Film Show 012: Christopher Harris
An interview with director Christopher Harris, whose new film 'Dreams Under Confinement' plays as part of this year's NYFF
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Christopher Harris is a filmmaker whose films and video installations read African American historiography through the poetics and aesthetics of experimental cinema. His work employs manually and photo-chemically altered appropriated moving images, staged re-enactments of archival artifacts, and interrogations of documentary conventions. His award-winning experimental films include a long-take look at a post-industrial urban landscape (2001’s still/here), an optically printed and hand-processed film about Black outlaws (2004’s Reckless Eyeballing), a pinhole film about the cosmic consequences of the sun’s collapse (2007’s (Sunshine State (Extended Forecast)), a macro lens close-up of a child’s nightlight (2009’s 28.IV.81 (Bedouin Spark)), and a double-projection film about a theme park performance of Christ’s Passion (2011’s 28.IV.81 (Descending Figures)). Harris’s latest film, Dreams Under Confinement, is playing as part of this year’s edition of NYFF, and juxtaposes police dispatcher audio with Google Earth images of Chicago. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Christopher Harris on April 20th, 2021 to discuss his filmography, capturing the spatiotemporal reality of Black people through film, the city of Chicago, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello! How are you doing? How’s your day been?
Christopher Harris: Hello. Way too many emails. Sorry I’m a little late. I was writing emails and I realized I had to make a couple of quick phone calls. And then I know that they’re going to be announcing the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, for murdering George Floyd. So there’s that happening. Otherwise? The usual. How are you?
Okay. Uh, well exhausted. I was talking with my students today and yesterday about Adam Toledo.
Oh yeah. Right. You’re not based in Chicago, are you?
I’m in the area, yeah.
Oh, you are. I didn’t realize that. I just imagined you were on the East Coast or something. Where do you teach?
I teach in a suburb north of Chicago called Skokie.
Well, I know Skokie. I lived in Chicago for a long time. I know I’ve been to Skokie once and I know it does have a historical significance there. I think there were some Nazis that marched there years ago? Is that the area you’re from, or do you just live there now?
Yeah, there was supposed to be a march during the ’70s. I’m from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. So, in the vicinity.
I see, so you’re a local, you’re not a transplant. Now what grade are the students?
I mostly teach sophomores. Out of all the public schools in Illinois, the school I’m at is one of, if not the most, ethnically diverse ones in the state. So, a lot of conversations about equity go on.
I’m sorry. Can you hang on just one second? [talking occurs in the background]. My wife was just telling me that the jury came back with guilty on all counts in the [Derek Chauvin] trial. And it came back quickly, too, she said 10 hours of deliberation. So anyway, where would you like to begin? (laughs).
You know, this is on my mind today, because I’m giving a presentation tomorrow for my science department. They’re letting me lead a discussion about equity.nI’m going to show them a quote from Pete Buttigieg that he made a few weeks ago saying there’s racism physically built into our highways, and then show maps of Chicago, the predominantly Black and white neighborhoods, and then show where the expressways were built, how that affected those neighborhoods and communities.
Then I’m going to show them a quote from [sociologist] Ernest Burgess, who wrote The City, in 1925. That book was really important in building the modern American city and his ideas are very much racist. It’s undeniable. And it got me thinking because I saw your interview where you talked about [D.W. Griffith’s] The Birth of a Nation, and how that film is shot and deals with white people, or those portrayed as white, and then those who are Black, but played by white people—I’m curious if there are things you see in the history of film beyond just that example, that you feel like are rooted in racist ideas. Are there people who had racist ideas that affected the way in which we think about film today, which we might not recognize?
I like that question. I’ve been thinking about that very question quite a bit, recently. One way of talking about it is the relationship between commercial cinematic language and the phenomenology of whiteness. In the current film that I’m working on, there’s this idea that there is a spatiotemporal way of being in the world that is coded around the idea of whiteness, that I would argue then gets coded into the language of commercial cinema in “continuity editing.”
