Program notes for
by Steve Polta

Memory and Memorial in the Films of Margaret Rorison

To participate in Margaret Rorison’s I Have Left Baltimore as a viewer is to enter various forms of drift. Her works frequently wander through empty or seemingly empty spaces. Her soundtracks—often consisting largely of electronic music on the drone/noise spectrum—often create a sense of warm alienation, coloring the films’ empty landscapes. Rorison’s films abound with “negative space” compositions—shots which frame a “nothing” (for example an empty sky, a wall, water) against borders of dark (shadows, bridges, walls). With the (possible) exception of One Document for Hope (2015), this seems to suggest something of a turning away from the world of the social and a turn towards a state of introspection. These films relish solitude and alone-ness, and even while this solitude is sometimes tinged with dread or alienation, even as the filmmaker’s visions tend toward the apocalyptic, this solitude is asserted often as a source of strength.

As they engage with various forms of personal filmmaking, the works in I Have Left Baltimore weave themes of wander, of solitude, of political engagement and retreat, visions of emptiness and visions of bucolic and malignant apocalypse. The program is also very much concerned with memorializing a major figure in Rorison’s life: artist, illustrator and quirky personal thinker and raconteur Harry Bennett, Sr.—Rorison’s grandfather—a deep inspiration and muse, appearing on-screen, via voice and in dedication in four films in the program. And while it may seem unkind to suggest that he might be a haunting ghost, Bennett’s absent presence drifts over the entire program—even as this presence remains oblique and is presented as ultimately unknowable—serves as one of its unifying forces. This apparent influence is discussed below.

“…in the early days…” This phrase, spoken by Bennett in a deep and rich resonant voice, opens Gowanus Haze, the film which opens the program. This evoking enunciation accompanies a b&w “negative space” composition of empty sky framed with breeze-flowing black gauze and web/netting. While the phrase seems to portend a narrative recollection, it is immediately overborn by an assertive and blaring electronic drone that initiates a soundtrack of tones and industrial sounding motorings[1]. Noise in this film continuously overwhelms the voice, which becomes gently looped and shredded. Even as his musing thoughts are heard in the depths of the soundtrack, the specifics of their content—their understandability, their legibility as conveying information—is obscured. Voice as sound and as suggestion of spirit remains throughout the film but its syntax is stripped. Sound more than content, more noise/tone than words, more about the man as a spirit are elements of Gowanus Haze (clear statements from Bennett come later in the program, in The Birds of Chernobyl). Rorison’s own voice—younger, conversant, warm and attentive—apparently seeking to engage Bennett’s voice—is similarly reduced and enhanced into soft sonic shreds, equally a cloud of tones evoking a disembodied spirit, and is joined into the whirling haze of the track. Gowanus Haze—impressionistic portrait of a depopulated industrial zone in the heart of Brooklyn—opens the program with the suggestion of forgotten, neglected or undiscovered spaces as spaces of refuge. Empty skies and water. Shadows in the empty city. Negative space compositions follow in succession, white spaces framed by black. It seeks, in a way, to tell stories but the stories largely remain untold.

Following two highly notable films—PULL/DRIFT and Dark Logic—of worry and escape and SCANSION, a meditation on urban drift, two paired films—The Waiting Sands (2013) and Funes el memorioso (2015) evoke the absence of Bennett and represent the filmmaker’s struggle with his loss. The first, The Waiting Sands, is something of a glorious elegy, filmed at the moments of Bennett’s death, evoking his absence, and suggesting a world after his passing. Largely abstract, the work presents a clouded field of fluctuating pink and red—16mm film flares caused by exposure to ambient light—which saturate the screen warmly while a distant full moon, colored a deep blue, struggles to emerge, through trees and flare. The heraldic soundtrack exalts the vision and suggests a future space. This film is immediately followed by Funes el memorioso, whose title is directly borrowed from Borges’ 1942 short story describing an encounter with a young man stricken with an inability to filter experience, resulting in a literally overwhelming sense of detail and of overwhelming memory. All details of every encounter and sensory impression are unwillingly recalled in minute and excruciating detail. The sufferer, who gained this affliction in an accident involving head trauma, self-banishes into a perpetually darkened room so as to attenuate this overwhelm. Rorison’s Funes… consists of “the final footage of a painter,” captured looking toward the sky, a gesture which recalls the sky-scape vision The Waiting Sands. But where that film’s color scheme—a soothing blue struggling gently with warm red—suggested a cosmic release, Funes’… distressed sepia b&w—really more of an acidic brown/yellow—suggests a poison. Slowed-down and step-printed footage (expanding an original 30 seconds into an actually quite agonizing 2 minutes) the film is an attempt to “lengthen the memory” embodied in this “final footage,” to freeze the details of this encounter. The film’s tinkering machinic soundtrack suggests collision and also the ripping apart of things, of things being stretched to their limits, suggestive of the frustration and impossibility of the act of complete and irreducible remembrance.

