Something You’re Not Supposed to Look At: Christopher Harris Interviewed by Andrew Northrop

The filmmaker discusses his resurgent work still/here and the examination of landscape and history through the lens of race.

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Still from Christopher Harris’s still/here, 2001. Courtesy of the artist.

Shot on 16 mm film as a student project and completed in 2001, Christopher Harris’s still/here sits somewhere between a city symphony and an essay film exploring notions of domesticity and representation. Weaving together the worn-down buildings in Harris’s hometown of Saint Louis, still/here creates characters out of jettisoned bricks, disused social buildings, and domestic items now seen as antiques, all of which have taken on such forms due to the unfair composition of the United States.

Harris has continued to investigate notions of representation in later works, fusing elements from documentary with avant-garde filmmaking. Besides teaching at the University of Iowa, he’s presented films at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Vienna International Film Festival, Edinburgh International Film Festival, and as part of various symposiums, installations, and group shows. Though still/here has been screened on occasion, recent pairings alongside newer works by Harris as well as his participation in critical forums such as 2018’s Flaherty Seminar have afforded it a resurgence of interest.

Speaking after a screening of the film at the Essay Film Festival in London and prior to its upcoming appearance at the Locarno Film Festival’s Black Light Retrospective, Harris reflects on issues of representation explored within the film, the recent resurgence of interest in it, and its relationship to his later work.

—Andrew Northrop

Andrew Northrop Something that struck me while watching your film was its commentary on the ways in which mainstream media portray certain urban areas. As a white viewer, I was really aware of my position as a spectator. Would you mind speaking a bit about the spectator’s role while watching the film.

Christopher Harris I’m glad that you were aware of the conventional coding that you’ve been cultivated to expect, especially in the position of a white viewer and in regard to these kinds of locations. There’s an essay about the film by Terri Francis (in Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, edited by Mia Mask [2011]) where she wrote about how in the so-called “hood films” of the early ’90s—like Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Juice (1992)—the urban landscape gets inscribed in a certain way; and as it becomes a setting for the dramatic narrative, that inscription recedes into the backdrop. Those narratives are heavily coded, and they do bring a certain expectation of the dysfunctional.

Francis also pointed out the reversal of those roles in still/here: relegating the drama, narrative, and actors to the background—or absenting them altogether—and bringing the setting forward in order to see it anew. Even when you see something in film that’s quite constructed and artificial, you often read it as if it is some kind of anthropological artifact. Hollywood films can become a stand-in for a kind of documentary realism in that way. It was important to me to undercut that as much as possible. And I do think that this extreme reversal makes it difficult to watch the film without being quite aware of your spectatorial address or position. I strive to explode what is understood as coherent and to inscribe a new kind of language in which fragments don’t fully cohere. But it’s exactly through this lack of coherence that the meaning—or the viewer’s impression—is felt or understood. I want my films to work on the subjectivity, consciousness, and experience of the viewer.

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Photo by Robert Goodman. Courtesy of The Flaherty.

AN What was structuring the film like, especially in regard to balancing issues of representation throughout? 

CH For me, race is inscribed on the landscape and the built environment, so it’s in every frame. I wanted to signpost it here and there so that the viewer might rethink all those spaces in which they hadn’t previously been thinking about race. I thought about the film in terms of movements or sections, and everything that’s mentioned in the prologue’s voiceover appears in the film at some point or another. On the first viewing the spectator may not necessarily recognize it, but I structured it that way quite consciously.

AN The moment in the museum with the touchscreen that reads, “Why can’t I choose my race?” really stands out. I think if you weren’t thinking about race at all before that, you’d very much start to think of it there. All of the artifacts of domestic life in the museum feel very significant given that you don’t see people corporeally in the film.

CH I think of those sections as the inside-out of the ruins you see earlier. You see these abandoned spaces, and then later you see their architectural elements—bricks, decorative pieces, this angel figure that looks like it was on the facade of a grand building, doorknobs in a case. The museums, archives, and historical societies house and care for these formerly housed things, but the towns themselves and the people who inhabited them are neglected or abandoned. These spaces become homogenized; there’s a certain cleansing of the historical record that happens. Then with that touchscreen you run up against a wall in the historical record, and the question is more interesting than the answer to me: Why can’t I choose my race and examine history through the lens of race?

