The Margaret Tait centenary celebrations kicked off here in Inverness at last year’s film festival, so it seem fitting that those celebrations should draw to a close here almost a year to the day on. Much like last year’s screening my attendance wasn’t in my original film festival plan. This time round I was supposed to be seeing a documentary called Aquarela, which didn’t turn up – or rather it did, but they copy didn’t work and the replacement didn’t arrive in time for the screening – as though the universe had opinions about my cinematic priorities.
Without a doubt the two triptychs by Margaret Tait herself – Three Portraits (1951) and Garden Pieces (1998) – which bookended the collection were the highlights, but nonetheless there were some clever little films in there.
My favourites of the rest of the films were the ones that interacted directly with the source material The Forest of Everything (Carey/Kirkup, 2019) is consciously interacting with Aerial (Tait, 1974) playing with conventions and expectations raised by the original film and also with the concept of play itself by involving a bunch of children in the making of it. (Given that a common complaint about modern art is ‘a kid could have made that’ it feels delightful that here some kids really did make that.) Both The Bravest Boat (Smith/Wood, 2019) and Houses (For Margaret) (Fowler, 2019) feel almost as though they could have been Tait films, despite the fact that they’re the films that most openly interact with the concept of Tait as part of the archive, as part of a film-making and artistic canon.
I also enjoyed Shoe Leather (Storey Gordon, 2019) although more as a work of visual art than as a short film. It was a clever idea, and I liked what he’d done with it, on execution, stylistics and metaphoric levels. The way it pulls back the curtain on the ‘magic’ film-making, exposing the lie of the ‘perfect shot’. I just don’t think it worked as a film.
It was quite interesting to hear from some of the directors/artists in the Q&A afterwards that the original brief had been very open except on one point – they were all supposed to be 1 minute films! They all failed the original brief, though as the curator noted at that point they couldn’t have run the kind of screening they’d just had if the artists had stuck to that. Might have made for an interesting art installation but it would have been something entirely different.
I was interested to note that despite the variety of mediums the films were shot in – HD, SD and 16mm – they almost all had a similar slight graininess to the picture quality that I associate with footage shot on video and mini-DV. Combined with the consistent use of 4:3 picture size throughout, it gave the whole proceeding a very 90s feel. As though all the artists consciously or unconsciously were channelling that era of her work.
As I noted in last year’s review, her short films really highlight for me what so many other art filmmakers are striving for and failing to reach. As a result it was all the more interesting – and a pleasant distraction during the films that didn’t work for me – to see a collection of short art films that wore their influence so blatantly on their sleeves.