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Margaret Tait

By Ali Smith

1. Introduction

Margaret Tait. Sweet old Scottish lady who made quaint little films all her life which are interesting to look at now because - look! that's Princes St, Edinburgh! in the 1950s!, and that's Rose St! it hasn't changed! and isn't it good to have archive film of a rural life that's disappearing, that's almost totally disappeared now, in her films about Orkney, and it's so nice that she made little books of her poetry and stories and published them herself, she was such a creative soul, how sweet and interesting.


Margaret Tait. Remarkable critical forerunner, in her poetry which has, scandalously, been totally critically ignored. But now a recognisable Scottish literary voice, one that took another ten to twenty years after her own publications to come to the fore. Now credited with kickstarting the late 20th century renaissance in Scottish writing, like Liz Lochhead's, Alasdair Gray's.

A writer whose openness of mind, voice and structure all come from the Beats maybe, and Whitman crossed with MacDiarmid, but then cut their own original (and crucially female) path. A unique and underrated filmmaker, nobody like her. Born of the Italian neo-realists, formed of her own Scottish pragmatism, optimism, generosity and experimental spirit, and a clear forerunner of the English experimental directors of the late 20th century. A clear example of, and pioneer of, the poetic tradition, the experimental tradition, the democratic tradition, in the best of risk-taking Scottish cinema.

2. Where I am is Here

Here's an example of Tait syntax, the film's title being a phrase that can mean so many things.

This elasticity and multiplicity of meaning are deep in her use of the cinematic image too, and here's the perfect film in which to see it at work. It opens with traffic sounds played against the bare branches of trees. Where are we? Tait famously added her sound on after she had edited the film - we are exactly where she would like us to open our eyes and ears, in a hold between rural and citified, past and present, part and not part (later she will use music, chanter and violin and voice against traffic and building work noise and silence, to re-energise this sense of place).

In what is meant to strike us as structureless, sound juxtaposes sound, image juxtaposes image, and sound and image equally meet and clash and blend in an orchestration of simple but unforced oppositions - heat and ice, personal and impersonal (a man in a room, the only personal close-up in the film, opens and closes his eyes), new and old (new pipes waiting at the back of old tenements), light and dark (moon, carlights, streetlights, christmas lights reflecting on a black wet city street), surreal and real (the texture of road surfaces, a boot hanging like a leg in a river), timeless and fixed (a clock face with no hands, another with hands fades to black.)

Meanwhile it snows on a streetcleaner, thick big snow and itís falling all over his clean road. Anonymous people pass, looking in shops. A crocodile of schoolgirls walks up a snowy pavement - only one, at the back, turns and glances at the camera. The jaws of a sandshifting digger open and drop sand. Ducks form an unknowing choreography, and this almost universal unknownness, lack of self consciousness, visits all these images with a sense of mystery, grace, the sudden seeing of some everyday and brilliant revelation. Steam comes off a teaspoon just used in hot tea then left on the side of a saucer, in an unbelievably beautiful shot of nothing, and everything.

Where I am is here is social without story. It shows people, unknown to them, living and working and doing things with a kind of quotidian care and love, above all it shows a kind of calm survival, a getting-on-with-it, whether in the cleaning of or traversing of a street or the putting up of a new city. It does all this by forcing nothing, by allowing images their own voice. It is meditative and calm; its seeming structurelessness is a deception; its images are reverberative, as in all working poetic structure.

Its final section is entitled The Bravest Boat. Images of a small boat on a calm pond, then images of a roaring fall of water. Images of all kinds of fire, then images of the cityís insurance buildings and banks. Images of the waterfall, then images of lions, caged. Where I am is here is a focus on the tenousness of the journey to wherever it is we are, and the giving over of the self, first to the seeming shapelessness and meaninglessness then the unexpected shapeliness and beauty of where it is we are, and last, a suggestion that we simply give ourselves over to the astonishing and everyday richness of the experience of being here.

3. Aerial

A tv aerial or the element of air? The film opens on rooftop sky and ends on a dusk sky, the end, if you like, of sky. The elements are always in some way Tait's subject.

There is even something uplifting and untouched about the lettering Tait uses to introduce her films, and the announcement of a film as an Ancona Film (her company). Here's a tiny poem of the relentlessness and beauty of the natural, all around us. I would say unnoticed, but the point of a tait film is the noticing, the amazing colour of leaf, the sheerly beautiful thing of a dead bird looked at steadily.

