, into a pedestrian precinct with trendy boutiques and blocks of offices.’5

Her passion for words and the image came together in Hugh MacDiarmid, A

Despite a superficial family resemblance to the documentary shorts pioneered by the Films of

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Scotland Committee or the GPO, Rose Street gradually reveals itself to be a film that explores much less didactic or journalistic territory. From its opening where a girl sings the ballad On The Mountain (whose chorus of ‘all fade away’ is sweet yet strangely chilling), memory is established as a fleeting, fragile thing. In later pieces Tait would move to freehand camerawork, but here her earlier reliance on the tripod6 is the film’s strength. Her shots are composed, still but not static. Tait’s own stillness as observer contrasts with the constant movement of the street. The street is mobile, active, catalytic. People animate the staid courses of stone cobbles through their own dawdlings, skippings or ambles. Her technique was to find a detail, some natural collage of street corners, entrances and alleys, then hold it. And hold. The gaze draws attention to the street for its own sake, and the wide shots, encompassing a breadth of activities but establishing no hierarchies between them. A game of peever (called Hopscotch in England) is as valuable as the business in the local shops or the concerns of the beer drinkers who mooch in and around the pubs. The lingering shots on the details of this street give us time to realise its components – people, architecture, things, atmospherics – first as ethnographic features and eventually, as rhythmic beats in the fabric of the film. As Tait said: The photographs … all 24 of them in every second – are the equivalent of notes, or works (or letters might be near it) or blobs of paint, and it’s a matter of composing them so that the effect is in a sense musical, or poetic, if that’s a better word for it.’7 And a constant interest in cycles; shops open, people emerge, lorries squeeze between parked cars – shops close, people leave, others appear. But within the cycles of routine are those of work, husbandry and creation – a jeweller patiently burnishing and heating, a window cleaner honours his job title. It is in a sense a mesmerising urban counterpart to Land Makar, which reflected at length on farming as a process of creation and custodianship.

examination, Buttquoy comes across as a historically energised space. It has been the site of creations and is pregnant with the potential of others yet to come. And there were many – shot, edited and shared seemingly in isolation to the explosion of documentary and actuality-based filmmaking, of the brief resurgence in Scottish realist pieces such as Gregory’s Girl or even the naturalism of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Her Italian training had exposed Tait to the early surges of Italy’s neo-realist school and she spoke enthusiastically of an art that ‘surged up out of the place, out of themselves and how they felt about things … I mean a true art of the country, now this does seem to be kind of lacking in Scotland’.8 According to Todd, Tait returned from her time studying film in Italy expectant of a movement that failed to materialise: ‘She went to study in Rome after the time Rossellini was around. She had these ideas of short filmmaking, short documentary, films for communities. And I think when she returned to Scotland she always thought that she would be part of a group of likeminded people, and it never did quite happen. I think that she didn’t really fit in with the ‘Films of Scotland’ and the big documentary tradition … she realised that she didn’t fit in.’ For Scotland was wedded to Grierson’s First Principles of documentary making9 and was scandalised at the idea of an early divorce. In mitigation though, these were times when revolutionary socialism still meant something, Clydeside could still hurt a distant London government, massive ships still careered off the slipways and submarines docked at Rosyth that could kill every man woman and child north of the Tweed. Filmmaking on ‘big subjects’, big landscapes that excited political and social engagement and educated the masses drove this small northern adjunct of the British film industry. Tait’s examination of the minute and domestic, had it been noticed at all, would have seemed indulgent in such a setting. Contemporaries

Creation (and its many demands) as a cyclical – everpresent – moment was a fascination that Tait held onto throughout her career, through many evolutions. In Place of Work (1976) ambient sound is used in addition to the montage of images to root the act of creation in the place it happens. Tait re-examines her own locality, her house of Buttquoy and along with Land Makar, this is a ‘painterly’ film – Tait composed shots as she might a landscape painting and makes them linger long enough for us to examine its every detail. Everything here is worth seeing. Yet as well as a personal (even sentimental)

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As an early essay in Tait’s craft, Rose Street contained many elements that would manifest throughout her career – an interest in time passing, in place being what it was, in the transcendental qualities of the everyday – a visual demotic. The film bears some comparison with Glasgow Docklands (1959), a Films of Scotland documentary by Enrico Cocozza that showed a similar and atypical interest in the poetic over the prosaic. Cocozza was in his own way an extraordinary character, the eccentric, prodigiously talented ‘movie-mogul’ of Wishaw. Like Tait, Cocozza was a graduate of the Centro

