Film poems: the work of filmmaker Margaret Tait | BFI

– [Peter] Before we start,
just for those of you that… Back to the technical things.
Obviously,Portrait of Gawas a digital file, also Hugh MacDiarmid,
as well. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the 16-mil format,
I’ll just briefly give you an idea. – [So] Show and tell. – So, yeah, the films you saw,
they were on 16 mil, likeAerialorColour Poems.
So when you see all the poppies and things, it’s literally that kind of
width going through the projectors at the back there. Margaret Tait did have her own
projector, so she would project on the wall at home or later on in her studio.
So there’s a kind of a magic moving between the formats like that.
In terms of the camera she used… This is the kind of Bolex camera
she used. They’re surprisingly heavy. They’ve normally got the three lenses that
you often see. If you see some of the photos of her at film school,
you’ll see early on the camera’s always on a tripod. And a number of
her films, particularly the early ones, were all filmed from a tripod.
Later on you’ll actually notice that the camera, she lifts it off.
Absolutely inPlace of Workyou’ll actually see her panning around and
you’ll see her holding the camera itself. It’s clockwork, the length of
the reel she used was 100-foot, so that’s about three minutes of film.
Generally you might be getting about 12 or so shots off it. But using a separate
light meter, so that was another thing to contend with. And, of
course, sound, as well, was separate. So she would start sort of weaving these
together in the editing kind of process. The other aspect with the film
when you start holding it, as I think Jonas Mekas said, you know,
when you’re actually holding it handheld, it’s very close to the brain,
it’s just above the heart. So, anyway, a little bit about 16 mil.
But maybe we should start with So. Would you be happy to? – Sure. – Great, thank you. – It’s a real pleasure to be here
talking about Margaret Tait’s work, particularly because I very rarely
get to be a poet in a film space. And I’m going to be talking about Tait as
a poet and the relationship between her written poetry and her film poems,
because she also published, self-published, two beautiful chapbooks
of poetry and some chapbooks of short stories. And she ends the final
poem of her first poetry collectionOrigins and Elements,
which was self-published in 1959 with what I think is a brilliant summary of
how she makes her art. And she writes, “But there’s so much to say that by the
time I fine it down there’s only one word left. And then that word
has to go too, being inadequate, and only my eyes are left for saying it
all.” Erasing words until only eyes are left, it is a filmmaker’s poem,
to be sure, as Tait made a poet’s films. Or rather, I think, she questioned the
line between forms, media, and practices. But given that she was
already working in one marginal art form, why did Margaret Tait also write poetry?
Well, for starters, it’s a lot easier than using a Bolex, just physically.
And perhaps one way to think of it is that she was always doing both.
Sarah Neely notes in her introduction to her wonderful collected edition of
Tait’s Poems,Stories and Writingspublished in 2012 by Carcanet, Tait’s
archive contains rafts of unfinished drafts and fragments which, Neely says,
may be observational poems, but they may also be planned shot lists
for short films. They may be both, they may be neither. They’re unfinished,
unbound, and undated. After all, this is the artist who ends the credits of
her filmThe Leaden Echoand theGoldenEchoby noting that she began collecting
the material in 1948 and “returned to it now and again” and completed in 1955.
Neely adds “Tait’s exhaustive listing is all part of the rough material with which
she worked, but for Tait the process is as important as what comes out of the
process.” Now we live and work in a culture where process is not particularly
valued, it’s all about product. And it’s also very hard to think about
poetry and filmmaking as processes that are co-constitutive in that same system,
it goes against the majority of the British filmmaking and, indeed,
poetic tradition. Tait herself saw her closest precursor as being the poet and
playwright Federico García Lorca, who also wrote a sadly unmade surrealist
film script. And I think she also has close affinities among the Italian
filmmakers whose work that she knew through her time in Italy with Pier Paolo
Pasolini, who published an award-winning collection of poetryMamma Roma.
For her the connection of poetry and film was the predictor of an internationalism.
She learned by witnessing the impact of nationalism as a serving medic during
World War II. She studied in Italy, as Peter mentioned at the beginning,
with a group, as we saw in her first film, of international cinephiles shortly after
the end of the war. And her Ancona Films production company letterhead
proudly boasted Edinburgh, Rome, and New York as its offices. As W. H.
