For Mark Harris (1951-2013) a eulogy by Brian McIlroy

Mark Harris

Mark Harris

The word eulogy is from the ancient Greek, meaning praise or good words, spoken or written for one who has recently died. I knew Mark Harris for nearly 24 years, and I have nothing but good words to impart.  Sadly, the man, noted lately for his Tilleyesque hat and an urban safari sartorial splendour, has left the cinema for the very last time. We miss him greatly, and find it hard to believe we will not hear again his enthusiastic cascade of words and his good-hearted yet slightly sneaky laughter.

Mark grew up in Montreal, started university studies there, dropped out, and came out to Vancouver in the 1970s. He began working for the Georgia Straight and had an appointment as programmer for the Pacifique Cinematheque in its early days. He also belonged to an informal writers group. When I first met Mark, he had just come up from Wreck Beach, his hair still wet from a swim, and a Balzac novel under his arm. Who was this aging hippie?, I wondered to myself.  I was fortunate to find out.

I taught him in undergraduate film studies classes in 1989-1990 when he had a year as a qualifying MA student; I supervised his directed readings on such films as Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, one of his all-time favourites, and eventually “looked after” his MA thesis on the theme of love in the films of François Truffaut, a work and degree that he completed in 1992. He then went on to enter the UBC Comparative Literature Ph.D. program from which he graduated in 1998, and for which he was awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal for the best Ph.D. dissertation that year.  I served as one of the university examiners for that dissertation, and was simply impressed that no question could silence Mark. He always spoke from a position of absolute knowledge and conviction.

While he was embarked on his Ph.D., he taught various undergraduate courses in film studies for the Department of Theatre and Film.  In those early days, I recall assigning him courses on film noir, the history of film, silent cinema, and advanced seminars on Truffaut, Godard and Hitchcock. As the years went by, he was regularly found teaching the introduction to film studies course and at least two third and fourth-year seminars, with topics of his own choice, whether they were “The films of 1939,”  “Partisan films,”   “Fellini and Antonioni,” or “low budget British filmmaking.”  I could always rely on Mark to be game to try a new course, as he did with one I designed in 2012, entitled Introduction to Asian Cinema. And when I created an online Irish cinema and culture course in 2001, Mark became its steady and reliable instructor. In a recent Departmental review of teaching, this particular course was specifically noted for its high level of student satisfaction, most of which was due to Mark’s dedication as a teacher. Even when he was on holiday in some sunny place with his beloved wife Carola, he always checked in on his online course, providing comments and support for students. Little did they know he had just swum across the Blue Lagoon in Malta.

In addition to his work at UBC, he was a fixture as a senior film reviewer for the Georgia Straight, with European films, particularly French, as his specialty. He was also a prolific speaker in the community, a natural sign of his generosity of spirit. He gave talks to seniors groups, taught evening courses for the Vancouver School Board, spoke at regular intervals at the Pacifique Cinematheque and Vancity Film Theatre, championed the European Film Festival and was often invited to speak at a range of cultural events and institutes. Further to this busy life, he wrote both academic and creative work—he was working on a tome on South Korean cinema at the time of his passing, while also assembling an appendix of cultural representations of Caligula for a revised biography by Dr. Anthony Barrett.  In the early days, when Mark applied for a teaching position at UBC he would include samples of his creative work, mostly poems.  Just for fun I think. He also won an award for his playwriting and told me with barely suppressed pride he had entered the three-day novel writing contest. For Mark, it was a feat of concentration and creativity, a challenge that deeply appealed to him.

Mark was famous for speaking about films and filmmakers for hours at a stretch with no need for notes. In his own words, he likened his style and approach to that of a tent-pole preacher. He had an encyclopedic knowledge as well as an amazing recall of scenes and sequences. In my first class at UBC in 1989, which I taught on genre films and theory, he rubbed shoulders with future successful critics and filmmakers Katherine Monk, Mina Shum, Bruce Sweeney and Sylvie Peltier. Of course, he was the top student even in that illustrious group. One moment for me still stands out. In an early seminar, I felt the students were misreading a particular scene, and I asked them to describe the visual order of a montage sequence. Mark astonished everyone with his ability to recall the montage sequence and get every shot correct, and in the right order.  It was as if he was reading the storyboard in his mind. A few days before he died, he emailed me to say that he thought he had found a strong (partial) argument against Alfred Hitchcock’s presumed misogyny, as well as considerable evidence to suggest that the character Albert (Jeanne Moreau’s back-up lover in Jules et Jim) is supposed to be Guillaume Apollinaire on every level. These connective tissues and slightly heretical views were quintessentially Mark. He was irrepressible, a veritable fountain of ideas.

In his last ten years, it was crystal clear that Mark saw his teaching and lecturing as his vocation, with his deepest desire that through his efforts students would become as obsessed about cinema as he was. His courses were packed with nuggets of information and, yes, some of them may well have been best left on the cutting room floor (!), but to experience Mark lecturing in full flight, particularly about a subject he cared about, peppered with his risqué jokes, a child-like wondrous excitement imprinted on his face, was to be in that special radiant moment where it was only possible to describe him with two good words: passionate brilliance.

Brian McIlroy, March 2013