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Sperimentale di Cinematografia, and may have met her there, as the two both studied there in 1951. As contemporaries, these two independent filmmakers are examples of how a common source of inspiration can have divergent results; Docklands, like Rose Street, shows an eye for local detail and a poetic sense of the place. But the treatment is fantastical; extreme shadows, chiaroscuro effects and dramatic foregrounding. Both graduates also shared an interest in time and its effects – Cocozza’s Cocteau tribute Nine o’ clock turns the second before a gun goes off into a journey through hell. Cocozza’s taste was for weird fantasy and his attitude to time is best summed up in Porphyria where, as with Browning’s poem, a crazed lover strangles his girlfriend to freeze a moment of happiness. But Tait lets time flow – forwards and backwards. In On the Mountain (1974) she films Rose Street once again, capturing the trendy boutiques, pubs and office workers. Then, it happens: the earlier film suddenly emerges from the fabric of the later piece in its entirety – including Academy Leader, Certificate and titles. In this sudden jolt from one reel to another, three slices are cut at once: we are reminded that film is a material, tactile object, that the creative artist never truly leaves her work behind, and that more than wide Georgian streets can run parallel – and overshadow – each other. Tait takes on a conversation with herself and her past work. Scenes from Rose Street are re-shot in colour and woven into the piece, referencing the early film as the after to its before. Is this a simple ‘before and after’? Is it an attempt the cinematic equivalent of an echo? One can only imagine that the experience would be somewhat difficult emotionally – re-reading or re-watching can expose unrealised hopes for the material and artistic compromises. It would have been easy, and entirely the norm for Tait to skim the best scenes from Rose Street and splice them into a new piece, burying the older study. Her choice is to confront the past, let it live again alongside its antecedent. Tait instead chose shots that reference and interrogate the earlier piece. In one scene, the same window cleaner cleans the same window – except the shop has been renamed. This is a clever comment on the fleeting nature of purpose and the eternal nature of actions (here, simply the need to clean), but also turns the 1956 Rose Street into a ghost that haunts the younger. Lucy Reynolds picks up on Tait’s concern for film as a material and a cycle of time in her insightful contribution to the recently published The Margaret Tait Reader (Lux, 2004), in which much of the material quoted here can be found. Edited by Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook, its publication punctuates a year in which Tait has enjoyed a long-overdue rediscovery, with five programmes appearing in this

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year’s Edinburgh Festival and screenings due to take place around the country. Beautifully illustrated, writers and film archivists have contributed some interesting essays to the piece, one of which by Ali Smith firmly identifies Tait as forerunner to the late twentieth century cultural renaissance that was inspired by the Glasgow triumvirate. As Reynolds discovers, Tait went much further in her exploration of film as a tactile medium in that time is examined as a substance in itself, to be manipulated as any other.10 Further along this unique line of dialectical materialism, we come to such films as Calypso, where she painted directly on to film stock, using abstract colour to create textures, moods and resonances of colour and form. But without doubt the gold in the Lux volume are the seams laid by Tait herself, an invaluable record of her motives, ideas and working practices. Her explanation of why and how she finally plucked up the courage to take the camera off the tripod speaks of a filmmaker willing to let her art guide her: ‘… there’s a shot in Oquil Burn which led me to this. It was just a particular little bit of following the water running along and at a certain moment some little beetle or something gets on maybe just a leaf, gets caught in a current and goes whipping into some pods that are at the side of the burn, and I was able to follow it you see, and it just made all the difference to the thing.’11 Once Tait found her freehand, her own demotic use of the camera, it made an unforgettable mark on her films, sometimes shaking involuntarily, reminding us of her hand underneath it. Her excitement to capture the diversity, range and richness of life before her would enervate the shot itself. Hen to pan Ouroboros or Cencrastus was the great snake of alchemy, pre-eminent in Gnostic ascetic traditions. Celtic aestheticism curled and intertwined the serpent into a knotwork – local kinks and accents on an international symbol. Ute Aurand recounts how Tait shared with him her ‘Video Poems for the 90s’ – a set of notes for a nine-part cycle of lyrical sequences, that put Cencrastus at its core. The notes begin: ‘With Celtic art – Celtic culture very much in mind, ie. (inc) the end in the beginning, the beginning in the

