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Blue Black Permanent

Thoughts on a film by Margaret Tait

"I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me."

- The Waves (1931) by Virginia Woolf

At one point in the film, a character talks about a flower that can only grow in one specific location, a heath on the Orkney archipelago. Any attempt to remove the flower and replant it somewhere else results in the flower's slow demise; its sense of being so firmly rooted to that one singular place that it's unable to flourish anywhere else. It becomes an obvious metaphor for the central character, the 1950s poet, mother and housewife Greta Thorburn, whose early death and the mystery surrounding it still haunts the life of her adult daughter, and provides for the audience the emotional center to this strange and personal film.

The only feature-length work directed by the Scottish poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait, Blue Black Permanent (1992) unfortunately wasn't the hidden masterwork I was hoping it would be. There's a certain inertness to much of the film, an odd disparity between the various timelines, which are necessary to the conception of Tait's story and her reflection on three generations of women, but it often feels like separate films competing for attention. Perhaps this is the point?

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

The present-day sequences, which act as a kind of framing device, casting Celia Imrie as Greta's grown-up daughter Barbara, a photographer, with Jack Shepherd as her understanding partner Philip, don't really work, and weigh down the better, more affecting sequences of Gerda Stevenson as the sensitive poet, struggling to find a sense of place. Imrie and Shepard do well in their respective roles, but their sequences are stilted and expositional. They feel more like scenes of actors rehearsing for a play than moments that fit comfortably alongside the more visual and purely cinematic sequences set in the 1950s and earlier.

It's a shame, as these "period" sequences are often incredible and reach for the kind of filmed poetry that Tait achieved in her short films, such as A Portrait of Ga (1952), The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1955) and Aerial (1974). Like Blue Black Permanent, these were films preoccupied with the same themes of womanhood, home, nature and the elements. However, they were unburdened by the more conventional necessity for a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, and as such were free to engage in the kind of extraordinary image-making that Blue Black Permanent achieves only in moments.

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

Tait apparently took the title, Blue Black Permanent, from a type of ink. This makes sense given the personal connection between Greta, as protagonist, and Tait herself as the filmmaker, as both are writers and poets, and their work is central to what is being expressed. However, I think there are further connotations to the title, which might be obvious but are worth repeating.

Firstly, it could be taken as a reference to the sea; to the inky blue and black textures that define it, or at least the perception of it as it moves against the landscape. It could even be taken as an acknowledgement of the dividing line of the horizon, where the night sky as it appears in one particular sequence, reaches out to meet the ocean, itself a kind of black mirror. It also has a psychological connotation; blue like sadness, black like depression; reflecting the heightened emotional state of Greta during the run-up to her final moments.

Joni Mitchell's landmark 1971 album "Blue" features a similar exploration of the colour. The "blues" as at once an expression, the musical sub-genre and as a state of emotion, and of the elemental themes that are woven into a song like 'The River', itself a personal reflection on womanhood and the image of a corporeal escape or transcendence through a body of water. What Mitchell hints at, Tait's film makes clear.

Blue [Joni Mitchell, 1971]:

Cover photography Tim Considine, art-direction by Gary Burden

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

That Blue Black Permanent doesn't quite work as a complete film shouldn't necessarily detract from its positive attributes, of which there are many. In certain sequences, particularly those focusing on Greta, both the brief scenes of her childhood and in the more fully realized scenes of her later adult life, the film achieves something extraordinary. The impressionist moments that contrast and connect the existential dilemmas of characters to the elemental mysteries of the natural world overwhelm the more conventional or generic notions of character and plot and become an expression. Not something that is understood or needs to be understood, but something that is felt.

"Felt" in the sense of the emotions, the sadness, the longing, the regret, the failure to understand and the acceptance that life is finite and forever running out, but also felt in the way memories are felt as they're triggered by the various senses, the sound of the ocean, the smell of the fields, the cold air against exposed skin or the ground beneath our feet. This aspect of the film is less tangible, but it's the feeling that the film imparts upon the viewer, the emotions of its characters, rather than appeals to storytelling or narrative engagement.

There are even moments in the "present day" segments, flawed as they apparently are, which give a greater potency to those scenes that depict the inner life of Greta and her inability to share her feelings with her husband, friends and children. The hard cut from disco lights throwing blocks of electric colour across the bopping patrons of an Edinburgh nightclub circa the early 1990s, to a window scene reflection looking out across a beach in Orknay in the 1950s, illustrates the emotional connection between Greta and Barbara; mother and daughter each struggling to make sense of their place in the world. In a single moment, as remarkable as the cut from a row of suburban houses to lines of gravestones in a cemetery seen in Tait's aforementioned The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, this moment connects the film's themes of disconnection, absence, womanhood, family, home and death, in a way that is both modest and hugely intelligent.

Blue Black Permanent [Margaret Tait, 1992]:

The scenes shot around Kirkwall in the Orkney islands, where Tait was raised, have a real affection for the rural lifestyle and for the practical, unpretentious socializing of the villagers that descent upon the house of Greta's father. These moments seem to belong to a different film, but nonetheless provide an incredible and deliberate contrast to the more bourgeois, middle-class affections presented by characters elsewhere in the film. Here, we get a sense of Tait's real love for the region and its people as she lets conversations play out, savoring every word delivered in that remarkable accent, enjoying the jokes and the banter as a respite from the interior voices that express something altogether more alienated.

While it's a film where the imperfections stand out, where the misjudged moments, the wooden dialog, the kitsch dream sequences, threaten to break the spell of the more enchanting passages, the experience of Blue Black Permanent is no less affecting. Despite its flaws, it remains a still relevant film about depression and the effect that mental health related issues and suicide can have on generations of the same family. It's also a film about relationships between mothers and daughters, the connection that women have to nature and the elements, the need for freedom, for independence. Rich themes that are brilliantly evoked and explored by the filmmaker throughout.

In certain moments, certain images, the film succeeds in expressing these different themes and emotions that must have compelled it into being. The poetic sequences – the way the camera lingers on the surface of the sea, transformed by the iridescent sun; its rays of light refracted off the dappled surface into a kind of mirror ball; a cosmic interplay of light and shadow reminiscent of stars in the blue night sky – are beautiful and transportive. Ultimately the experience of Greta and the character of the film itself, recalls the final words of a poem by Stevie Smith: "I was much too far out all my life, and not waving, but drowning."


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