There’s a parallel between the idea that there’s no place, for example, that whiteness is out of place. That space exists in order for whiteness to inhabit it. In a way that is the flip side of Blackness, that Blackness is always already out of place, and is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s gotten to the point where there’s almost like the memification of this idea where people talk about, “Can I be in my own bed without getting shot by the police?” No. “Can I walk down the street with an Arizona tea and Skittles without being shot?” No. “Can I–” y’know what I mean? (laughs). To the latest, “Can I have an air freshener hanging from my rear view window without being shot?”
[Whiteness] gets encoded into the language of cinema in a way that—and this is where it breaks down in terms of my ability to express it off the cuff—in a way that gets structured into continuity editing. Continuity editing creates a phenomenological experience for the viewer that is, in effect, analogous to the spatiotemporal experience of whiteness. The space is constructed for a subjectivity in which the viewer can be anywhere at any time, there’s no place they can’t go. And if they can’t see it, it’s not important, right? Gilberto Perez wrote about this idea in his book The Material Ghost, he called it the dramatic camera. This notion that there’s a kind of construction of cinema in which the camera always shows you the important thing at the right time. So that’s this idea, in a way, of being in the right place at the right time. It constructs a world in which the viewer is always in the right place at the right time. Well, that’s antithetical to the idea of Blackness I just expressed, where Blackness is always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Do you remember the first time you saw a film by a Black filmmaker that captured the epistemological reality of being Black in America, this feeling of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
So to answer the first part of that, do I remember the first time I saw a Black film? I probably didn’t think of it that way at the time, but I think I saw one of the Shaft movies in a cinema. And I don’t think it was the first Shaft movie. I think I saw that later, possibly in a repertory screening. That’s interesting ’cause I don’t think of that movie as being reflective of that experience that you’re talking about, in the larger question. And I was just talking about Shaft the other day at a webinar for Bard college with Kevin Jerome Everson, Greg de Cuir Jr., and Michael B. Gillespie. We were talking about Shaft because Michael showed some clips that he called “Black men walking while well scored.” And in each of the clips, it was literally a clip of a Black man walking down the street with a good score.
That got me on the subject of Shaft because in the opening of the movie, you see him, and he’s a pedestrian in Manhattan. I remember vividly he walks against the traffic and out of the crosswalk and a cab honks at him or something. I think he flips off the cab driver and keeps walking. The thing that struck me about that moment in the film overall is that his character was the only one who could circulate wherever he wanted and was comfortable in his own skin, wherever he was. He could move between Harlem and the Village. No other characters did that. You know, there was a gangster in Harlem, but you never saw that gangster downtown or in the Village. And then there was a white detective, but you never saw that person move outside of the precinct into other areas. And so that was striking to me because he was the conduit for the viewer to move along through all these various spaces, and so he was the thing that connects them. In a way he was inhabiting what would have ordinarily been a phenomenology of whiteness. Now, I haven’t seen the film in years, so it’s arguable whether or not he was in the right place at the right time. But as a figure, he was able to do that.
Now to talk about a film which reflects the idea of always being in the wrong place, wrong time, in terms of spatiotemporal relationships between the sound, image, and editing. It had to be either Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess or [L.A. Rebellion filmmaker] Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama. When I lived in Chicago, there was a Black cinema festival called Blacklight Film Festival [editor’s note: a similar iteration of this currently exists in Chicago and is called Black Harvest Film Festival]. And I loved going there, because that’s where I first saw the Black independent films. That’s where I first saw the L.A. Rebellion films. And then the East Coast, Black independent films like Ganja & Hess and Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground. I was really struck by Losing Ground because I had never seen a film before from a Black woman intellectual who was also somewhat neurotic, introspective, and searching. I’ve seen the film many times, and the most recent time I saw it, it felt like the fullest viewing of the film for me. It’s one where it just felt completely lucid from start to finish, but that’s after having lived with the film in some form or fashion for a long time, which shows you the depths of what she accomplished in that film. I’m getting off-base but the short answer is a film like Ganja & Hess, which deeply impressed me.
