Waves Are What They Are: A Dialogue about Margaret Tait’s BLUE BLACK PERMANENT

by Ivana Miloš and Patrick Holzapfel
Republished with kind permission from Mubi Notebook
Link to the original article

Patrick,

Here is something I always wanted to tell you about—it is connected to tides, grasses on clifftops, birdsong in the morning, smoking tea cups. All of these come into view in Margaret Tait’s observational practice, leaning in and looking closer, looking in and looking into things. This poetess and filmmaker whose work has been off the radar for decades, as she spent the latter living on Orkney within reach of the waves, made only one feature film, the one you have now seen. Retelling another life’s essence, daughter Barbara travels through memories of her mother Greta’s mysterious death. The multiple voices we hear are joined by those of the landscape in its minutiae, as if they were at once welded together and merely brushing past each other. Greta, who at first seems like the epitome of a poet reveling in the storm—even taking out her notebook to write in the torrential rain—metamorphoses into someone closer to a songbird upon her arrival to Orkney to see her ailing father. And yet it is this form that draws her closer and closer to the sea. If Greta disappears, if her poems disappear, is it a transformation or an appropriation on the part of nature, taking back what had always belonged to it? If this film were to tell a story, would it speak in the drifting voice of the sea?

***
Ivana,

There is something uncanny about the voice of the sea in Blue Black Permanent. It reminded me of a line from one of Jean Epstein’s sea poems: “ The sea doesn’t care.” Tait films the sea in constant movement. The waves come to life as in Virginia Woolf’s famous descriptions. Braking and spreading waters, but also threatening, because something invisible lurks there. The sea will have no mercy, it will not save your soul. It just exists. Yet, I owe this notion to the style of the film, which relates to the fears of the protagonist. Movements in nature edited at a fast pace give the impression of the sensations of touch and smell. In those moments, I not only hear the voice of the sea, but the voice of Tait. What you describe as Tait’s observational practice I see mirrored in Greta, the mother and poet in the film. She is not only drawn closer to the sea but to natural sensations in general. She is hungry for a touch of the real. So she runs through a thunderstorm, enjoying the rain. Something has separated her from life, from observational practice, and she needs to get it back by all means possible. Yet, her movements don’t seem to be voluntary. Nothing can stop her. She is drawn back to earth and, like a vulnerable drop of water, she slowly but passionately seeps back into the ground. That the feeling of alienation from domestic life results in a call from nature seems to me like the opposite of what the protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert goes through. Instead of being afraid to touch, Greta literary sleepwalks into touching. The abstraction Monica Vitti’s character experiences as well as the sudden presence of nature that consumes Greta have the same origin; both feel ill at ease in their domestic life. Greta is torn between her desire for freedom and her need to relate to her loved ones. Do you think Greta could have been saved? It is maybe hard to tell, since the expression on her face and the narration of her daughter constantly give us the feeling of a story already told, a story in which we and Greta are just passengers or sleepwalkers. Maybe this is also why I feel that the sea doesn’t care.

***
Patrick,

The sea simply is. Its disinterestedness is both its greatest appeal and danger. As waves roll out, they could just as well be seeking, grasping, savoring, swallowing, cleansing or even reaching for someone. This magnetism of what is draws Greta in in an indomitable fashion—I don’t believe anything we can see could have saved her. At the same time, everything we see could have done exactly that. You are very right in saying that the narration constantly stresses and affirms itself in relying on the familiarity of past events, but what if it does that because it is the only way to try and prevent it from happening? Greta’s daughter does not seem to have achieved closure concerning her mother’s death, this is why we have to see it. Interestingly enough, it is the death that goes unseen, as we are left with images of an empty room, window open wide, pen just dropped in the middle of writing a poem, and the surface of the sea mesmerizingly changing shape. These shots are framed by children—a child’s nightmare practically brings her mother’s death into the room while, in the aftermath of the event, children are left playing in front of the house, unaware and perfectly blending into their surroundings. Of the many (in Tait’s own vocabulary) film poems she made, one early short bears a special connection to Blue Black Permanent: Happy Bees (1954). On the face of it, the film is the essence of innocent joy. A few young children roll around in the grass, play with pots and pans in the garden, all to the tunes of the Orkney Reel and Strathspey Society. But the appearance of the sea brings something different to the film: a presence to be reckoned with, a realm eluding comprehension. The music suddenly stops as the waves rumble and roar. Children are nowhere to be seen, only algae drifting in the rocky pools. However, seeing as you mention hearing Tait’s voice, that’s exactly what interrupts the overwhelming wilderness—Tait’s own voice saying: “The children are not far away, the children live here.” This connection between land(scape), nature and people is at the core of Tait’s work, intertwining them like the sea weaves the algae strands. Greta is pulled, but maybe also brought to her senses. It’s just that these senses may be closer to touching and smelling than reasoning, and their road similarly ethereal. What do you make of the present plane and Barbara’s search for her mother? Could she also be looking for what Tait writes about in a poem called Now?