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end (eg. intertwined serpents with the head swallowing the tail) in so much of Celtic design – jewellery, book illumination, crosses, stonework … Animated title using this design idea – then nine themes, interlocking.’12 As a side note, Tait may or may not have been aware that the motto accompanying her curling snake was ‘Hen to pan’. (Meaning the One, the all.) This puns nicely in Scots as a self-imperative for the filmmaker – as a Scotswomen she would be ‘hen’ to the men occupying the bars in Rose Street that her camera pans over in Rose Street and On The Mountain. MacDiarmid13 might have preferred its northeast of Scotland root-word, quine. As for Tait’s notes, the words ‘working title’ are included in parenthesis, and it is perhaps of note that so many of her inter-titles and credits were written in chalk, ready to wipe over and start again. This slim document was offered up by Tait as a model for others to use, to interpret freely and re-imagine as they saw fit. As with the snake, the video poems for the 90s could coil and recoil over time. And it may be worth someone’s while to pick them up. Tait’s touch was light, her suggestions nudging the reader towards ever wider associations from the most humble – or should we say local – of phenomena. Note 8, for instance, calls for ‘the crash of a wave – a direct statement – an irrefutable image’ while 5 is positively apocalyptic: ‘Rust everywhere. Plenty of instances of this. Rather inanimate, rather static but nevertheless implied in the crumbling machinery, the dwindled fencing and gateposts, is that nothing ever stays the same.’ If further proof were needed of Tait’s continued resonance, then consider Chain, a poetic feature by American filmmaker Jem Cohen, completed in 2004 after six years of everyday, occasional filmmaking. Like Tait, Cohen works from accruals of film stock, interrogated for ‘submerged narratives’ and poetic connections in the landscapes. In a film about shopping malls, much grim humour is derived from the clear signs of decay on candy-coloured road signs, shop fronts and drive-thrus. He, too, makes Tait’s careful distinction between scenery and landscape. The ‘Notes’ would never be entirely realised; Tait and Aurand would attempt it, but no end result was reached. As Aurand notes however: ‘It was an unforgettable beginning without end.’ A telling comment, that reaches something of what Tait was about. To her the process of seeing mattered as much as the product. As she explained in ‘On Recording’

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her work was for ‘the sake of reverberation than for the sake of record’. This quest for ‘reverberation’ is as old as that cinematic moment where the famous ‘Fred Ott’s first sneeze’ is captured in Edison’s laboratory. Commonplace maybe, yet such simple realisations of the most common human acts of being (however snottery) were what first enchanted audiences with the medium. It is a gift of looking that cinema gives us, which Tait chose to develop to its fullest extent in her quest for ‘the one, the all’. In an interview with Channel 4 in 1983, she let the poet Lorca explain her, and her extraordinary body of work, best: ‘An apple is no less intense than the sea, a bee no less astonishing than a forest … the kind of cinema I care about is on that level.’ Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader. Lux, 2004 ISBN 0-954856-90-2. Footnotes 1. I was fortunate enough to interview Peter Todd, friend to Margaret Tait and curator of her body of work at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in August 2004. 2. Margaret Tait, ‘On Seeing’ in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pg 96. 3. Tom Leonard, Reports from the Present, Random House 1995 pg 43. 4. Tait makes the most of this distinction in an interview on Where I Am is Here, excerpted in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pg 81. 5. Margaret Tait, quoted in the ‘Filmography’ in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pg 164. 6. On her early reliance on the camera tripod, Tait relates: ‘… earlier on I wouldn’t have dreamt of taking it off the tripod, you know. I wasn’t exactly taught to do that, but you sort of take it in that the camera is meant to be firmly on the tripod …’ from ‘On Seeing’ in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pg 164. 7. Margaret Tait, ‘On Recording’ in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pp 92-93. 8. Margaret Tait, ‘On Seeing’ in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pg 94. 9. John Grierson, Grierson on Documentary, Collins 1946 pp79-80. 10. Lucy Reynolds, ‘Margaret Tait: Marks of time’ in