Now the L.A. Rebellion films, I love those too. They’re great and a lot of them are very experimental in form as well, but they were more working class and more explicitly political. Not all of them, there’s no one form, but generally I would say that for the most part, those filmmakers, at least the most high profile of them, tended to be more focused on working-class Black people, and explicitly political or implicitly political social subject matter. They meant a lot to me and they also had a deep influence.
I saw Larry Clark’s Passing Through, of course, Killer of Sheep [by Charles Burnett], several of the Haile Gerima films like Bush Mama and others. Julie Dash’s early film Illusions, things like that. I love the L.A. Rebellion films but it’s interesting for me to think about the differences between the L.A. Rebellion and what, for lack of a better way, I would call East Coast Black Independent Cinema, or “The New York School.” I don’t think they were as prolific as the L.A. Rebellion because, you know, the L.A. Rebellion probably just had more of a collective base. They all worked on each other’s films and helped each other all the time. And for all I know a good deal of that possibly went on in the East Coast as well. But the thing that strikes me about those East Coast films, with filmmakers like Bill Gunn and Kathleen Collins, is that their characters were more intellectual, middle class, maybe even, like in the case of Ganja & Hess, wealthy. They were somewhat more cosmopolitan and worldly. They had Bohemian characters. So that was a milieu that actually attracted me because I had never seen Black characters like that on the screen before. Frankly there’s not enough of that now.
I fantasize sometimes, like, what if Bill Gunn and Kathleen Collins had lived longer and been more successful at getting funding for their work? One can see the film culture wasn’t going to support the kinds of films I just described, where you have unconventional Black characters who are hard to pin down—archetypes that we hadn’t really seen entire films be built around before at all. Not only were the characters idiosyncratic, but the films built around them were also idiosyncratic. People—they didn’t then, and don’t now, really—understand that kind of Blackness in the cinema. They want like really bourgeois characters or really street gangster characters, but an artsy intellectual, Bohemian neurotic Black person—people don’t understand that.
People don’t know how to market that and who they’re going to market that to, but that’s the kind of filmmaking and film characters that we don’t get. And so I sometimes fantasize about, well, what if Bill Gunn and Kathleen Collins had lived and what if they’d made dozens of films or even just, you know, several films? I think about, for example, Duane Jones, who starred in films by both Gunn and Collins, and Marlene Clark, who was in Ganja & Hess, and Seret Scott, who was in Losing Ground, and Bill Gunn acted in both Ganja & Hess and Losing Ground. I just fantasize that they form a kind of motion picture company of actors and filmmakers, a revolving cast. The history of cinema would be so much richer, different, and interesting if they had just been allowed to make more of them because, on the evidence of films like Ganja & Hess and Losing Ground, they had the goods. They would have been a template model for so many other interesting, idiosyncratic unorthodox Black filmmakers to follow in their steps. It seems like the people who would have followed in their steps and made narrative features probably went into making experimental film and would never make a narrative feature. That sensibility got funneled into Black experimental cinema or something.
What I loved about Blacklight is that they would bring all of these films back. So you got these films that weren’t really widely available on VHS—these weren’t films that you could just go and get at the local video store. So they would show Passing Through three years in a row. And I got to see it many times that way, you know? Those are the films where the structure and form of the film, the consciousness that’s reflected in the form of decisions, echo this feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a viewer, the ground beneath your feet is constantly shifting and unstable. And that’s more a sense of that kind of consciousness.
I read an interview where you talked about Reckless Eyeballing and how you approached the difference between the audio track, the sound, and the images themselves. Which then had me thinking, if you’re using these two different senses and disorienting in that manner, then how are you approaching disorientation when sound isn’t present in your film? Your films 28.VI.81 (Bedouin Spark) and 28.IV.81 (Descending Figures) are silent. In Descending Figures there are two images at a time—it’s a double projection.
