Film scholar and critic Mark Harris remembered at UBC memorial

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      Laughter, hugs, a few tears, and some great film moments were on the shooting schedule at a memorial for film scholar and long-time Georgia Straight movie reviewer Mark Harris on Saturday (April 6).

      And, no, they didn’t forget the Oreos.

      Harris, who died of a pulmonary embolism on February 26 at age 62, was remembered by colleagues, students, and friends at the event, organized by UBC’s department of theatre and film to remember its former student and instructor, especially for those unable to attend a March 10 memorial held at Mountain View Cemetery.

      Clips from some of Harris’s favourite films started the proceedings, held in a theatre at UBC’s Chan Centre before moving to a lounge for a reception. For more than an hour, attendees enjoyed scenes from such classic films as The 400 Blows, Ran, Apocalypse Now (which contains, Harris once wrote, "the second-best edited sequence in the history of motion pictures"), Ikiru, and Cinema Paradiso, movie masterpieces from some of Harris’s most admired directors.

      Speakers who addressed the audience afterward spoke of Harris’s passion for both film and teaching, his sense of humour, and his infectious enthusiasm. Others touched on his scholarly accomplishments—his 1992 UBC master’s in film studies, his 1998 Ph.D in comparative literature (for which he won the Governor General’s Gold Medal), his almost 4,000 articles and film reviews produced during decades of critical review—and his inspirational classroom demeanour and antics.

      Film-studies professor Brian McIlroy remarked on how it never seemed to matter which aspect of film or film history was the subject of the courses he helped design for Harris to teach.

      “He would teach anything we threw at him, and he seemed to enjoy it,” McIlroy reminisced.

      McIlroy also announced that a scholarship has been established in Harris’s memory and that it will be open to graduate and undergraduate students in the film-studies program. He added, fittingly, that qualifications for prospective applicants would include not only academic “promise” but “a passion for film”. (For more information on the Mark Harris Memorial Scholarship in Film Studies, to donate, and to read more about Harris’s accomplishments or to leave a memory or picture, go to

      Babak “Bobby” Tabarraee, a former international student and Harris teaching assistant, spoke about how he was initially distressed to see what he thought of as disrespectfully casual attitudes displayed by Harris’s pupils but soon came to realize that the “students were drawn to him like a magnet”.

      He said one lesson he learned from his teaching experience with Harris was: “Be passionate about whatever you are doing and people will want to join you.”

      A student who identified herself as just Patty talked about how Harris was enthusiastic about all of his students’ questions, no matter how seemingly off-topic (in particular, one involving Wayne Gretzky when the class discussion was on the use of makeup in the film classic Metropolis): “Anything you said mattered as long as you showed interest.”

      Former Georgia Straight editor Charles Campbell touched on Harris’s love of mischief (“but mischief of the best kind”) and how although he didn’t always agree with Harris's critiques, “he was always the movie reviewer I learned the most from.” He added: “Occasionally, he turned all that knowledge into scathing reviews.”

      “I always thought of him as a film reviewer who also taught…” Campbell remarked, “but he was really a teacher who wrote film reviews.” Afterward, Campbell said he regrets never having taken one of Harris's classes.

      Harris’s wife, Carola Ackery, gave a brief but emotional speech in which she said that some of her husband’s greatest legacies were in teaching his students to be “excited about thinking for yourself” and that “all knowledge, great and trivial, can be useful in making a point”.

      Which brings us to the Oreos.

      As explained by an organizer of the event and former student of Harris’s, he was fond of sometimes spinning lengthy yarns, seemingly unrelated to the day’s teaching material, that he would, ultimately, somehow bring to bear on the subject at hand.

      One day, prior to screening a film at a lecture, Harris announced that it was the 100th anniversary of the invention of the Oreo cookie, and he proceeded to distribute "hundreds" of the famous baked snacks to his students to munch on throughout the film. The student said she couldn’t remember exactly what connection the cookies held to the movie in question but she assured attendees that they were, in fact, relevant.

      The famous Oreos, therefore, held pride of place on the food table at the subsequent reception, where guests nibbled on vegetarian snacks, listened to live guitar stylings, and exchanged favourite Harris stories.

      Watch the Straight in coming weeks for a presentation of some of Harris’s best lines from his reviews--scathing, praising, or in-between--of the past two decades.