Waves Are What They Are: A Dialogue about Margaret Tait’s "Blue Black Permanent"

Two critics discuss the mysteries of nature, time, and death in the only feature film made by the Scottish poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait.
Ivana Miloš, Patrick Holzapfel

Ivana Miloš and Patrick Holzapfel continue our series of film dialogues. In collaboration with Cinema Rediscovered in Bristol, Margaret Tait's Blue Black Permanent (1992) is showing on MUBI from July 26 - August 25, 2018 in most countries.

Blue Black Permanent


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?



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.



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,
                                    Felt or known by out deepest sensibilities
For which as yet we have no words.



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,
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.

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