The answer to that is more readily available for a film like Descending Figures than Bedouin Spark. The thing about Descending Figures is that I was thinking laterally across two image tracks. One of the things that interested me about working that way was that there’s almost a conversation in a way—a back and forth, visually, between the two halves of the diptych because of the way the flaring that we see, where the image is washed out by light, seems to ping pong or ricochet between the two image tracks. In that way, I think it’s disrupting a way of reading. You can also look at the film as a movement across these images that travels back and forth between them visually, and the patterns that are created by the flash frames that we see. There are two modes of viewership available to you simultaneously: There’s the view of the material aspect of the image, as blown-out overexposed celluloid, and then the representational aspect of the action of the figures in the photographed portions of the image. There’s a tension or disconnect or a discord between those two modes of looking which are both always available to you at the same time.
Bedouin Spark is much simpler in a lot of ways. I was just trying to find a way to visually approach some semblance of rhythms, visual rhythms—that would reflect or bring to mind, for me at least, the music of Cecil Taylor. I was really trying to edit in single frames how Cecil Taylor plays the piano. I was trying to play the camera like Cecil Taylor would play the piano. I was trying to find that sense of staggered rhythm and compression and repetition and variation that he gets. The truth is I felt compelled to make that film ’cause that was a nightlight in my kids’ bedroom. And I just looked at it all the time whenever I put them to bed, it kind of haunted me and I felt like I had to make that film to get it out of my system, even though it’s just like a simple, little, maybe somewhat pretty film (chuckles).
What do you feel like film is unable to do, that you would really like for it to capture? I’m wondering if you feel like there’s something that film can’t do that another medium, like music, can?
(thinking) I don’t know yet. I think there’s probably limitations of film and then there’s my limitations of working with film, and I don’t know how to separate those necessarily (laughter). The film I’m working on now, the thing that I’ve challenged myself with is—and this seems kind of impossible—I want to make a film in which at least some of the moments are so rhythmically evocative that the viewer would want to get up and dance. Not that I have a really danceable soundtrack, but that the visual rhythms, maybe in counterpoint with a kind of rhythmic soundtrack, might make the viewer’s body respond in the way that music often does.
I’m not a person who decides I’m going to dance. To me, the best moments of dancing are when my body decides I’m going to dance, not when I choose to dance. Dancing moves through your body, not through your mind, not through your consciousness. Or it moves through your body’s consciousness, to say it another way, right? So when I’m compelled to dance, that’s dancing to me. This music has gotten up inside of my body and it has to come out. It’d be crazy if I could have a film where it has to be in a space without seats so that people could dance to the film. (smiles at the idea). Again, this is wildly ambitious. I don’t know how I can do it. I have some ideas, but even if I can make somebody bob their head I’d be happy (laughter). So that might be at the limits of the media or my limits as a filmmaker or both.
Throughout your career, what do you feel was the most challenging film to do?
Do you know Emily Vey Duke? She and Cooper Battersby, they’re a collaborative duo of filmmakers. I like their work a lot and when I was living and teaching in Florida, I invited them to show their work and then to a class visit. She said something during one of her visits with my class that I never forgot. A student asked her about the process, and she said, you know, filmmaking is just a series of creative problems that you have to solve. And that stayed with me, ’cause like, that is really what it is. The film that you’re watching is the solution to all the creative problems that the film presented to the maker.
It’s not like the film is preordained. Each decision is a problem. Like how do I convey this sense-impression, this feeling, this idea in an image or a sound or cut or rhythm. How do I get that over? If I do that, if I do this, does it work? Well that’s close. And sometimes you settle for close. The reason I say this is because every film has had that part of it. And at some point in the process, whether it was in the editing or in the shooting or both, everything I’ve done has brought me either immense joy or at least a significant amount of pleasure. Having said all that, I can say the most difficult thing I’ve ever made was the installation of Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish, because that was going to be a single-channel film. And I was thinking about it really differently at the outset. I’m a person who more or less makes their film in the editing process. Even if I have an outline and some notes and sketches before I shoot anything, that’s just a pretext to get me to shoot. And then the shooting is a pretext to get me to editing and editing is where I live. And with that particular film, it turned out that it didn’t want to be a film, it wanted to be an installation. It wanted to be across multiple channels as opposed to a single channel. And it took me a really long time to get there.