Auden, probably her closest British precursor, wrote of the train in
Night Mail, “Tait’s work is always crossing the border,
although it did rarely bring her cheques or postal orders.” By connecting
filmmaking to writing and publishing poetry, Tait, in fact,
removes it from the commercial industry. Poetry is a signal not for thinking of
film as some kind of elite high culture, but in line with the Rose Street poets
Scots revival for a demotic vernacular and communitarian art form
whose process includes its sharing, as Tait did in open screenings at Ancona
Films in Edinburgh. But poetry is also a signal for a certain kind of
self-protection for Tait’s self-abstraction from that palpable
Rose Street atmosphere which was incredibly male-dominated and in which
women’s only role was being a muse or arm candy. It’s a removal where she
draws a parallel between herself and Emily Dickinson, of who she wrote,
“Emily Dickinson shut herself in a room and wrote about her pain.
She wrote too about joy.” No wonder when we hear this
poem that Edwin Morgan, bemused, called Tait’s poetry “sometimes prosaic
and willful.” It is so devastatingly clear in its refusal of any tricks as
it reaches forOrigins and Elements. Or, as Tait says of the Edinburgh Film
Festival goers and professional critics who were bemused by her films,
“It is as if they had difficulty in understanding anything straightforward
and clear.” While Tait, unlike Dickinson, did work in her community,
she also did shut herself in a room, or, in the Italian for “room,” “camera.”
It is in using the camera that Tait appears to open up to writing poetry
through the camera that she finds what she wants to write about.
In her poemNow, she writes, “Cinematographically I have registered the
opening of escholtzia on an early summer morning. It gave me
a sharp awareness of time passing, of exact qualities and values in the
light, but I didn’t see the movement as movement. I didn’t see it with my own
direct perception see the petals moving. Later, on the film, they seemed to open
swiftly.” And escholtzia is the California poppy which you see in herColour Poems.
The camera expands and extends Tait’s insight, including her insight into
the fallibility and limited capacities of human senses. In her poemThe
Unbreakable Up
she notes that “human beings who form concepts in their minds
are somewhere between those extremes of vastness and infinitesimality.”
It’s an extraordinary, modest, apposite, and still startling manifesto for what our
practice can do after quantum physics. “Here we are,” says Tait,
“in the messy middle of things, capable of holding concepts of vastness
and infinitesimality in our minds, capable equally of inventing
the camera and microscope. And then, if we are looking right,
using them to see our own inadequacies, the ways that we are less attuned to the
infinitesimal than a California poppy.” She does work with the prosaic,
Morgan was right. That is with the everyday, the domestic,
the available, because it is willful, because of its insistence on existence.
Smallness is a quality we often miss in our catalyst world.
It’s hard for smallness to go up against the epic, the blockbuster,
or the loudhailer. It’s often seen as domestic, feminized, depoliticized,
and unambitious, or it’s seen as an indulgence. But as Audre Lorde,
another great poet of the vernacular, of the unseen and deeply felt,
titled one of her best-known essaysPoetryis Not a Luxury. Why did Margaret Tait
write poetry? Because it is a form of paying attention to the world.
Or as Rebecca Solnit writes inHopein the Dark, “What is the purpose of
resisting corporate globalization if not to protect the obscure, the ineffable,
the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic and the eccentric?
So they need to be practiced, celebrated and
studied too, right now.” Thank you. – [Anna] Okay, I’m going to talk about
something I’m going to call Margaret Tait’s ecological eye.
And I don’t seem to be able to get through a conversation without
mentioning my cat, so I’m going to start with mentioning my cat.
So I watch a lot of films at home and my cat Julia is fascinated by
Margaret Tait’s films. She kind of ignores everything else, but she seems to love
them. And I think that the reason for that is that they’re just full of
animals, people, and weather. Birds hopping from branch to branch,
butterflies airing their wings on dry stone walls, winds racing through long
grass, people walking home through slanting snow,
the things that cats like to look at out of the window. Tait said,
“I’m more interested in filming the landscape, even if it’s a minute
landscape, than in shooting scenery.” And here she marks out an important
distinction. Rather than sort of bunny scenery, Tait’s films capture the
shifting, darting detail of landscapes, usually Scottish. They capture their
unfixable, ever-changing aliveness. And this is something that Becca Voelcker
has picked up on and written about inSight & Soundrecently, the fact that Tait
affords equal attention to human subjects and their surroundings, their non-human
surroundings. And though Tait moved around a lot, most of her films were made
in rural Scotland, many of them in Orkney where she grew up. The “natural”
world is a major feature in all of them, but I’ll put “natural” in inverted commas
because much of what Tait filmed was not natural in the typical sense
of that word, as she was well aware. When Tait filmed landscapes,
she never attempted to cut humans out of the picture. How could she?
