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Between Categories

The Films of Margaret Tait: Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place

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Sarah Neely

Margaret Tait – filmmaker, photographer, poet, painter, essayist and short story writer – is one of the UK’s most unique and remarkable filmmakers. She was the first female filmmaker to create a feature-length film in Scotland (Blue Black Permanent, 1992). Although for most of her career Tait remained focused on the goal of making a feature-length film, her most notable and groundbreaking work was arguably as a producer of short films. The originality of her work, and its refusal to accept perceived barriers of genre, media and form, continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers.

This book aims to address the lack of sustained attention given to Tait’s large body of work, offering a contextualisation of Tait’s films within a general consideration of Scottish cinema and artists’ moving image. Furthermore, the book’s grounding in detailed archival research offers new insights into Scotland (and Britain) in the twentieth century, relating to a diverse range of subjects and key figures, such as John Grierson, Forsyth Hardy, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lindsay Anderson and Michael Powell.

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Introduction

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The title for this book, Between Categories, is borrowed from a musical composition of the same name written by the modernist composer Morton Feldman, in 1969. Tait’s work was inspired by a great variety of artists, poets and musicians. Her interests in the moving image were diversely spread across topics such as the works of poetic filmmakers like Yasujirō Ozu and Ingmar Bergman, the comedies of Jerry Lewis, and the popular American television series Ally McBeal (Fox 1997–2002). Similarly, in regard to music, Tait, an avid radio listener, favoured a great range of genres and forms, from traditional pibroch to classical and modernist music. Feldman was a constant favourite of Tait’s. Considering Tait frequently likened her approach to filmmaking with musical composition, it is not surprising that comparisons can be made between the two.

In an interview with Tait’s husband Alex Pirie, from 2006, he refers explicitly to Feldman’s title as a way of describing Tait’s own position as a filmmaker:

Her film work is between categories. When you’re looking at her films, there is no point in trying to pin them down as one kind of filmmaking, because the thing is that with Margaret’s films, her films are images, and I emphasise that, everything you see is an image, and almost by definition or by extension, an image is the thing that has got planes and layers of things, and this goes back to Barthes […] you’ve got information, you’ve got some symbolic...

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