There are these grand objects that harken back to the Gilded Age and a certain image that a city has of itself, and then there’s the fact that people got up every day, lived and died, made breakfast. That’s what the voiceover says at the beginning. I got a lot out of that sequence. It brought things together in my mind. The day-to-day minutia makes its way back into the film through the sound design, with audio of people handling dishes and cooking food. I wanted to add that in as a lived presence that isn’t recognized by historical records—the ordinary, banal moments of existence.

AN The opening combination of the bass-driven musical score alongside the faster editing of that sequence feels really distinctive, especially when the score returns from time to time as the only piece of music. How did that come about? 

CH I tried a lot of things—some Arvo Pärt music, for instance—and while it was really great, I don’t think I could have gotten the licensing to use it. But fortunately, there’s a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who is a well-known bassist. He gave me CDs of his solo bass music, and I chose that piece. I just felt like it had that right kind of blues sound, and it had that mournfulness. I like it because it sets up a certain kind of mood or atmosphere. It goes away for long stretches of time, but there are flashes of it that come back. The music mostly bookends the film.

When you’re in school, especially in a program that’s more experimental, using music is scary. For a while people didn’t use music at all because it was considered too manipulative, too prescriptive of emotion. I said, screw it; let it be what it is. I thought the other parts of the film were armoured enough so that it wouldn’t overpower the entire film to have music used in that way. I think you can do whatever you want as long as it functions among what else you’re doing.

AN We see the Criterion Theater in the film a lot, too. Did you have a personal connection to that theater?

CH I actually didn’t know of its existence. Joel Wanek, who worked on the film with me, told me about it, and it wouldn’t be the same film without it. Originally there were two abandoned places I wanted to get into. There was Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which served the black community in Saint Louis, and an elementary school that had been shuttered. But the cinema works much better for this film, being that it is a film. 

The one thing that all three of those places had in common is that they were social spaces. The hospital, the school, and the cinema are all about the collective imaginary or sense of self. They’re how one learns to be a member of a society. I used to ask my students, “How do you know that candlelight and flowers are romantic?” and they wouldn’t really have an answer, so I’d say, “Look, no one ever sat you down and told you that. You know because you watch movies!” The pedagogy of how to be a member of society is often formed in the cinema. The Criterion Theater was the profound space of the film for me.

Excerpts from still/here by Christopher Harris, 2001. Cinematography by Christopher Harris and Joel Wanek. Shot on 16 mm film. 60 minutes. Courtesy of Joel Wanek on Vimeo.

ANThe film is nearly two decades old, and you mentioned at the screening that it has seen a bit of a resurgence in the past few years. Could you say more about that?

CH The initial response was small but terribly supportive. Then, around 2011 there was Francis’s piece on it, and there was also a piece in Cinemascope about my work that mentioned still/here in particular. This was, to me, the beginning of a reassessment of the film—a wider awareness of the film, more accurately. The next major thing was the Flaherty Seminar. There was a critical mass of filmmakers, writers, and programmers there, and people were like, “Where the hell has this film been? Why don’t I know it?” I chalk it up to the fact that it was my first film. I was a complete unknown, and it’s just not customary for programmers to take a chance on a sixty-minute first film by an unknown in a festival context.

AN How do you think about still/here in relation to your practice since?

CH I do think that there are certain threads and correspondences between some of my works, formally. There’s a film I made later about when I lived in Florida called Sunshine State (Extended Forecast) (2007) which uses a static frame and duration held against attenuated movement in a way that is similar to still/here. There’s a certain part of me that’s drawn to the small and the barely noticeable. It’s that focus on an ephemeral moment that I’m really attracted to. I think a lot of filmmakers probably are, because you’re recording something that is forever lost anyway. It’s not a dramatic moment; it’s not something that you see over and over or something that gets a lot of attention paid to it. It’s just that offhand, ephemeral moment or gesture, something that you’re not supposed to look at or not told to look at. 

still/here will be screened on August 13 as part of the Locarno Film Festival’s Black Light Retrospective. Harris is also involved in the Wexner Center for the Art’s Cinetracts ’20 program.  

Andrew Northrop is a film journalist based in London. His interests include archives, film formats, restoration, essay films, and coming of age/“slacker” narratives.

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