Georgia Straight movie critic and UBC instructor Mark Harris remembered by student
It’s truly hard to believe that Mark Harris was a mortal being. As a friend remarked when we heard the news of his passing: “The film demigod just isn’t supposed to die.”
I first sat in one of Mark’s lectures just over a year ago, jaw unhinged as he delivered what would be one of many wonderfully tangential trips into the world of cinema. Perhaps it was a projected nostalgia, but I knew at that moment he would be a defining figure in my development as a student.
There was something different about him. He had an authenticity that shook me and an unconventional approach to the material that intimidated me. I wondered: how could someone be so consumed by a subject as to extract the obscure connections and insight that he did with regularity?
But this sense of intimidation was born of awe and respect rather than a fear of inadequacy, and it was clear from the beginning that none of his students should feel that way. He offered the paradox of being both intimidating yet approachable. The “no stupid questions” rule applied in his class, making everyone feel validated with his ability to find worth in the seemingly unimportant and banal.
Each class was a different ride. Many times, you could never quite figure out what you were learning until the end of his lecture, when he would come full circle with his expertly constructed closing remark. It was only then you would realize that he had tricked you into thinking critically, one time doing so by explaining the difficulties associated with navigating dark art-house theatres under the influence of psychedelic drugs.
His lectures would build in intensity like a theatrical performance, his grey ponytail flailing back and forth as he gesticulated, rambling about his love for the French film journal Positif or the misogyny of Sam Peckinpah.
In a memorable lesson on thinking differently about the past, Mark enthusiastically explained—with his signature approach—our misunderstanding of Greek architecture: “Greek temples were not the austere, white minimalist structures that we see them as today,” he remarked. “In reality, the Greeks painted their temples like Surrey bikers paint their fuck wagons.” One might be surprised to learn that this solidified the ideas of that week’s lecture on Chinese cinema.
Approaching the end of semester, many would lament that Mark’s exams were unpredictable and impossible to study for, being comprised of questions related to something mentioned only momentarily in his diatribes. But those tests were not designed to place students in a crippling state of anxiety. Rather, Mark placed value on obscure details and perspectives because they demonstrated an understanding of the material within a larger context.
There were always two sides to a story, he maintained. One time, in response to a complaint that students were using their phones during film screenings, Mark sent out an email encouraging the offenders to “virtually shoot up” outside of the theatre. He conceded, however, that full blame could not be placed on those students as, ultimately, they were the “hapless victims of gizmo-dealing hucksters”.
Mark certainly shattered any cynicism I had about academia, his obsession with the material transcending the pretension and bureaucracy that seem normally to come with the territory. He said what he felt, regardless of standard operating procedure, and it was this approach to his teaching that made it so valuable to me. It was clear from the beginning that all he really wanted was to instill in his students the same passion for film that he had, and out of this came an educational experience that I wish I could better describe.
Perhaps what is most tragic about Mark’s passing is that with his loss, all of the potentially groundbreaking, half-formed ideas floating in his head have also been lost. Even with the thousands of pieces of work that he managed to produce in his writing and reviewing career, it seems as though there was so much more that he would have written down given the time.
That is tragic not only on a personal level but within the wider field of film scholarship. To think that future film students at UBC will never have the opportunity to experience Mark on-stage, in an all-khaki, urban-safari ensemble, lamenting the death of 35mm film and celebrating the birthday of the Oreo cookie is very sad.
I have often fantasized about Mark watching one of my films in the future, rain jacket draped over his body, reclined in a theatre seat and laughing with vigour at unpredictable moments. I think a positive review from him would have been enough for me to feel like a valid contributor to the lexicon of film.
Mark once told me he would crawl on his hands and knees through shattered glass for miles just to have the opportunity to see a rare Bollywood film he had read about once.
Although he said it said with his trademark levity, I can’t help but believe there was some truth to the statement. That spelled it out perfectly for me: Mark consumed film as if it were a necessity for human life.
And to anyone who sat in a lecture hall with eyes fixated on his wild gesturing, he made you believe it.