1.4 Numen of The Boughs/Colour Poems

During an interview for the 1983 Channel Four arts programme, Eleventh Hour, the subject of her hand-painted films was brought up, to which she replied:

Yes, I had done a bit, before, in sort of dance films, but in Colour Poems I was trying to do it rather differently. Instead of the usual kind of animation, I was doing the opposite, in a sense. I was trying to keep the picture as still as possible, and get the opposite effect, you know, of Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending A Staircase’, where you see several phases in one picture. I was trying to keep the picture still, over a number of frames, but just allowing for the natual shiver that there’s bound to be; and this was to illustrate a slightly shaky memory I had, of what of course in world terms was a very significant time in this century, the time of the Spanish Civil War.

It seems that having spent fifteen years painting Eightsome and John MacFadyen, Tait had developed both her technique and purpose behind labouring over each frame individually. Numen of The Boughs is an attempt at expressing something quite apart from the energy of movement and dance found in the earlier films. It was an experiment from which successful portions were incorporated into Colour Poems. The two-minute roll of film, painted without reference to a soundtrack, is almost entirely composed of black and white hand-drawn or scratched sequences. There is some colour in the original roll which has been applied over the scratches, but subsequent prints Tait had made were reproduced in black and white. The version which was incorporated into Colour Poems is black and white although colour was applied by hand to the negative over the animated sections.

Numen of The Boughs was never meant to be projected for the public although it was very successfully incorporated into Colour Poems, one of Tait’s most often screened films. As we have seen, Tait was concerned with expressing her feelings about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) but claims that her memories of it in the early 1970s “were simply of newspaper reports and of some people who had gone away to it and had come back…I couldn’t quite take it all in at all, really.”

So between Sorley MacLean’s poem about not having gone to the Spanish Civil War, and something of Lorca – I got the title from this book, ‘El Numen de las Ramas’, which I translated as ‘Numen of The Boughs’. I don’t know if it is the correct translation. I had started a poem in words and I tried to complete it on the film; that was what I was doing. 1)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

This poem is read aloud over the opening hand-drawn sequence of Colour Poems and because it describes quite clearly the feelings Tait had during the making of Numen and Colour Poems, I have reproduced it overleaf:

Well, yes

I do remember

the young men

going off to fight in Spain

but not Sorley McLean

not Sorely McLean in his pain

then them coming back changed

and yet not changed enough

for my notion then

of what war might be

frozen soldiers of the plains

stiff in trees

in photographs

the black showing through the thin snow

and the hard plain of Madrid

as shown to us in newsreels

stick in my vision

and click now

with McLean’s poem ‘to Evir’

and Lorca’s ‘Numen of The Boughs’

busy with studies then

and enjoying ourselves

How much did we notice?

I remember the look of young men

coming back

who’d been in Spain

and wondering about them

What took them there?

What brought them back?

What had they learned?

What sad knowledge was forever more

buried deep inside them?

In festival programmes, Colour Poems usually carries the subtitle, ‘nine related film poems’. Over twelve minutes, the film has nine titles: Numen of The Boughs, Old Boots, Speed Bonny Boat, Lapping Water, Incense, Aha, Brave New World, Things Found and Terra Firma. Much of the hand-drawn material is in the first section, although there are other short animated ‘refrains’ throughout the film. Clearly the notion of memory is important to the film as is observation “and the subsuming of one to the other.” 2)Programme notes by Tait for an unidentified German screening. Leggett has quoted Tait describing the film as “nine linked short films, about memories which affect chance observation. A poem started in words and continued on in images; part of another poem read as an addition to the picture; some images formed by direct on-film animation, others ‘found’ by the camera.” 3)Leggett, 1979. He has also noted that the film evokes distant causes with the “sturdy present” of contemporary Orkney. “Optimistic images of freshly painted steamers, and the bustle of re-constructive activity in full colour contrast distinctly with the grainy black and white greys of The Drift Back (1956).”

Colour Poems is a film that draws on familiar observations in rich colour, intercut with the harder almost monochrome hand-drawings in black ink. Indeed, unlike the earlier hand-painted films, the drawings do not dance or wriggle energetically but just as she intended, they ‘shiver’, seemingly constricted by the frame or perhaps the window of time. Tait has suggested that by cutting colourful observations of the present with these sketches of the past, the memories keep reverberating back, never quite disappearing. “Out of one’s own memory and thought one then finds (or arranges) the external scenes which can be filmed and made into something else again.” 4)Pirie, letter, 2000.

