UBC film scholar and Georgia Straight movie critic Mark Harris dies

One of Canada's leading authorities on international films has died.

Mark Harris, a UBC film-studies instructor and veteran movie critic for the Georgia Straight, suffered a pulmonary embolism yesterday (February 26). He was 62.

Harris had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, but was optimistic about his prognosis.

His wife, therapist and counsellor Carola Ackery, told the Straight that Harris "sent thousands of film students into the world, and he was proud of that".

"My grief is quite uncomplicated," she said. "We got to travel a lot and we didn't have any bad stuff to work out. We were a great couple—just right for each other, and not everyone can say that."

Straight arts editor Janet Smith said that there probably isn't another film critic in Canada with Harris's depth of knowledge about European and particularly French films.

But she added that he was also an expert in many other genres, including Korean horror movies.

"When you think about his expertise, it was just so diverse," Smith said. "He had almost a steel-trap memory, where he could refer to little details in one film while he was reviewing another. It's going to be impossible to ever replace somebody who had that much knowledge."

He wrote approximately 3,000 articles and essays in numerous publications. He was also a highly regarded expert on the translation of movies into different languages, as well as subtitling and dubbing.

Harris was a warm-hearted man bursting with passion and energy, supplemented with a wicked sense of humour. Often spotted around town in a hat that barely kept his long unkempt hair in check, he spoke quickly and in a loud voice.

On the ratemyprofessors.com website, his students raved about his engaging and often humourous lectures. Here are just a few of the quotes:

"A man of intellect and humour, almost eccentric in his mannerism. I don't think I ever laughed so hard in a class as I did in his first lecture."

"One of the most interesting people I have ever met, and just might be the most intelligent."

"Awesome prof!!! He really knows what he is talking about..."

Writer Allan MacInnis, a former student of Harris, wrote an affectionate blog post describing him as "filled with enthusiasm for cinema", adding that he "lectured in the rather blustery, improvisatory, passionate manner of a sincere but studied eccentric".

"He remains the only teacher I have ever encountered in any school of any sort to use the word 'cocksucker' during a lecture—and I mean this as a point in his favour (for the record, he was illustrating a point by describing a scene from Deadwood, where the word appears frequently)," MacInnis wrote.

In a 2004 article in UBC Reports, Harris declared that his course, The Art of Subtitling, was a counterattack against former Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti's desire to flood the world with U.S. films.

"I want to have genuine globalism versus the phone globalism we have now," Harris said at the time. "Why is it that with 150 channels, we can't see Indonesian flying head movies? Why do we just get reruns of Seinfeld or MASH?"

Around the Georgia Straight office, Harris was appreciated for populating his annual Top 10 movies list with motion pictures from around the world and his enthusiasm for movie festivals.

"When we would cover the Vancouver Film Festival, he would be down there practically waiting...for the doors to open so he could exchange his films and get some more," Smith recalled. "It was in his blood. He just loved film more than anyone else I know."

In 2012, one of his favourites was Rust and Bone, a French feature made by Jacques Audiard. Here's a portion of Harris's erudite review:

At first glance, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) would seem to have little in common. Due to a lack of education and employment opportunities, he sinks into the netherworld of extreme fighting. Although her beginnings are probably sunnier, Stépahanie’s nightmare is still worse, because she loses both legs in an accident at Marineland d’Antibes. Yet a strong bond gradually develops between these unlikely lovers who are united by the fact that they both live primarily through their bodies, not their minds. And if the culture of poverty in which he grew up causes Ali to sometimes behave in a strange fashion towards those around him, Stéphanie’s socialization process seems to have been equally bizarre.

Because of its radical originality, Rust and Bone is not a film you are likely to compare to other movies. Instead, in the fullness of time, other movies will most likely be compared to it.

More of his reviews are available here.

He obtained a PhD from UBC, wrote poems and plays, and used to be the programming director at Pacific Cinémathèque.

Harris was at Vancouver General Hospital waiting to see an oncologist when he died. A nearby movie crew filmed as emergency officials tried without success to revive him.

"It's hard to miss the irony," Ackery said. "It was the right place for Mark to be, in a terrible way, in a movie."

The Straight will offer more coverage of Harris in the coming days.