“The idea that you have this great memory…” This fragmentary phrase, spoken by Bennett, opens The Birds of Chernobyl, a film in which he very much ruminates on his thoughts and memories of his life. This opening spoken fragment is ambiguous—is he referring to a specific memory that is great or is he referring to his (or someone else’s) “great” capacity to remember? It is not clear and adds a sense of mystery to this, as does the opening “shot” of clear white-ish blue sky(?). Both the phrase and the “image” suggest potential for internal and external exploration.

With the obvious sound of a running movie projector as a major part of the film’s soundtrack, Birds… presents as something of a travelogue, with the filmmaker exploring and investigating a natural landscape, with warm soft visuals that suggest a home movie. There is a notable absence of people—and a notable and deliberate inclusion of a person near the end. The inclusion of Bennett’s voice and thoughts has the effect of evoking him as a presence at the moment of the film’s screening, as if he is in the room with viewers and reflecting, as if the film represents his memories or experiences. Looped bird and insect sounds rise and fall as well but it is unclear whether they are actual recordings or some kind of machine-made sonic surrogates.

A statement by Bennett from the track:

I created my own … haunts … routes of walking … where I went … not reaching out to people or … not engaging in big time conversation with other people … I guess you call that the private life … but it’s the only way that you can observe and record life around you and life with you and life ahead of you … and that, in itself, is beauty …

In this quotation, he is referring to his solitary life as a painter (he then goes on to say that no one was ever allowed in his studio) even as he traveled the world, but the allusion to “life ahead of you” as something that can be found in the wander and in direct observation is striking. And it is tempting to find in this something of a statement about Rorison’s own wandering filmmaking[2], a sense that exploration, solitude, even loneliness, are essential to art-making. I see in this statement words of advice, given and taken, and offered again for the viewers’ consideration. A solitary figure of a young man in swim trunks later in the film[3], walking on a rocky river bank and appearing to me lonely, evokes the speaker and suggests something of a price paid for choosing this solitary path. Yet the reflective statement is immediately followed by a joyful burst of laughter and an equally playful admonishment—“just don’t cry”—and more laughter, assuring us that, indeed, this film is a love letter.

Later: “The idea of memories is the idea of how I lived as I was a painter, an artist, all my life. And the memories of those moments are just part of my now. And I can replay them whenever I want just by thinking … and that’s cool. And bring it back with a snap.” And with that the film cuts to a flaring white—and this is where we came in, where the film began. The film does not end with this cut-to-white but goes on for a bit to reflect on a general life of “good memories” while a pulsing string of quick images seems to catalog the film’s views for posterity before a final cut-to-white set to Bennett’s laughter (as well an ambiguous conclusion evoking the film’s title). There is much ambiguity beneath this film’s simple exterior and one wonders what this title refers to. Birds abound on the screen and appear throughout the soundtrack and the imagery could certainly be read as depicting the abandoned nuclear site in Ukraine[4]. Yet the film was shot during an artist residency in the Ozarks. The title does not appear in the film itself until spoken (three times) by Bennett at the film’s close. The first two enunciations seem to be spoken quizzically, as if he does not understand the phrase as a title or perhaps simply does not comprehend the words. The final statement, spoken softly, is finally “The birds of Chernobyl sing louder,” which I read as a reference to the documented natural reclamation around that disaster site and specifically as a suggestion of inspiring resiliency.

—Steve Polta, Oakland CA, May 2016


PS: You are correct in observing the haunting feeling. I am haunted, but see beauty. I feel haunted but try to focus on the beauty. I see and feel negative space, I feel voice pushes through barriers, I feel voice is a present and crucial force of memory, narrative, experience.

—Margaret Rorison, in correspondence


[1] The sounds of film projection—projectors, clanking reels—contribute to this and several other soundtracks in this program.

[2] Notably, four films on this program—Gowanus Haze, Dark Logic, SCANSION and DER SPAZIERGANG directly document Rorison’s solitary exploration of urban space. Even One Document for Hope—an observant document of throngs of Baltimore residents publicly protesting police brutality and the 2015 police murder of Freddie Gray—achieves the feel of a silent wander through a deserted city even as it depicts hundreds of people.

[3] Strikingly, this the only solitary figure presented in this entire program, although the filmmaker’s own solitary presence, in the form of a elongated shadow, opens Dark Logic and might be seen as a precursor or echo to this figure.

[4] Such a read also evokes the loaded yet similarly banal landscapes seen in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.