I was so invested in making it that the struggle to make it caused me a great deal of anxiety. There were times where it was a feeling like no other; it’s a feeling, you know, what it felt like being lost. It felt like [being] nine years old, lost in the middle of a dark forest at night and having no way to find a way out, it felt like I was never going to get out of it. I felt like it was going to be a failed, unfinished project and the thought of abandoning it filled me with dread. And that dread stayed with me while I was trying to find my way out of the forest.
I’m trying not to push the analogy too much, but I’m trying to think like, okay, if I’m lost in the forest and I can get out, I was going to have to leave a piece of me behind in order to do that. That was the toughest experience. I felt like I had to finish it. And I felt like I wasn’t able to finish it at the same time. It took me a long time to edit it. It took me a long time to figure out that it didn’t want to be a single-channel film and that it needed to be an installation. The editing got easier at that point. But even after that, it was still a challenge.
What do you feel like was your biggest take away from that entire experience and having made that?
“Be careful what you wish for.” (laughter). Maybe I was a little too glib going into it. I felt a really strong sense of obligation to do right by the subject matter, that it should be handled very sensitively, but at the same time, it had to be handled with determined choices and imagination. It was a hard balance because I wanted to be sensitive and at the same time, daring. I don’t know if this is a real takeaway, but just to be really careful about making decisions about what I’m going to make work about. I was, I wouldn’t say overconfident, but I was heedless. Then I realized, “Wow, I can’t just do anything here. I have to make choices that really honor the larger context of the work.”
Do you see those two things as opposing forces, being sensitive and then also doing something daring?
I never put it that way before, but that to me was the tension of that work for me. For some reason with this particular project, the tension between those two impulses felt greater than ever. I never actually felt those to be in tension with other work that I’ve made, not to that degree.
I think that film was making work about somebody who, for the most part, wasn’t able to exist symbolically in the world as a subject or as a being. This is a person who existed in the world, at least symbolically, as a tool, a farm implement. So I didn’t want to reduce that person back to being a tool for this work or a tool for my own expression. I don’t know how well I succeeded, but I felt like my efforts were really deeply considered and sincere. And that had to be enough for me because abandoning the work, not making it, would have been devastating. I had to make a work that, after it was over, allowed me to live with myself, and I was able to do that. I was very uncertain about it. It’s weird. Like I was uncertain about it in the beginning. Then I went through a long period of uncertainty where nothing was working and it felt silly in some ways. My instincts are not to work with actors. This was the first thing I’d ever made that had a performer who spoke scripted lines. And there was something that felt almost silly about that, but it also was an inescapable impulse.
There are some people who say that if you’re uncomfortable, then you’re on the right track as an artist. If that’s true, then I was most certainly on the right track with [Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish] because I was uncomfortable for a lot of reasons while making it. I feel like, if I’m not challenging myself, I won’t make the work.
Is there a reason you feel you’re less inclined to the idea of working with actors?
When I do work with performers of any kind, then I have to work with them in a way that is very clearly not about creating any sense of verisimilitude. You know, I don’t want to make work where we’re supposed to accept the performance as having a kind of fidelity to something beyond. There has to be some distance between the performance and “reality,” however conceived. The idea of having an actor perform convincingly and give a believable performance… I don’t mind it necessarily, but I don’t want to do that. (laughter). I would feel silly. I’m typically not interested in forms that are supposed to evoke reality in that way, because reality is such a ridiculous concept to me (laughter). It is! I mean, like it’s a stand-in for like all these other ideological things.