She was there with her Bolex. And when Tait filmed townscapes,
she sought out the non-human life within them. InWhere I Am is Here,
which we’ve just seen, Tait kind of skips the landmarks and picks
out instead the swans on the river, the tree branches, a crocodile of
schoolgirls, caged animals in the zoo. And inLand Makar, which we haven’t
seen but it’s sort of landscapes to do with Orkney, Tait focuses on what
Ali Smith describes as a dialogue of spirits between a crofter,
Mary Graham Sinclair, next page, and the environment in which she lives and
works. In this film we can see the way the crofter shapes the land and
the way that the land shapes her. We can even hear the way that it has
sculpted her Orcadian accent as she describes the changing seasons
and the weather in the voice-over. In Orkney evidence of ways in which
humans have shaped the landscape is completely unavoidable.
A combination of climate change and human activity meant that by 3500 BCE the
archipelago had been totally stripped of trees, the remains of Iron Age
settlements and forks poke through the bare ground, and then there’s
the sheep. There’s sheep everywhere, as there are in the rest of the Highlands.
The devastating and much mythologized Highland clearances of the 18th century
were by small farmers or crofters who cleared off the land to make way for sheep
had an enormous impact on the landscapes that Tait filmed. “You can’t live there
without some sort of allusion to the clearances because there’s a feeling of
them all around you,” Tait explained. InThe Big SheepTait shows coachloads of
tourists streaming into East Sutherland and lorry loads of sheep streaming out.
We see an abandoned crofters cottage that the sheep have made their own home and a
voice-over asks, “Why don’t you get the sheep to go and fight for you?,” an
allusion to the repeated cycles of colonialism and conflict that have
swept up Scotland. Though she never makes it explicit, Tait is constantly,
often cheekily, drawing connections and equivalencies between animals,
humans, landscapes, and weather. She’s forever closing what Donna Haraway
describes as “the discredited breach of nature and culture”. I think a good
example of that we’ve just seen were kids sort of behind grates in the park and the
caged animals in the zoo. What’s remarkable about Tait’s work for me is
the way it’s so intensely focused on the present moment, the life right in front of
her camera, while also conveying a great sense of history and the passing of time.
And what strikes me now when I watch Tait’s films is that,
in so carefully trying to capture the present moment, Tait was perhaps
consciously creating a record of things that have now passed.
Not only the people she knew, like her mother, but also the animals they
lived with and the environment they shared and the seasons and weather that they
relied on. In today’s era of accelerating capitalism-fuelled climate breakdown,
thought I’d mention that as well, much of which is caused by
industrial-scale farming, not only is it important to have a record
of how the natural world has changed and is changing, but more than this it’s
important to note as how we are not separate but part
of that natural world. And this is what
Tait’s films quietly and insistently do. – [Lucy] What I wanted to focus on,
perhaps in quite a free-form way, is firstly just to think about situating
Margaret Tait a little bit in the experimental film world.
Which, as you already said, So, is from marginal to mainstream
feature film production. And, in a way, how extraordinary Margaret Tait was in how
she moved and navigated through those different worlds. And, of course,
deciding to go and study at the Centro Sperimentale was perhaps a very important
clue to where she saw herself in terms of what she was looking for towards a
compassionate and observational mode of cinema, but one which was all about the
quotidian, to return again to what you were saying, and the non-professional
actor, if you like. But I also wonder, too, if the fact that she didn’t also
train as a nurse speaks a little bit about the precision of her eye in
the way that she frames, if you like, the portraits that she makes,
whether it’s of children running in the park or whether it’s of fellow poets.
So I was quite interested in how she navigates those different worlds,
one being an observational documentary cinema and also knowing how important she
was to British experimental filmmakers, those associated to the London
Film-Makers’ Co-op later on in the 1970s. And I know that filmmakers,
I know of Annabel Nicolson being one, talked about how her films would be
showing at the Co-op in London and she would come down and stay over
for her films to be shown. But, again, what she’s doing is very different from
those very process-led works that were central to the London Film-Makers’
Cooperative members during the 1970s. You might also say that being an artist
and poet in Scotland we might connect her to Norman McLaren and the animation
work that he, in particular, was making. But, again, though we see animation coming
into her work, andColour Poemsbeing a good example, but alsoAerial,
it’s not the main focus of her work either. It’s also interesting,
of course, that the London Film-Makers’ Co-op started in 1966,
she was making these films very much on her own volition through from the
1940s, coming back from the Centro Sperimentale.