And in discarding all wisdom and prudence
Now and again,
– Rarely, say, but still sometimes –
We can reach,
We can see,
We can feel, touch, sense in some indefinable way
A deeper knowledge than wisdom,
Bone-knowledge
Blood-knowledge
Felt or known by out deepest sensibilities
For which as yet we have no words.

***
Ivana,

I am very glad that you found the first words to bridge the gap between past and present in the film. This gap is like a wound for me, I am not sure how to deal with it. Blue Black Permanent is very much a film between generations. The gap between generations opens and closes, it becomes visible only to disappear again in doubt. The film also moves somewhere in the space between past and present. You write about Barbara’s search for her mother that is ultimately, of course, also a search for herself. In Barbara’s helplessness in trying to understand her mother’s untimely death, I find the powerlessness of psychology facing a poem. It is really a dead end. Yet, I am not sure if she is completely helpless in the end. I want her to be, though. Somehow I cannot accept the strong presence of psychology which is really at the source of this conflict. Sometimes the film uses the knowing cruelty and tenderness of psychology to make us feel safer than Barbara. Sometimes, and this is what I like more, it does not. Barbara is not a poet. Nevertheless, she feels a desire to observe or to document in herself. The way she talks to her husband seems like a never-ending therapy session. He is not always able to listen. For me, he embodies a possible future in this dance between past and present. She goes to see a friend of the family, a bearded painter wearing long, paint-stained coats. Is he, in his refusal to lead a bourgeois life, able to find more happiness? I am more than uncertain about this, but I see a sparkle of understanding in his eyes. He carries a secret, and if you spend time with him, the secret might reveal itself. Barbara is not confronted with an involuntary memory, but what she takes upon herself is a very active struggle. In this image of a woman trying to remember, trying to understand, can we see her finding self-awareness and also grace? Maybe it is also about understanding that the sea is the sea, the past is the past? As you can see, I am a bit lost here. Nevertheless, I am moved. Like you, I also want to quote one of Tait’s poems. It might tell us more about the film.

Did you say it’s made of waves?
Yes, that’s it.
I wonder what the waves are made of.
Oh, waves are made of waves.
Waves are what they are,
Shimmeringness,
Oscillation,
Rhythmical movement which is the inherent essence of all things.
Ultimately, there’s only movement,
Nothing else.
The movement that light is
Comes out of the sun
And it’s so gorgeous a thing
That nothing else is ever anything unless lit by it.

Poetry and Film

28. Oktober 1953 – Cinema 16 Symposium – Poetry and the Film.
from Filmculture, No 29, Summer 1963

Maya Deren:

I’m going to do something I think is a bit risky, and that is to go a little bit into the question of what is poetry, and what distinguishes what we would call poetry from anything else, because I think that only if we can get this straight, can we sensibly discuss poetry in film, or the poetic film, or anything else. Now I say that it’s risky, because this is a subject that has been discussed for many, many centuries, and it’s been very difficult to pin down. But the reason I’m going into it is not because I think distinctions are important as formulae and as rigidities, but I think they’re important in the sense that they give an audience, or any potential audience, a preparation, an approach, to what they’re going to see. In the sense that if they’re thinking they are going to see an adventure film, and if they are confronted with a poetic film, that’s not going to go very well. I don’t think one is always predisposed toward poetry; the whole notion of distinguishing and, if you will, labeling things is not a matter of defining them so much as a matter of giving a clue to the frame of mind you bring to them. In other words, what are you going to be watching as this unrolls? What are you going to be listening for? If you’re watching for what happens, you might not get the point of some of the retardations because they’re concerned with how it happens.