The use of the word reality is like a placeholder for pure ideology to me, but just evoking reality, as if it’s something that pre-exists the work of art that one can faithfully reflect. We’re constantly negotiating and creating and projecting. I think the Greeks, at one point, thought that vision and sight work by projecting the world out of the eyes as opposed to light coming in. And I kind of liked that, even though it was proven to be wrong. I feel like conceptually they were right in some ways. We’re always constructing; reality is a creative act for everybody, collectively and individually. It’s not a thing out there to be discovered. It’s a thing to be made.
I’m thinking about your first film still/here. That’s in St. Louis, and then there’s your film from last year, Dreams Under Confinement, with the Google Earth footage of Chicago. And then you also have Sunshine State (Extended Forecast). In these films, there’s these different locales, these different spaces. You’re talking about constructing reality; what were your visions of these specific places, these cities, and what did they turn out to be in the process of making it?
So, with still/here the problem was making a film. I don’t mean that facetiously. I had never made a finished film, on film, with married sound, with a print—actually making a film that could be projected out in the world as a film. The only films I shot prior to that on film were either really basic student projects that were tape-spliced together, or maybe it was transferred and edited. So just learning how to make a film, an actual film that could be distributed as a film print on a reel and shown in cinemas all over the world. That was the technical challenge. This was my MFA thesis project. And in finding the form of the film, it was a really interesting dialectical process in that I started out one way and then—and this is true for almost everything I’ve ever made– I threw out several other approaches before landing on this approach. It was a process of subtraction.
I had an early idea where the film was going to be Blaxploitation meets [Roberto Rosselini’s] Germany, Year Zero. So I was thinking of Rossellini and I was thinking that this city was going to be, not a backdrop, but a character in a film that would have performers. I was directly thinking about Germany, Year Zero and then I got rid of the characters and just stayed with the city. I was reading [Robert] Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography. And that really led me to a lot of choices around sound-image relationships. But then I was also thinking of Miles Davis, and the way he’d play—he would hold a note and use silence. And so I thought of the long take, in stasis, as a kind of visual silence where there was very little motion and the shot lasted for greater duration.
For still/here I was thinking of the city in emotional terms. The film was a response to the emotion of returning from Chicago to St. Louis and finding the Black-populated portions of the city in ruins. I think I found that in the shooting and in the editing. I realized in the making of the film that what I was finding was my emotional response to the city. So it wasn’t so much an analytical thing about the city itself. This is related to what you were saying earlier when we first started talking, about the way transportation is weaponized against Black communities. What I came to realize in making the film and reflecting on the film after was how deeply inscribed on the landscape anti-Blackness is—the film is a document of that.
When you have an idea when you’re shooting, when you’re editing, it’s hard to know what part of that goes into making the whole, where you are at any given moment, they kind of blur together. There’s kind of like an exchange that happens where the distinction between past, present, and future suddenly is irrelevant. Some of the editing is in the idea and some of the idea is in the shooting and some of the shooting is in the editing. You know what I mean? It’s all one act for me. I say, “My films are made in the editing,” and they are, but for me, the idea of the shooting and the editing are one thing.
So for Sunshine State (Extended Forecast), for example, I was thinking, you know if this feeling of living in the suburbs of Florida could be a film, what would it look like? I grew up in cities. I never lived in the suburbs until I lived in Florida. Sunshine State (Extended Forecast), that’s more of a personal reflection. One thing I realized in the making of it, that I had not expected, was that a part of me liked it. And I don’t know how to say it any better than that. There was something kind of secretly appealing about the blandness of it (laughter). There was something about it that was a little bit peaceful, you know? And I guess it had to do with the fact that it was a suburb in Florida. Not just a suburb, but that it was suburban Florida. There was something about the weather and the suburbanness of it together that was kind of lulling—the days blurred together. There was a feeling of timelessness and drift. And so that made me think about the eternal. It was almost like this no-place, no-space that felt like there was an eternity in a single afternoon. That’s the feeling I was trying to embody in that film for me.
