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01 January 1970, 01:00

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Blue Black Permanent was Margaret Tait’s first and only feature-length production. Although her abstract animations and densely allusive film poems such as Where I Am Is Here (1964) or On the Mountain (1974) earned Tait a small but devoted following among the English and Continental avant-garde, she was still something of an unknown in her native Scotland.

The film’s complex, ‘Russian Doll’ narrative spans three generations of an Orcadian family. Barbara’s attempt to understand her past forms its outer shell. Flashbacks to her mother Greta and Grandmother Mary form the second and third layers, as the action in both past and present switches between Orkney and Edinburgh. At its core is Tait’s abiding interest in natural cycles, which in her films seem to dwarf all human concerns. The final five minutes of the film is a leanly edited sequence of shots from the Orkney coastline, juxtaposition grand sweeps of the seafront to details of shells, driftwood and shale.

By the time Blue Black Permanent was released, Tait was already 74, and it is in some respects an abstract autobiography; Greta and Barbara are representative of Tait’s joint passions of poetry and film/photography, while Greta shares Tait’s ecstatic sympathy with nature, her loyalties forever divided between Orkney and Edinburgh.

Tait is a fiercely independent and self-sufficient artist, and Blue Black Permanent showcases her wider influences as well as her remarkable singularity of vision. The use of static objects to cut between scenes suggests more than a passing familiarity with the work of Yasujiro Ozu, but the most profound influence on her work came from her studies at the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografia in Rome. Besides her contemporary Enrico Cocozza, she was the nearest Scotland had to a bona fide neo-realist, substituting the ‘mean dialects’ of Sardinia or Rome for the broad Orcadian cadences of the homecoming scenes.

The film does not so much flout conventions as create its own; flashbacks within flashbacks, several shifts of narrative voice, frequent use of ellipsis and occasionally abstract dialogue. Most audacious – and typical of Tait’s lateral sensibilities – is the script’s refusal to lend coherence to Barbara’s search for her past. It remains unfinished business, like the poem left on Greta’s sideboard or Barbara’s outrage that her story could be neatly compressed into something as crude or indelicate as “a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Mitchell Miller – courtesy of BFI Screen Online