So you might say she stands as a precedent to the British experimental film
scene which was later to burgeon. And I think for that reason she was very
often seen as a touchstone for them and as a very important figure for them.
And you see that looking through many of the programmes which for the
Co-op through the ’70s and ’80s, so in early television
broadcasts of artist film, as well. So, but she still somehow is a figure
apart, she’s not part of that canon of Maya Deren and others which
emerged through the 1940s and ’50s. And you might say there are connections to
her work, connections to the diaristic approach of Jonas Mekas,
but they’re something else again. And this is something that I’ve
always really enjoyed puzzling over. And certainly when I first had an
opportunity, thanks to Peter, to write around her work,
it was around her use of time and as a way to try and understand her use of time
against other ways in which time has been used in the cinema on the idea of the
cause and effect of methods of time in feature film. And it seemed that her
use of time is much more about a metaphorical use of time,
I guess that comes back to her sense of herself as a poet.
It feels like time is also quite, I think, prismatic, it’s faceted.
When we look at these incredibly rich and intense films, we’re looking at
overlapping times of generational times playing out. Particularly,
and I loved, again, to remember her use of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems and the
idea of girl grace, these generations of women. Her granddaughter inColour
there. Her grandniece, excuse me. But also the faces of her friends,
the faces of Alex Pirie, her partner. But there’s also a portrait of her mother.
So there’s a generational time that moves through it. There’s also a
meteorological time that is also circling there, there’s also a sense of a
sedimentation, these images of spades going through the earth. You know,
it’s about time is erosion and decay at the same time that it’s also
literalized in some way by her presentation of a kind of metaphysical
time, showing us the gravestones in that very first film of hers.
So I’m very interested in how all of these forms of time are operating together in a
very intense way within these works. Which are also, in terms of the timing of
their editing, is very rhythmic, but very, very close the same time.
At the same time, excuse me. Space, as well. The camera
is often looking down, it’s close, it’s looking at the textures of the
lichen, of decay and time, again, and how it’s presenting itself in the
landscape, but also on the pavement in the play of water and so on.
So I think there’s an extraordinary use of space in these I don’t see anywhere
else. I mean she works with a cumulative time in a sense that, as you said, she…
Sorry, So, you said she…to make theTheLeadenandThe Golden Echotook her over
several years. And she would go and she would film with a Bolex,
she would go into her studio, she’d watch back. Was it week by week,
Peter, that she would go in and watch? And, again, place sound against that.
So I think the other thing that we haven’t perhaps touched on that I just want to
raise, and which I’m sure many of you felt listening here, was how incredibly bold
use of sound is, the way that the ambient brushes against…the ambient track
brushes against the composers that she’s invited, she’s commissioned,
to make soundtracks. And I think, just to finish, a non-synchronous sound,
an asynchronous sound perhaps. Which, again, makes me think of herself as
a poet, how she thinks very carefully about how you place sound in relation to
image, both whether you’re doing that within a poem
but within the films, as well. – Thank you, thank you. – Thanks. – Yeah. – No need to clap, please. – Yeah, just keeping an eye on time. – Yeah. – But thank you very much for those
contributions, they were really very special. Well, I know some
people will probably have come across Margaret Tait’s work for the first
time, others have been quite familiar with it or lived with it for quite a
while. I did actually just want to ask our three panel how did they or when
did they first come across the work of Margaret Tait? If you could just
briefly say. If you can remember. – You have the most… – Well, I don’t know.
For me Peter’s partly responsible. But also for me, it’s interesting,
it was through another filmmaker, it was through Marie Menken’s work
actually which I came to first, who I’m sure many people know her work.
But if you don’t, please go and see it. She’s another woman who made
“small films,” as Jonas Mekas said, “She makes little, little films.”
And I was really incensed by this, and then I thought, “Well,
actually he’s right.” But, as you say, they are enormous. They are small but
momentous films. And I felt in a way that that’s something that Tait,
Margaret Tait really shared. So it was Menken
to Tait. But, again, I think always looking for… I’m sorry,
I’m always counting off of my head when I see a group of filmmakers,
“Where are the women? How many women are there among these
men?” And it was fantastic to find here was an extraordinary woman who was making4
work in quite an… She wasn’t isolated, she was very connected.
But she wasn’t necessarily getting a lot of support, but she
was still tenaciously doing it. – Yeah, great.
