An interview with experimental filmmaker Christopher Harris
This interview took place in March 2013 and was initially part of my written thesis in the MFA Experimental and Documentary Arts program at Duke University. Christopher Harris is an Associate Professor and Head of Film + Video Production at the University of Iowa, a 2015 Creative Capital and 2017 Alpert/MacDowell Fellowship awardee, and a longtime friend and collaborator.
JW: Let me give you the gist of what I'm doing. For our written thesis we have to write about ourselves and our practice and our own work. So what I thought I would do is talk to other people that have influenced me and shaped who I am as an artist, and talk about my own work through their work, so to speak.
CH: I didn't realize I had an influence on you. Seriously. I figured we influenced each other as much as anything. Working together on still/here — I thought you were a big part of that.
JW: As I look back, you've been a big influence on me. You really showed me how to combine multiple influences. Your approach is very omni rather than anti anything. There's no way of working that is not valid, every approach is valid. It's not like you work in a certain genre and you're dedicated to the parameters or tropes of that genre.
CH: I have to say that you had a big influence on me because I was trying to work and make feature films in a post-Godardian way. I was really influenced by him - still am to some extent. At that point I hadn't really seen much experimental film and I didn't really understand what they were. But the program you did at Webster [University] with Robert Breer, Ernie Gehr and others. Man, I have never forgotten 'Shift'. I think I rented it once and showed it in a class and it was more powerful than I remembered it. I don't understand it but that film doesn't get talked about as much as some of his others. The program that you did opened my eyes to the idea that you could work more like a painter. That it was possible and maybe I could work that way. The straw that broke the camel's back was the film that you helped me with where the actors wouldn't show up. Unless you can pay actors, which I'm very rarely able to do, it's not worth it. That was the first time I was conscious of experimental film and and thought about it is a serious practice.
JW: Would you say that you left all your interest in narrative film aside. Because you're interested in all kinds of stuff. How does your interest in mainstream or narrative films enter your work or does it?
CH: This film of mine called Descending Figures doesn't necessarily have narrative but I have used the narrative of the passion play as a structuring device. Even though there are more important things about it that are non-narrative, there is narrative present because I didn't rearrange the chronology of the events. I distorted them quite a bit but the narrative goes from beginning to end without me intervening in any of it. So for example the performance begins with Christ in the garden at midnight and the Romans come and take him away, he's crucified, he's buried, the women visit the tomb, he's resurrected and then he ascends. The order of their performance is the order of my film. Since I was going to be fragmenting it in so many other ways, it was a way for me to organize what to shoot next.
JW: So it can function as a bit of a documentary on a certain level.
CH: Kind of, yes. It's funny. People have weird feelings about that. Some have said it is documentary and then it is not. When I showed in San Francisco, right after the screening Craig Baldwin told me he thought it is a documentary but its not at the same time. He thought the [film] flares rescued it from being simply a document. Then he started talking about religious paintings, murals, frescoes and stained glass which is exactly what I wanted people to think about. I wanted to evoke that with this debased, banal, trivial way of representing that. You wouldn't necessarily get this from watching the film but I like the idea that I am at a theme park where actors are performing these roles for money with headsets and cheap props. This is a really vulgar attempt, for lack of a better word (I don't mean it to sound judgmental), of something sacred or transcendent that, because of the way I shot and filmed it can call to mind Michelangelo, da Vinci, you know, great Italian Renaissance painters of the same subject matter. What they were doing was high and exalted but what they're doing [the subjects in my film] is so pedestrian. I use narrative in really practical ways. With experimental film you can do whatever you want, essentially. The way I approach things is to force some decisions on myself. So I decided to do what I wanted but I would follow the chronology of this performance.
JW: So you decided to work within certain limits or boundaries?
CH: Right. Outside of those particular limits, I could do whatever I want but I have to adhere to that set of limits too. I talk to my avant-garde cinema class about this problem of limits. For example, when you look at a Pollock painting it looks like he did whatever he wanted. But if you really look closely, he did whatever he wanted within a circumscribed field. First of all, obviously, there is the rectangle of the canvas. Also, this sounds kind of counter-intuitive, he only dripped paint. If you say, “make a painting but only drip paint”, that is a severe limit. Outside of that limit he had incredible freedom and he could perform almost an infinite number of variations within a rectangular canvas, only dripping paint.
JW: It makes me think of improvisational music. Is it a conscious effort on your part to be working in that way?
CH: Well, yes it is, now more so than ever. I am doing a series of in-camera films that are improvised, edited in-camera. One film I made, Bedouin Spark, I consciously was trying to vary the visual rhythms in the way I think of Cecil Taylor's rhythmic approach. For example, he's talked about playing music like architecture - he loves and is very influenced by architecture and dance. He thinks of his playing as a dance. I was trying to think of my piece as a Cecil Taylor solo, so that I would start out with one direction, one rhythm and sharply break that off and go in a different rhythmic direction in a related way, then go back to the initial rhythm. You know how he does those solos where he's breaking off in the middle of a thought sometimes? Does that make sense?