Now poetry, to my mind, consists not of assonance; or rhythm, or rhyme, or any of these other qualities we associate as being characteristic of poetry. Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience, in the sense that a poet is looking at the same experience that a dramatist may be looking at. It comes out differently because they are looking at it from a different point of view and because they are concerned with different elements in it. Now, the characteristics of poetry, such as rhyme, or color, or any of those emotional qualities which we attach to the poetic work, also may be present in works which are not poetry, and this will confuse us. The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by „a poetic structure“), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a „vertical“ investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or what it means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory forms for something that is invisible, which is the feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the movement. Now it also may include action, but its attack is what I would call the „vertical“ attack, and this may be a little bit clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the „horizontal“ attack of drama, which is concerned with the development, let’s say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling. Perhaps it would be made most clear if you take a Shakespearean work that combines the two movements. In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a „horizontal“ plane of development, of one circumstance—one action—leading to another, and time delineates the character. Every once and a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, lie builds a pyramid or investigates it „vertically,“ if you will, so that you have a „horizontal“ development with periodic „vertical“ investigations, which arc the poems, which are the monologues. Now if you consider it tins way, then you can think of any kind of combination being possible. You can have operas where the „horizontal“ development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for Stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements. Lieder are, in singing, comparable to the lyric poems, and you can see that all sorts of combinations would be possible.

It seems to me that in many films, very often in the opening passages, you get the camera establishing the mood, and, when it does that, cinematically, those sections are quite different from the rest of the film. You know, if it’s establishing New York, you get a montage of images, that is, a poetic construct, after which what follows is a dramatic construct that is essentially „horizontal“ in its development. The same thing would apply to the dream sequences. They occur at a moment when the intensification is carried out not by action but by the illumination of that moment. Now the short films, to my mind (and they are short because it is difficult to maintain such intensity for a long period of time), are comparable to lyric poems, and they are completely a „vertical,“ or what I would call a poetic construct, and they are complete as such. One of the combinations that would be possible would be to have a film that is a dramatic construct, visually, accompanied by a commentary that is essentially poetic; that is, it illuminates the moments as they occur, so that you have a chain of moments developing, and each one of them is illuminated. It’s things of this sort that, I believe, occur in the work of Mr. Maas, who has done that to a certain extent in his last film, Image in the Snow, where the development of the film is very largely „horizontal,“ that is, there is a story line, but this is illuminated constantly by the poetic commentary so that you have two actions going on simultaneously. Now this, I think, is one of the great potentials of film and something that could very well be carried and developed much further, and I think that one of the distinctions of that film and also of Geography of the Body, is that it combines these principles. I think that this is a way of handling poetry and film, and poetry in film…

A There and Then and Never Again Quality: Filaments of Margaret Tait

by Ivana Miloš

Have we missed out if we have not seen the work of Margaret Tait, poet and gracious film maker? Perhaps not if we have known silence, solace and questioning, an immediacy springing from the body into and with the world. And then again, the answer is nevertheless yes. The bright beacon of light shed on movement that unfolds in her work is a mystery and a mastery, the searchlight of an independent soul. Throughout her life, Margaret Tait remained on the verges and fringes of all things commercial or institutional when it came to her films (of thirty-two, twenty-nine were self-produced), and therefore on the edges of the perception of others.

She was born in Orkney, an island in the north of Scotland, in 1918, she studied and became a doctor in Edinburgh, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in India, Sri Lanka and Malaya, and returned to Orkney only to then travel to Italy and study at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome in 1950, from where she, after living in several other regions of Scotland, eventually moved back to her island in the 1960s. She died there in 1999. A short note on a life, inevitably deficient. Let us try again: Margaret Tait made films and wrote poems, but also, in her own words, made it her “life’s work” to make “film poems.” Margaret Tait traced the contours of the visible with a keen attention, opening the invisible within it and throwing away the key, all keys, always. (No locks. / No bolts, bars nor keys.) Her curiosity was insatiable and infinite, devoted to the complex minutiae of the seemingly evident. (Flame / Is a thing I / Always wonder about. / It seems to be made of colour only. / I don’t know what else it is made of.) In filming, her acuity was buoyed by the swell of the tangible and luminous, transforming everyday, common objects into springs of the unknowable that wash over us with their intrinsic magic. (There’s a whole country at the foot of the stone / If you care to look.)

