UBC film scholar and Georgia Straight movie critic Mark Harris dies

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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.

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nancy richardson

Feb 27, 2013 at 9:58pm

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.

Manori Ravindran

Feb 27, 2013 at 9:59pm

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.

Tony Montague

Feb 27, 2013 at 10:08pm

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.

Charles Campbell

Feb 27, 2013 at 10:14pm

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.

Rachel Fox

Feb 27, 2013 at 10:42pm

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.

David Hauka

Feb 27, 2013 at 11:06pm

Mark Harris will be greatly missed.

Brian McIlroy

Feb 27, 2013 at 11:18pm

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.

Jen Ray

Feb 27, 2013 at 11:24pm

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."

anonymous

Feb 27, 2013 at 11:51pm

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.

Caitlin Byrnes

Feb 28, 2013 at 12:25am

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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