Slowly, surely, the world has remembered Margaret Tait (1918-1999). Largely neglected by her own generation, she is posthumously claimed in the era of YouTube as a pioneer of independent filmmaking. Contemporary audiences have been astonished at the quality of her work (and it must be said, the carelessness that led to her being ‘lost’ in the first place), and as a result Tait has gone from barely a footnote in Scottish film studies to unofficial godmother of Scottish avantgarde cinema.
This DVD collects eight examples of Tait’s experimental non-fiction, abstract animations and ‘portrait’ films (though On a Mountain, 1974, arguably her most audacious experiment, seems a glaring omission). A Portrait of Ga, 1952, is a fine example of the last of these subgenres; a short, sweet, indulgent study of the filmmaker’s ageing mother. This is no biopic—we know Ga solely through her mannerisms, the ‘style’ of her—the way she walks, delicately unwraps a sweetie, or takes it into her head to pirouette in the front garden.
Tait developed this style of ‘portrait’ film further with Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait, 1964. She makes the most of the poet’s edificial features and sonorous reading voice, but again, it is the subject’s quirks that bring him to life, here tightrope-walking along an Edinburgh kerbside. Part of the sequence Colour Poems, Numan of the Boughs, 1974, is a fine example of Tait’s abstract animations, the images scratched frame by frame into the surface of the film. It is shockingly direct, even violent, Tait ‘scatting’ in gashes of white on black, producing a mad tumble of images, music, words and visual ideas. ‘I had started a poem in words,’ wrote Tait, ‘and tried to complete it in film.’
The digital transfer retains the original’s saturated colours and grainy texture, essential to appreciating three of Tait’s atonal city symphonies, Place of Work, 1976, Aerial, 1974 and Where I am is Here, 1964. These are best described as tender, thoughtful odes to the small things that somehow add up to something greater—mist draped across an Edinburgh side-street, dried leaves piled on the ground or (an ongoing fascination) foam cresting a wave. In explaining herself, Tait would quote Lorca: ‘an apple is no less intense than the sea, a bee no less astonishing than a forest’—a sentiment she not only expressed, but lived by.
Mitchell Miller is editor of Drouth