JW: Right, he'll develop multiple ideas and go back to them occasionally and build them up separately. Then they may all become one large idea at times.
CH: Yes, they are kind of in conversation with each other. So, I was just trying to play around rhythmically. I love when Cecil Taylor does a really fast run, compressing a lot of information in a small amount of space then, all of a sudden, he'll leave a lot of empty space next to it.
JW: One time I heard Roscoe Mitchell talk about the way he solos and it was very illuminating for me in how I thought about his work. He said he wanted to make sound three dimensional the way a sculptor makes an object in three dimensions.
CH: When I hear him play I definitely see shapes, especially the relationship between silence and sound. I see the shape in space of his notes. The sound of his notes make a shape in space. I definitely can see that. When you talk about improvisation it makes me think a lot of my new piece that I've been developing at the Wexner Center. I worked with a performer in this film for the first time in a long time. She is a dancer. She improvised dance movements and I improvised the camera work and I thought it was really successful. I had set parameters: real time, hand cranking and single framing. Those were the three things I had at my disposal and within that I improvised with those in tandem to what she was doing. Again, I think of it musically, I think of it as an improvisation. I am dealing with those ideas more and more in my work.
JW: One of the things that I am grappling with in this thesis film of mine has to do with influence. Sun Ra is a big influence on how I have thought about making the film, particularly this alternative mythology that he created for himself. I am trying to figure out at what point do you just leave your influences aside and let it become what it becomes. How do you be influenced by something and not be too literal, you know? How do you negotiate those things?
CH: I think what I tend to do is take my influence and then leave it alone totally. I use the influence in a way that I know it's there but nobody else might know it's there. So, for example, go back to that same film... did you ever read that book by Nathaniel Mackey Bedouin Hornbook? So, I read this book and decided I was going to take a line related to light imagery and make a film based on that. But, unless I told you that, you would never know it from watching the film. The title, Descending Figures, is based on a line from Bedouin Hornbook about flickers and flares and that's where I started the film from.
JW: Why don't you want people to know that or make it more explicit?
CH: It's not that I don't want them to think of it. They can know it but I can't put that in the work. Well I shouldn't say I can't. I don't want to put that in the work. I guess I could have had an opening title with that line but you know where I put it? I put it in the description, put the line in the synopsis. I do give it to them. I do want people to know but that line isn't literally embodied or represented in the film. The relationship between my films and that book is very oblique and in truth the only connection between the film that I make and the book I took the line from is me. I am the thing that connects those two things. The film wouldn't exist without me and the film wouldn't exist without the book. And, for me, that is enough.
JW: The more that I've been thinking about it for my film, the more I've been shying away from any text at all. I'm trying to figure out how to use this idea of Sun Ra as developing an alternative reality for himself.
CH: See, I like to think of it more as developing an alternative mythology.
JW: Right, I guess a mythology as an alternative to Christianity and other ideas.
CH: Is that a question for you in terms of whether to make it explicit in the work?
JW: No, I am just trying to figure out how to use sound perhaps to suggest or create a different reality for the images. I want the images to be freed from reality, so to speak.
CH: I think that for this project it would be interesting if you pushed that idea pretty far. Signaling, cueing the viewer not to take a realist/naturalist/documentary view of the subjects in the film. Because with black people on the bus they are going to want to do that immediately. It's black people on the bus. What is more mundane than a bus with some black people on it? [laughing] There are very few images and spaces that are more quotidian and banalized in our consciousness. That's why I like what you're doing because you're taking something that is so natural or realistic that it is invisible. Almost as if we can't even see it when we look at it. What I think your images are asking us to do is to see it. The only way to see it is to make it mythological, you know what I'm saying? We don't look at our everyday lives on sort of mythological terms as if we're Greek heroes with the Gods actively involved in our lives on a moment-to-moment basis. Like going to work, driving down the street becomes like riding in a chariot. (laughing) We look at our lives - when I say "we" I mean modern culture, at least in the West where the loss of the spiritual has diminished the serious, profound sense of awe in the everyday.
JW: When you were talking about narrative a few minutes back I was thinking about my own process. When I first started making films again here in the past couple of years I set out to make work that resided within the confines of the documentary genre but with elements that worked against those restrictions too. Lately I have been looking at it more "omni" rather than against. So, nothing is off limits, everything is possible which has been very liberating for me. It's not really on my mind when I'm making work, it's something I've noticed in retrospect. Can you talk about your process, the gamut of your process - how you find subjects, how you decide what to work on, etc.?