For Dreams Under Confinement, that was a weird, practical, problem-solving thing. I had originally intended to go to Chicago and shoot something on location. And then when COVID happened, I just said, well, I’m going to go do something completely opposite. I’ve either shot and finished on 16mm or shot on 16mm and finished digitally. This was the first and only piece so far that’s completely digital in every regard. The use of Google Earth imagery was, I wanted it to be something that you wouldn’t confuse for feeling like you are there. Like there’s no watching it where you feel like you’re actually there, you know what I mean? I wanted to see how much I could interrupt the immediacy of it and inject the artificiality of Google Earth while still injecting a feeling of immediacy. The whole thing is structured around a very urgent editing rhythm and the audio, by the breathlessness and, and urgency of the police radio dispatcher. It’s a two-plus minute video, but it was culled from two-and-a-half hours of police dispatcher audio. I layered a lot, but I compressed as much as I could of that two-and-a-half hours into not quite two-and-a-half minutes.
There were a lot of things that were fascinating about that audio to me, but one of the things [was] the number of times the dispatcher called out the name of a street. I could guess maybe a dozen streets that were called out in that two and a half hours, where it was called out over and over and over again. So I concentrated visually on those areas that were being referenced by the dispatcher’s call, but it just made me realize how much of [policing] is about protecting property. This is not, like, a new revelation. This isn’t unique to Chicago either, but the whole reason for policing is ultimately about property. I’m sure there are people who would vehemently dispute that. The other stuff they do is a bonus, but the reason they exist, the function, is protecting the property of elites, whether that’s high value real estate, high value retail space, or breaking up strikes and protecting property and the interest of capitalists. Making this video reinforced and made it concrete and material for me in a very direct way that I don’t often get access to.
The only other two films we haven’t even touched upon, Halimuhfack and Distant Shores, are also about Chicago and Florida in a way. But they’re a little more abstract; they get at what I feel like your films do well, which is when they’re revealing something hidden or unknown to the average person.
I like the observation. I mean, the thing about those films is that, even though Halimuhfack was shot in Florida and the archival audio references Florida, It has an artificial reality where it could have been shot anywhere at all. Like it didn’t need to be made in Florida because the exact same film could have been made anywhere else in the world. And Distant Shores, even though it was shot in Chicago and I had to be physically in Chicago in order to shoot the footage, I wanted to evoke the otherness of inhabiting a particular place. I wanted to evoke a sense that when you’re inhabiting a tourist sightseeing cruise in Chicago, that ship is the other of other ships. When we’re on this ship in Chicago, there are other people on other ships, those ships are related to the ship you’re on, for lack of better words. You don’t just inhabit the place where you are, you also inhabit the place where you’re not. You’re conditioning the way other people inhabit other places. That’s kind of abstract and convoluted, but that’s the best I can say, right now.
That makes sense. If, like in Distant Shores, you’re on one of those boats, first and foremost, you’re not a Chicagoan. But at the time when you’re on it, you are observing everyone who is a part of the city. And then, as someone who is a part of the city, there’s this relationship of spectator and spectacle taking place.
But then like, what are all these other places that we’re not? Because that’s the thing about cinema. Back to the point—to show anything, you have to not show everything else, you know what I mean? To show anything at all, you have to erase everything else. It’s a condition of pointing the camera, making something. It’s a lot like language in that way, the way people talk about writing. Language is built on absence, it’s a series of absences. Although it’s a weirdly different kind of absence in cinema.
A lot of people have made the connection or the analogy between linguistics and cinema in terms of the relationship between absence and presence and the signified and the signifier. You used the word spectacle; so the image in Distant Shores is a kind of spectacle track, but if that’s the case, then all those other boats in which refugees are sinking and drowning and dying and starving, that’s the “other” of that spectacle that the film isn’t showing you, that your presence as a tourist there is in part conditioned by larger structures in which some boats hold tourists and some boats hold refugees. I don’t think there’s no connection between that, the fact of that reality.