But let us look at the films the way a film poem unfurls: Where I Am Is Here (1964) repeats itself with consideration, echoing and reverberating into a complex of imagery and sound that weaves its own structure out of multiple, cadenced threads. Bare tree branches overlapping with the noise of traffic launch the film. Then there are bricks and their builder, chimneys and their smoke, a house of cards, Christmas lights and the undulating sea, children playing on the ice, glimpsed through branches, a pen at the ready, suspended over a sheet of paper, a small bird walking on ice, all accompanied by a tune that is a poem of Tait’s set to music, sung and played at times in consonance with the images. Among them, a few notes, lines of rhythmic poetry unspellable: a man leaning on a fireplace softly closes his eyes and slowly opens them again. The lone gesture contains multitudes, it wordlessly speaks about the person and lets them speak – Tait has a way of getting close to people with her camera, of showing them in a revelatory surge of the smallest motion of their hands or eyes. The unknownness of people is equally mysterious as that of things, and they all give way to the mystery of the film maker’s camera (see the marvellous A Portrait of Ga, Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait). In Tait’s work, showing a person carries with it the same release showing a landscape does – neither is represented in their role, but disclosed in their existence – often together. In A Portrait of Ga, the camera lingers on the voilet-red heather and Ga’s coat in what seem to be exactly the same colours before moving onto her face. This is where she fits, this is the place that made the human.

Another line form Where I Am Is Here: a myriad swans interlace the water, followed by forgotten fishing nets and a lone Wellington boot lying on the seabed – this is where humanity meets nature, a moving, quiet moment that is more of a sign, a single hieroglyph of a thousand words. Tait’s films show what has been established throughout centuries, the traces of co-existence written into the landscape people live on and from; the past is a felt presence in the stirring announcement of the present, the here and now. In 1974, in the film Colour Poems, Tait films another boot, a pair of them standing alone in a barn, the right one gently shaking in the wind. A declaration not only of absence, but of a thoroughly lived-in environment, of people’s homes and the use they make of the land. In Orquil Burn (1955), Tait films the path of an Orkney stream, following it from the place where it runs into the sea to its source – a journey intimately accompanied by her occasional voice-over, her knowledge of the landscape and its people that becomes unmapped and novel through this precious, delicate mapping of every step of its way. (This is the burn that used to flow over the fields as it / happened to go. / They changed its course, but the flowers still grow – / Mimulus and meadowsweet) People and streams, birds and smoke, they all have their pursuits, as a pulse of intention beats somewhere in the background.

Their presence is what makes this possible, and Aerial (1974) shakes with the clarity of sheer presence. A four-minute film as ennobling as a poem can be, its vision is not exuberant, but fulsome. Whistling leads to a bell of leaves, droplets golden a branch, earth is dug up in golden labour. An island made of leaves and petals is as fleeting as was the life of the now dead bird framed in dusky light. Margaret Tait is interstice: tumultuous calm, weaving together clouds, earth, the people working it, the sheep feeding on its grass, the joy of a splash of water on a summer’s day of childhood, and the melancholy of a departure from the house one has grown up in. The tint of infinity in a blade of grass or a snowstorm covering the streets – it is its own, its one and only, its dearly ever-wished-for and never-even-imagined, or, as Tait wrote: “It is what it is, of course.”

There is a wedge of darkness to this quest, gathering the sinister in the irremediable, unavoidable, unreproachable – nature is itself, is it not incredible? And that a film maker is a poet, a writer, an independent, is that not just as incredible? Elective affinities may connect Tait’s work to some aspects of Marie Menken, Robert Beavers (particularly Work Done and Pitcher of Colored Light), Rose Lowder and Nathaniel Dorsky, all film makers of the in-between, explorers of film as an elsewhere in the here. Working for can be a working against only when the kinship between elements rings true, if someone sets out to reveal and thread the filaments (It’s too small a thing to accept the ready-made frame. / We builders must keep making our own cities) Images can never be pale if they know their place, if they have caressed a face as carefully as they have a poppy, if, in Tait’s phrasing, “the blood-image and the through-image are perfectly united.” Here we all are, nature and its people, people and their nature, animals and lychen, children’s sailboats made of iris leaves and the coalman listening to the water run (And then that word has to go too, being inadequate, / And only my eyes are left / For saying it all.)