Anna, can you remember? – To be honest, it was quite recently.
And I think I just kept hearing about Margaret Tait Award and I thought I
better find out who Margaret Tait was. And, yeah, and sort of coming to her films
quite, like, relatively fresh it’s kind of struck me, like, how it kind of takes a
while to get into the sort of her rhythm and her… And I think rhythm is really
important when you’re watching them. And I just kind of realized,
because I’ve watched them, her films, sort of several times just preparing for
this event, and when I was watching them again now I realized how kind of, like,
in sync I’ve sort of become with them and how you kind of
see and hear different…you get… I mean it’s an obvious thing to say,
but the more you watch them the more you get out of them. And there were just
things that I’m noticing now that I didn’t notice when I first saw them,
like her sense of irony, I think, is great. And also, not explicit,
but quite a subtle kind of politics that’s she’s always kind of
pushing out and edging out. And, yeah, I think that’s particularly obvious
in her film… What were they called?Colour Poems.Colour Poems, I think
that’s quite kind of sharp, politically. Yeah. – Thank you. So? – I wish that I had a sort of parallel
history to the one that I did and that I’d seen Blue Black Permanent on its release
in 1992 because I was a baby teenage poet and I think it would have been incredibly
meaningful to see a film by a British woman filmmaker about a genealogy of women
poets and artists. But I didn’t because they didn’t screen things likeBlue Black
at the Edgware ABC, at least in… I’m sure
it’s much more arthouse now. So I saw the LUX programme from 2006,
but I actually saw it in Toronto at the Cinematheque where it was programmed in
the same season as a retrospective of [Inaudible],
his films I also had never seen before. So discovering these two filmmakers
who are incredibly attuned to the living world. His parents were doctors,
she had this medical training and practice. Both of them
are incredibly interested in vision as a spiritual practice. It was just a kind of
magical summer of their works, the way that they see
a sort of animist, almost, natural world. So they’re deeply associated in a very
strange way for me. But since being able to work with her chapbooks in the
British Library, her work has also taken on another level and layer of
experience. Which may… You know, so Sarah Neely’s archive
work and obviously, Peter, your work with the films, that confluence is really
exciting, as well, that we’re getting the whole of
Margaret Tait. – She’s not just a filmmaker. – Yeah. – Yeah, thanks so much for that.
I’d just like to sort of end, but maybe also setting up the next
screening, which is the Margaret Tait Award winners, and that should
be special to hear what they have to say. But I was going to say Margaret Tait’s
films today are just as likely to be found in art galleries as in cinemas.
And I was just wondering, again, if there’s just a couple of thoughts you
have on why do you think it is…or what do you think it is about Margaret Tait’s
work which offers this opportunity for both
cinema and the gallery? – I think you could show her work on a
wall in the street, in a garden, in a boatshed at Whitstable, I think,
because she made the work where she was. Maybe gallery spaces are a bit more
attuned to those…the kind of varieties of filmmaking that Lucy was talking about,
that price, the smallness, the diaristic, the immediate that Anna talked about,
and also the environmental consciousness that Anna talked about.
But I think it would be great to screen them on the outside of the BFI
next to the Thames with the waves, or on the Thames
with the waves going through them. – I’m hearing it now. – Small project? – Hearing it from… – [Inaudible] think so. – Well, actually… – Lucy? – I’m going to say
maybe flip it back to you, Peter. And so I think that
the advocacy which has been happening around Margaret Tait’s work,
maybe starting a little bit with those London Film-Makers’ Co-op
screenings but that you’ve continued, has meant that the
connections you’ve made… For example, I saw that recently a great show of her
work at the Pier Gallery in Stromness in Orkney, but also saw a show
at the same time at Stills in Edinburgh. So, but those are down to the connections
and the networks which you have been formulating since, I think,
just continually placing her work in the forefront and it being picked up by Sarah
and other filmmakers through the Margaret Tait Award, as well. So I would say,
to kind of continue what you were saying, so I think it could be shown anywhere,
but the fact they’re shown in these particular context
now is through the habilitation work that you
have been doing around her work. – Anna? – I think that’s everything covered. But,
yeah, just what So mentioned before about, I don’t know, she
wasn’t particularly interested in the sort of commercial cinema.
And so it kind of makes sense that her films, I don’t know,
maybe they would be best suited to be screened outside, or I don’t think that
they have to be constrained to… – Where would cats
be most likely to see them? – Well, that’s
an important question, yeah.

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