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Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pp 57-77. 11. Margaret Tait, ‘On Seeing’ in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pg 94. 12. Margaret Tait, ‘Video Poems for the 90s’ in Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (ed) Subjects and Sequences – A Margaret Tait Reader, Lux, 2004 pg 135. 13. It is more than possible that MacDiarmid’s great poem ‘To Circumjack Cencrastus’ (enfold the snake) inspired Tait to explore it through video. It certainly seems as apt a description of her career as it does McDiarmid’s. ***************

In the Lux Margaret Tait Reader, there is much essaying on Tait’s use of time. Film supposedly transcends time because it never ends but loops – existing in the projected present, edited but unfinished. ——‘I am here like the fabric. That may or may not cause problems with people.’1 ‘Here like the fabric’ is an apt way to sum up Tait’s corpus of film poetry, a director who elevated the commonplace to a cinematic art of power and dignity. Place and time served as theme and medium. ——Tait took her interest in the material, transient and transcendent nature of film much further – in Calypso, carefully restored by Scottish Screen, she paints directly onto the film (surpassing even Ruttman), a more tactile and direct relationship than is usual with film. Tait frequently compared her practice as a filmmaker to painting – of shots and close-ups as the dabs with which she rendered landscapes or created portraits, each of these of course, an analogue of time in itself. The power of her early A Portrait of Ga lies in the role of time replayed as much as the photography – of the aged female body existing and moving in time and its physical adjunct, space before us. For a moment at least, Ga in her doddery

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grandeur, becomes the proportion by which the world is understood. ——Cocozza’s taste was for weird fantasy and his attitude to time is best summed up in Porphyria where, as with Browning’s poem, a crazed lover strangles his girlfriend to freeze a moment of happiness. But Tait lets time flow – forwards and backwards. ——And around and back again – Tait and MacDiarmid, her famous subject attempted to enfold this snake through achieving something that rather than captive of time, transcended it. Lallans was the old poet’s great timeless synthesis of Scotland’s many dialects (heavily prejudiced to Langholm brogues, one suspects). Tait’s revisitations of the landscapes of Orkney and Edinburgh sought something similar – the universal and the local attempting variously, to swallow each other. Cencrastus of course, was never satisfyingly ‘circumjacked’ nor perhaps, should it be. But we should perhaps thank Tait for reminding us that however we ‘pan’ across the landscape in front of us, it should be through adapting our own language – or schema – to the task. Where the extremes of subjective of objective meet, the note is truly reverberant. Which makes my own, somewhat pretentious adopting of Tait’s trick in On the Mountain to here, an attempt to see some of my critical beginnings and ends as a critic, simply cheeky rather than clever. But as an exercise in the dramatic allure of rediscovery – selfish or altruistic – and the often bizarre turns that revisitation can lead us down, it may have its uses. General readers encountering Cousins and his Story of Film will be interested – and probably somewhat shocked – to learn that Edison as well as realising Ott’s snottery expulsions also precipitated the establishment of Hollywood through his tyrannical patenting of sprockets, the small holes that allowed film to be clawed through the camera. The great inventor attempted to lay a path for cinema, and the filmmakers went west out of his clutches into the bright light of California. Contrast this perhaps, to Tait’s own, generous offering of her Video Poems for the 90s, an open invitation to rediscover, reinvent and recognise the local. In adopting the snake, she

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might perhaps reduce seeing – whether critical or artistic – to the sequence of chomping, swallowing and regurgitating, but this visceral understanding of the process has an enduring vitality about it that extends back to the Lumieres and Gaumont in France, who made their first films for local audiences. One roving cameraman, Abraham Dulaar, was sued by a French church-goer following a ‘sortie de l’eglise’ to the Church of Saint Just. The irate devotee claimed the violation of his ownership of his image had been violated – but all Dulaar had intended was to allow local people to recognise themselves, suddenly and shockingly, projected onto a screen. Since then the ‘fourth wall’ has been built thick and strong indeed around this comparatively innocent pursuit, but the snake will coil, and uncoil, as it pleases – sprockets will rust and film stock crumble, yet seeing continues, and the local shall make its own claim on the universe.

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Re: Margaret Tait  

Reverberation, recognition, rediscovery. By Mitch Miller for The Drouth issue 15 "Consensus and Revision" 2005

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