CH: I don't know that I really have a process in terms of how I decide what to work on. I have a long backlist of projects I'd like to make and they all come to me in different ways. Some just happen because I see something everyday. It captures my attention and I can't get it out of my mind. Other things come from personal obsessions of mine. This new project is called the Delia Project and there are two things I can say about it. One is how I selected the subject and the other is similar to what we were talking about before in regards to an omniverse where nothing is foreign to the work. That hasn't been more true than ever than it has for this current work. Part of it, frankly, has to do with the fact that I'm working in video. I shot it on 16mm but I'm editing on video and I'm going to finish on video. I find it liberating because there are things I'm just pulling in, trying out, keeping some and rejecting others. I keep pulling in new ideas all the time and try them out because of the flexibility and freedom of editing in video. With film it's a commitment to transfer a bunch of audio, for instance, and then decide whether you want it or not. In terms of the way I selected to do this film... there are these daguerrotypes that I'm using. Do you remember Carrie Mae Weems' work with slave daguerrotypes? I am using source imagery from one of the daguerrotypes of a younger female slave that was included in that set and making a film about that. I am having a performer perform the role of the slave and am making a film about that. The thing that sparked was a brief run through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I saw a photo by a guy whose name I am blanking on right now. He does large format black-and-white portraits that are distorted... Anyway, I looked at this portrait and I instantly knew that I could use something like that in a film. And, that took me back to those daguerrotypes of Weems' which were really striking. That was a chance encounter.
JW: So, it's not necessarily a conscious effort to tackle a certain subject.
CH: No, not at all. There are things about the subject that appeal to me but they just call out for me to do something. I guess there's just this thing that you have, that I have which is a creative impulse that calls to be used or burned or expressed somehow. I just have to make it, there's something about it, you know? I may start something and then go off in another direction entirely. It both pushes and pulls me at the same time so it's not an entirely rational process. It's very intuitive. A lot of times I make a film in order to find out what I want to say. I don't have something I want to say and then make a film.
JW: It really makes me think of the whole idea of improvisation again. Improvisation is active at all levels of production.
CH: Very much so. You know, every film I have made has been made in the editing. Everything I have ever made has been made in the making of it. I don't start off with a map or a guide and then execute it. You hear about how Hitchcock would have all of these elaborately drawn story boards with every shot mapped out. I go out with a general idea, with some specific images in mind and others that occur to me on the spot. When I'm editing that general idea I started with can become totally different. Editing is where the film is made. That is why I also like editing in the camera because it combines the filming and editing in one process. For better or worse, if it works or it doesn't, with film I am committed to making this film at this time. It is a record of what I actually did.
JW: One thing that Alex Harris talks about a lot is how finding the right parameter or limit with a project allows for so much freedom.
CH: Right, it focuses your concentration or awareness in such a way that you become attuned to minute variations and possibilities. So, I think what a limit does for me is it allows me to see more. With no limits I actually see less. But, if you narrow or put certain blinders on me, put me in a box, I am going to see a universe in there. If you open it up and say, "the whole universe is yours, do whatever you want", I am going to be totally lost. For me, a work of art needs something to play off against, something that is prohibited or that you cannot do. So, a simple example... I took a boat tour in Chicago and improvised a film in-camera. The biggest limit I had, obviously, was that I couldn't leave that boat. So I had to pay attention to what I could see from the boat, on the boat. If I was just walking around the whole city of Chicago, it's like an entire universe where I could go on and on. For me limits impose tension and tension is where creativity comes.
JW: As someone who also brings text into your work — text can open up images or it can limit how they are interpreted. Do you have a particular process in how you bring text into your work?
CH: No, I don't worry about that too much. For example, with this new project I'm working on, it's quite text heavy. There's a lot of spoken text and there is a significant amount of text that appears on the screen. I don't really feel any limitations. Now, one of the reasons is probably because the approach I use, to some extent, is to really fragment some of the text. So, while it's particular, it's fragmented so there's spaces and gaps in how the text is composed. It's more like poetry than it is like a denoted prose that says one single idea. I try to use language in such a way that it has double meanings. That's, to me, how I open up and use language and text in a way that doesn't close down the reading. I try to use text that is evocative of more than one reading and that has multiple meanings. That is something for you to think about. Maybe that can be the thing, if you're going to use text, use text that specifically has multiple meanings embedded.
JW: That's important for me to develop those kinds of layers of complexity and multiple interpretations. When I was devising this approach to have conversations with folks for my thesis paper, I identified four or five characteristics I wanted in my own work which would be the focus of the dialogues. One of the characteristics was mystery or ineffability which is something I sense a lot of in your work.
CH: I don't know how much to say about that. It's a given for me, my real subject matter. In a way, that is the real subject matter of a lot of art: that which cannot be wholly grasped but can be pointed toward.