Comments (42) Add New Comment
nancy richardson
remember Mark from 70's and 1980's at the west side pub (Jerry's Cove, then) where he was well-liked and always good company. A group of us at the time were friends. Condolences to Carola and Mark's family.
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Manori Ravindran
I am deeply saddened to learn about the death of film scholar and critic Mark Harris. He taught my first-ever film studies course at UBC and introduced me to Woody Allen, Annie Hall and the world of cinema. I am certain I'm better off for having been in his presence those brilliant afternoons in a darkened theatre. You will be sorely missed, Dr. Harris.
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Tony Montague
Mark was an exceptional human being in many respects. He had an incredible knowledge not just of cinema but the whole breadth of culture and the arts, he was warm, witty, very kind to animals - and will be sorely missed. The like of him will not be seen again.
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Charles Campbell
Mark was a very dear human being. It was a privilege to work with him, and to know him in the years since. He was kind, modest and one of the funniest writers the Straight's ever had. He wrote about film with as much authority as anyone, and he often challenged me to reexamine my own view. I deeply enjoyed his often contrarian outlook. He was always curious about obscure brilliance, and took real pleasure in showing us things we otherwise might not have seen. He never hesitated to offer a firm opinion. Once the Straight was sued (unsuccessfully) by a filmmaker for a review that began "Have you ever seen a movie with a credit for a location psychic? If you're lucky, the answer will be never." He was a fantastic film critic. My heart goes out to Mark's sweetheart Carola, his friends and family and his colleagues at UBC and the Straight, where he's been such a mainstay.
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Rachel Fox
I am very, very sad to read about this. I went back to UBC as an adult; Mark was my first film prof in a summer course and he was fantastic. I had him several times and have many fond memories of his lectures and classes. I'd see him at press screenings occasionally, and though I was a little shy about it I did re-introduce myself and we chatted; I think he remembered me. He was generous and engaging. And he will be missed.
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David Hauka
Mark Harris will be greatly missed.
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Brian McIlroy
I am still in a bit of shock since I was in email contact with Mark only a couple of days ago. He was our colleague at UBC since 1989 in the film studies program. I even "supervised" (Mark did not need nor could be supervised!) his MA thesis on the theme of love in the films of Francois Truffaut. His love of French films was infectious; his love and passion for cinema in all its forms remarkable. But most of all, as Charles Campbell says above, he was not just an enthusiastic person with an encyclopedic knowledge, and rapier wit, but an extremely kind and supportive person. He taught thousands of students at UBC and turned them on to film. In many ways, he was our unique ambassador. My sincere condolences to Carola and his friends and colleagues at the Georgia Straight.
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Jen Ray
Thank you for making my university experience one filled with amazing movies, stories, and laughter. Thank you for inspiring me to love films. Thank you for genuinely wanting to share your passion about film, making others' lives more full through the art that you loved so much.

This article quoted Mark's review of Rust and Bone (which I was privileged to watch at the same VIFF screening and hear his laugh above all others in the crowd, of course in a section of particularly dark humour): "Because of its radical originality, Rust and Bone is not a film you are likely to compare to other movies. Instead, in the fullness of time, other movies will most likely be compared to it."

Mark is an example of that in regards to people. He was so intelligent, so hilarious, and so clearly a teacher because of his desire to pass on what he had found to be a secret of happiness and enlightenment in his life.

You were gone too soon, and too suddenly. We already miss you so much in the department.

You are a legend. To paraphrase the awful Asian subtitles from last semester: I am "damn unsatisfied [you] died in this way."
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anonymous
I had the pleasure of taking some of his classes as an undergraduate and of being one of his teaching assistants for a couple of terms. The world is definitely a little darker without him in it. My deepest sympathies to his wife Carola.
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Caitlin Byrnes
So sad to hear of the passing of my all time favourite Professor. What an astonishingly brilliant man he was...with a passion for cinema as unbridled as his hair. I will never forget his classes...my introduction to Buster Keaton, how hard he laughed during some extremely strange erotic scenes during an early morning screening of Pasolini's 'Arabian Nights', the joy he took in sparking debate about any given film. I was always so overwhelmed by his wit and his vast knowledge of so many subjects...film, literature, religion, philosophy. A true original and one of the most wonderful human beings I have had the pleasure to be taught by. You will be missed, Dr. Harris.
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Matthew Parsons
I took a class with Mark Harris last semester. He was a superb lecturer and an insightful writer.. Film criticism and scholarship has suffered a great loss
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Martin Dunphy
I am truly staggered. My wife woke me to take a call, and this was the news.
I have edited Mark's reviews and features for the better part of two decades. It is hard to believe that I will never again sit down and see his raw copy on the screen. The day before he left us, I sent Mark an email responding to a message he had sent to colleagues advising them of his recent lymphoma diagnosis. He sounded optimistic, and very practical, about the treatment and what he considered to be pretty good odds.
And they were.
I shared with him something Harold Pinter had said when he was being treated for his own cancer, something about how the disease was really just "cells that have forgotten how to die". I thought he would appreciate it and wrote: "Well, here’s to us all--and especially to those currently harbouring the senescent little bastards--learning their secret while keeping their influence down to a minimum."
I also referred to life as a "capricious bastard". I thought Mark would appreciate the sentiment and wondered the next day why I hadn't heard back from him. He was always prompt in responding.
Now I know why. And now I think capricious is far too kind a word.
I am so sorry for you, Carola. Mark knew exactly how lucky he was to have found you. More than once he mentioned how you put up with him "just stopping by" to see if there was anything "interesting" playing at the Fifth Avenue on the way home from UBC. Like he didn't know.
Besides his unquestioned expertise in films of all types, other people have mentioned Mark's kindness, generosity, and cheery demeanour. Above all, he was such a genuinely nice human being.
When I told my family the news, my youngest son said: "Wasn't he that really nice man we met when we went to see Hunger Games?"
Yes, Liam.
That really nice man.
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Angelabsurdist
I met Mark at Jerry's Cove when I was a precoucious, gaullois smoking, New Yorker reader, Tequila Sunrise drinking teenager. He overheard me quoting Goddard. Mark finished the quote and an unlikely friendship began.
That summer on the roof top of Jerry's we discussed every French director alive or dead. He loved listening to my stories of growing up in Spain,the stories of love and passion,the stories of Spanish directors.
He was fascinated with my obsession with Ennio Morricone. He said I was the first girl he'd ever met who loved Morricone. We lost touch with one another as I went off to Mexico for six or seven months. We met again at a showing of a (French) film a few years later. It was as if our conversation continued on uninterrupted. Condolonces to Carola Ackery and Avoir, Mark.