To me that’s another way of thinking about space, right? The spatiality of the performer against the rear projection image of the anthropological film in Halimuhfack. It’s just funny how in the film there is the idea of Florida and the idea of Africa is in the anthropological footage. And so like, where is Florida? Where is Africa? The film doesn’t really take you to either one of those places, yet as spaces they kind of inhabit the film and are placeholders for the idea of a Florida in Africa.
You’ve lived in a lot of places. Which place that you’ve lived in do you feel has had the most profound impact on you as a person?
That’s a tough one. The truth is I can’t really know, but, if pressed, I would say Chicago just because that’s where I spent my twenties. And to me, my twenties in Chicago is where I sort of became a person. I started forming a worldview—inchoately, but that’s where I started. Chicago was my laboratory and finishing school. I’m a bit of an autodidact, you know? And I used the city as my own personal, cultural, and aesthetic university. I worked at a jazz record store for several years in the ’80s. I learned as much from music as I have from anything else, and living and working in Chicago, going to hear live music, too. I got into a lot of different clubs for free because I worked at the record store and I got a lot of music for cheap.
Chicago’s where I really, really first began an appreciation for filmmaking. I volunteered as a projectionist for a time at Facets Multimedia. I had some of my deepest experiences with cinema working there. I remember vividly when Godard’s film Détective came out, watching that a couple of times I was just blown away by the musicality of his filmmaking, how narrative sense was so clearly not the point with that film and his body of work generally. The sensory experience of watching his films was really important and made a deep impression on me.
That was a time where I saw everything that came out. No point in my life before or since have I been as well versed on whatever cinema was available in Chicago—I saw everything I possibly could. It was nothing for me to go to a movie in the morning, stay and see a movie in the afternoon, and see another one in the evening. I’d go, it’d be morning and when I’d leave, it’d be night. I went to lots of museums. I recall vividly the Rhona Hoffman Gallery and seeing a solo show by Lorna Simpson. I remember there was the Romare Bearden exhibit at the old Museum of Contemporary art before they moved to their current location. I just soaked up everything I could for years. So that’s where I got a lot of my sensibilities—the arts and culture of Chicago.
I can’t fully divorce my sensibilities, in terms of aesthetics, from whatever values I have as a person. I think of those things as very closely related, which is what I try to reflect in my films. Thinking about aesthetics as a way of thinking about the world and the place of people in the world in relation to one another. It’s not to me about pretty things or pleasant experiences—it’s deeper than that. So I would have to say Chicago.
I know you’re a professor. If there’s one thing you’d like to have your students take away from your classes, what would it be?
I try to show them that to think seriously about movies is to think seriously about the world. If your only point of reference is the movies themselves, then that’s not enough. The value to me of making films, if they have any value at all, is that it has to be a way of thinking about and reimagining the world. I hope my students will be encouraged to reimagine themselves and reimagine the world through their work. What I don’t want them to do is reproduce the world that already exists by reproducing the kinds of films that already exist.
So much of film school education is about social reproduction. That is reproducing the world as it is, the status quo. When first starting out, you copy others and that’s a way of learning. It’s a legitimate way, but you have to try relatively quickly to move beyond that stage. And so I feel like my job is to get them from this stage of copying into creating. And many filmmakers, obviously based on the product that comes out of commercial cinemas, never move away from this mode of copying—they’re reproducing variations on things that have already been done.
When I said, “If a film is easy, I don’t want to make it. If I feel like it’s not going to be a challenge for me to make, I don’t want to make it,” that’s because I want to challenge myself not to reproduce a way of working that I’ve already done before. I don’t want to perfect a method or a way of making films. And I want each new film to be a fresh challenge. I want every film to feel like a first film. If my students treat it like a first film, I’d be happy. I don’t think I’ve ever quite said it to them in that way. I may begin to say it in that way to them.
Christopher Harris’s newest film, Dreams Under Confinement, is playing as part of this year’s edition of NYFF.
Thank you for reading the twelfth issue of Film Show. Let all art you create feel like a fresh challenge.
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