By the year Colour Poems was fininshed, Tait had made twenty-two short 16mm films. Of those, the 1982 festival screenings list I referred to earlier shows that nine films, including Colour Poems, had shown at festivals, mainly the Edinburgh International Film Festival and one or two other experimental or avant-garde film festivals. From her letters to David Curtis and draft scripts of the Eleventh Hour programme, there is also evidence to suggest that she showed her films to local audiences. Avant-garde film makers’ interest in her work increased after Malcolm Le Grice, reviewing the Festival of Independent British Cinema in Bristol, 1975, claimed that:

The main surprise and delight came through seeing the work of Margaret Tait for the first time… Working in a direction which received no echo of support in the films of her generation, she has developed her ideas in relative isolation…she must be considered as the only genuinely independent experimental mind in film to precede the current movement… Her work is sophisticated…she is no Primitive…deserves a full critical review… 5)Pirie, letter, 2000. Original article written for Studio International, May-June, 1975.

This attention was overdue, yet Tait was reluctant to accept the London Film Co-op’s adoption of her as an ‘experimentalist’. Pirie has written that “she was too well-informed about developments in film practice over the decades, but understood the need of others to accept the comfort of such designations.” 6)Letter, 2000. In fact, Tait herself has also said that:

I never describe my work as ‘avant-garde’. I don’t see that it’s a term one can use of oneself anyway. How can anyone say such a thing, of themselves? Besides that, there’s something too limiting about the idea of Avant-Garde – as if at all costs you must be making innovations. Cinema itself is an innovation of this century, and within the mainstream of it the most astonishing things have been achieved. It bowls me over, it really does. 7)Draft script for Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

As we have seen, despite her life-long practice in short, 16mm filmmaking, Tait was always interested in making feature films. Although a discerning critic of commercial cinema, she very much wanted to express her own ideas and aesthetic in this form, eventually doing so in Blue Black Permanent, a film which was first conceived in the 1940s and only came to fruition after the establishment of Channel Four in the 1980s.

References   [ + ]

1. Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.
2. Programme notes by Tait for an unidentified German screening.
3. Leggett, 1979.
4. Pirie, letter, 2000.
5. Pirie, letter, 2000. Original article written for Studio International, May-June, 1975.
6. Letter, 2000.
7. Draft script for Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

1.3 John MacFadyen and Painted Eightsome

Started in 1955 and completed in 1970, John MacFadyen and Painted Eightsome were, like Calypso, made by painting onto clear 35mm optical film stock. Neither of these films has received much attention and in a September 1982 list of her festival screenings, Painted Eightsome had shown just once at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1971. John MacFadyen is not even listed. Judging from the elements donated to the SFTVA, I suspect that after some initial interest in showing the two films in the early 1970s, Tait directed her energy and finances towards a new project and the exhibition of these two films was largely abandoned. Nothing has been published which discusses the two 1970 hand-painted films but Mike Leggett briefly lists them in his unpublished article based on conversations with Tait in the 1970s. The following are the only two quotes from Tait regarding these films that I have been able to find.

On Painted Eightsome:

An eightsome reel played by Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society, recorded in about 1955/6, later transferred to 35mm optical stock with clear picture and gradually painted over the years. Eights of different things – figures, antlers, or sometimes just blobs in tartan colours – dance their way through the figure of the reel.

On John MacFadyen:

Made over the same period of time and by similar methods to Painted Eightsome, the music being a march tune.

These brief descriptions (and the film elements themselves) suggest that Tait began painting them shortly after completing Calypso, using the same techniques of painting onto clear optical stock with a soundtrack already visible down one edge of the film.

Painted Eightsome and John MacFadyen are very much alike. Both have similar lively soundtracks of traditional Scottish dance music. Both are painted with several deep, rich colours – reds, greens, blues, purples, yellows – and typically have a washed background in one or two colours with dancing figures in the foreground. John MacFadyen begins with a tartan background with painted loops roughly dancing in time to the jig. The dancing line figures reoccur throughout both films, sometimes one, sometimes several dancing together hand-in-hand. Painted Eightsome, the longer of the two films, has birds flying above ocean waves and it appears as if every movement is in some way related to the lively music that persists throughout the two films. Towards the end of Painted Eightsome, a starfish and a linked chain are included among the dancing shapes.

In a filmography drawn up for the release of Blue Black Permanent, both Painted Eightsome and John MacFadyen are listed, though hand-written notes alongside each film indicate that no prints were available. Of all the titles discussed in this paper, these two appear to have remained out of circulation from shortly after they were completed and I suspect her interest in a new kind of technique had something to do with this.