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Steve
RIP Professor Harris. I may never come across an individual who truly lived and breathed what he studied. Not only UBC but the world lost a very special man.
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Ian Hanington
This is very sad news. You could always tell when Mark entered the room, as he spoke in a loud voice - which probably made him a great professor. And you were always glad when he entered the room, as he was such a charming, interesting and kind person. I'm glad to have worked with Mark for many years and to have gotten to know him somewhat outside of work. He was a good man and will be missed. My heart goes out to Carola.
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Kevin Dale McKeown
Not only was Mark the finest film critic it was ever my pleasure to engage at a couple of publications over the years, but another gift he brought to our several ventures together was an astonishing skill at proofreading.

During the last couple of years of the Western News not a single stick of type made it into print until it had been vetted by Mark's eagle eye .... from the front page headlines to the classified ads.

Thank you Mark, for always so generously sharing your humour and your talent.
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Peg Campbell
I will miss Mark and his reviews. I had the privilege to be his student and learned more about non-Hollywood horror films than I ever knew I needed to know. And surprisingly, I use that knowledge regularly!
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Craig Takeuchi
In addition to his voluminous knowledge of cinema, he had such an admirable generosity of spirit. As passionate as he was about film, he was as equally enthusiastic about sharing what he had learned with others. His choice of profession as a university professor and his role as a movie reviewer clearly reflected that desire.
He seemed to truly enjoy giving, as proven by his willingness to chat or write about film, even without monetary compensation.
Behind the scenes, his drive was also evident in his professional dedication, from promptly meeting deadlines to his frequent pitching of ideas.
His extensive comprehension of foreign cinema (as well as domestic multicultural films) also revealed his great interest in crosscultural understanding.
In these ways, Mark built bridges: between the world of arthouse films and readers, between languages and cultures, and between students and cinema.
Our world is a better place because of what he contributed to it.
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Kyle Wells
Mark Harris brought enthusiasm, eccentricity and an incredible wealth of knowledge and insight to his film classes. I have a hard time thinking of a single person that taught me more about the art of cinema, and in such a wide range of genres and national cinemas. The best film class I ever took was Harris' auteur theory where we covered the films of David Cronenberg and Dario Argento. Who else but Harris would design a course like that? His loss is deep and I only feel sorry for future film students who will not have the joy of being in his classes. Thank you Mark, you touched my life.
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The Cinematheque
We at The Cinematheque are shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Mark Harris. Mark was program director here in the 1980s, and in the years since we have often availed ourselves of his great knowledge of and infectious enthusiasm for cinema. Whenever we needed an expert on French cinema, Mark was our go-to guy! As a film critic, he always made it a point to champion worthy European and international cinema. And whenever I encountered Mark at a cocktail party, he was always bubbling over with ideas for great film programs, great film series. I don’t think he ever stopped thinking like a film programmer! Mark was well-liked by all who knew him and he will be missed by everyone in the Vancouver film community. Our condolences to Carola and to all of Mark’s loved-ones and friends.
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