4. Hugh McDiarmid: A Portrait

I dream of poems like the breadknife that cuts three slices at once," MacDiarmid says here.

Here's an extraordinary thing, a portrait that is a meld of voice and image, each illuminating the other in a way that, for all its artifice, is a new kind of nature. Hugh MacDiarmid, the lion of Scottish poetry, the granite seriousness of the stature of the man, is what you'd expect of a portrait. Here MacDiarmid walks like a child along the kerb of an Edinburgh New Town pavement, walks along the ridge of wall outside a dour Edinburgh church.

Tait films him on the very very edge of things, and alively so, mischievous and unexpected, edging his way down steps towards the sea, there at the border between the different elements themselves. Never mind the detail of his house at the beginning, or the detail of MacDiarmid in the pub - unique chances in which to see him, actually witness the usually stony-looking ridges in his hair, the deep-edged lines round his eyes.

Never mind the aliveness of the poems in the voice-over, the caught aliveness of the city and the time. This is a film that so enlivens the notion of portrait that, for anyone who sees it, MacDiarmid, the lion of Scottish poetry, gives his surprising charming little self-shrug of a laugh at the end of this short masterpiece, will never actually die.

5. A Portrait of Ga

Again a proof of Tait's genius for portraiture, and a film about the notion of portraiture itself and the investure of love in the seen portrait.

What is film for? Why is it different from still photography, where it comes to seeing its subject? What can it tell us about someone?

How somebody moves. How somebody is still.

Her mother sits in a landscape, keeping time to a tune with her hand. Detail is how to know someone. How she smokes. How she smiles wryly, or looks away.

A close-up of her mother's hands and the delicacy of them taking the wrapper off a very sticky sweet tells us everything we can know about this woman, and the care and the necessary distance, both, with which we observe those we love.

A long-shot of her mother, from behind, almost running almost dancing along a rural road beneath a greyed-out rainbow is, in that miraculous Tait way, so placed, so unquaint and so natural, as to leave its viewer renewed and knowing again what it is, simply to be alive.

6. Land Makar

What does it mean, the title, image after image of it overlaying itself, written in faint chalk?

A voice behind the image asks the filmmaker what the title means. It means poet of the land, the filmmaker (we presume) says. 'Some beauty!' the woman's local voice says, ironic, and the first set of images are harvest images, footage of corn being stooked and gathered. Hard work, and the colour gold, and a voice-over that's entirely local, local in the way that makes the ear remember what it is both to belong to a place and to not belong, to not be able to make out what exactly's being said. There's room for good-natured guesswork here, room for well-meaning understanding, in this film-poem about landscape's gifts and landscape's structure, the structure of the seasons and the structure of survival.

Land Makar depends on chronology - Tait knows to keep things chronological here, because time and the seasons are what make both the woman working the farm and the landscape she works. So after the harvest there are ice shards on the reeds in the pond, a drift of smoke from a chimney across a still dusk sky. Then spring and its new greens and yellows (because Tait as filmmaker is a pure eye for colour), then summer, then the wind getting up as autumn comes in, and winter, the end again before the next beginning. Within this chronology, right at its start, a woman on a tractor, and as soundtrack (rare for Tait) the real sound, the tractor engine : this film is about the work process. For once, too, the voice-over soundtrack is a dialogue, between the filmmaker, presumably, and the woman whose life the film is about, but they don't talk about film, they talk about weather, people, work, everything.

Dialogue is everything. Land Makar is dialogue with landscape, a give and take, the recording of someone farming a piece of ground which looks wild and unfarmable, but isn't, has been given its shape - a film about how things keep their fertile shape, how we can, if we put in the steady work and thought, make things give of themselves and be more than themselves. It is about the dignity of this work. Voiceover makes voice become landscape - finally that's what we hear, when we look at it, the voice that's made it what it is and the way it makes the voice. It's another of Tait's paeans to survival, and as usual she finds the image which will tell its viewer everything - a roof, patched and holding, even, as she pans along it, great spreads of grass all over it - this isn't just a film about living in a landscape, but one of being the landscape, turning into it yourself.

The haphazardness / the symmetry of a good standing dry stone wall. A momentary symmetry of several ducks all turning their heads in the same direction. The momentary haphazard symmetry is matched by Tait to the seasonal symmetry, and the steadiness of it, the hard work of it, the sparseness and richness of it, all revealed, calibrated, celebrated, in a way that frees and marks both the spirit of the woman and the spirit of the place. Dialogue of spirits! Land Makar. Some beauty!

Ali Smith

Ali Smith

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