A Post-Industrial City Symphony in a Minor Key: A Conversation with Christopher Harris

Subject of a recent retrospective at True/False Film Fest, the experimental filmmaker and visual artist discusses his feature "still/here."
Beatrice Loayza

“Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way.”

—Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph

The work of experimental filmmaker and visual artist Christopher Harris generates bounties from the historical and cultural vestiges of the African-American experience. Consider his 2004 short film, Reckless Eyeballing, an amalgam of black and white images and footage chopped and screwed to the sound of ominous, Hitchcockian violin crescendos. Glimpses of Pam Grier and Angela Davis and scenes from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation collide, evoking a pop culture iconography that draws Black women as illicit, dangerous objects of desire, while the title makes reference to Jim Crow-era vernacular of Black men looking at white women with presumably lusty intent. Halimuhfack (2016), one of Harris’ most recent shorts, similarly achieves a provocative density of signification in its critique of anthropological documentation. A performer who assumes the posture of an interview subject imperfectly lip-syncs an audio-recording of Zora Neale Hurston explaining her research methods, while looped footage of dancing Masai tribespeople is projected in the background. Harris’s heavy manipulation of archival material defines in part his theoretical impetus, concerned with the discrepancies and inconsistencies of a historical memory that misapprehends or misrepresents the various facets of Black existence in America. 

Curiously, the filmmaker’s most widely appraised work is also his earliest one. still/here (2000), a 60-minute, black and white meditation on the ruins and vacant lots that comprise the northside of St. Louis, was Harris’s thesis project at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. The film’s haunting, uncanny energy summons the bodies that once inhabited these spaces while subtly critiquing the forces that encouraged the area’s abandonment and neglect. Such meaning is achieved by patient, long tracking shots and fixed frames of decrepit buildings, empty spaces, and torn down structures that threaten to burst with ghosts; meanwhile, the sounds of unanswered ringing doorbells and telephones, and strings of disembodied voice over are occasionally woven into the images (one feminine voice describes a dream provoked by her father’s death and her return to St. Louis as “a memory of a dream of a memory,” which could describe the film itself) Yet for as much as it assesses the blight and decay of the inner city, still/here feels strangely triumphant, and not strictly elegiac, perhaps because Harris conjures so poignantly a feeling typically so elusive, that of a spiritual rupture born of historical and cultural erasure.

Since 2000 the film has slowly but steadily gained recognition, cresting in the past few years with featured engagements and screenings at Locarno Film Festival, Images Festival in Toronto, and most recently at the 2020 edition of the True/False Film Festival. It was in Columbia, MO at True/False where the Notebook had the pleasure of catching up with Harris to discuss the legacy of still/here and its distinct methods of “representing the unrepresentable.” 

NOTEBOOK: still/here was your first film, made over twenty years ago and yet the subject of continuous reappraisal and rediscovery. For instance, this year, myself and several of my colleagues were introduced to the film for the first time here at True/False. What does it feel like to be revisiting and reintroducing this early work of yours to new audiences? 

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS: It was my MFA thesis at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago, but it’s wonderful to see the film have a second life, so to speak. I have to put it in context. I made a 60-minute black and white experimental film with long takes, and no one had ever heard of me. That’s a stretch for programmers to take a chance on. Since it was my first film I hadn’t made enough to do a solo show. And to be fair, I didn’t push the film very hard, because I kind of intuited that it was a tough sell. All this to say I don’t begrudge the delay in recognition. I’m very happy about all the attention it's getting, but I also don’t want to be fake humble about it. The more I see it, the more I love it.

NOTEBOOK: And over the years there seems to be increasingly more writing about it that must have helped.

HARRIS: There were people who recognized it very early on or right away, but it still took ten plus years to build an audience. There was some significant writing about it early on by Terry Francis and Michael Sicinski that definitely helped put the film on the map around the 2010s, but the high watermark was my inclusion in the Flaherty Film Seminar in 2018.

NOTEBOOK: In the film,the actors and the narrative are relegated to the background, and instead there are these ruins and artifacts and buildings at the forefront. What motivates this reversal?

HARRIS: Originally I was going to do something that riffed on Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero. I was going to have performers and make a sort of postmodern blaxploitation film in the spaces of these ruins, to treat the space as a place rather than a setting if that makes sense. Then I started thinking about how representations of Black people in cinema and in images were over-determined by embodiment. Representation put too much weight on the bodies of Black people without loving those bodies. So I did a 180 and made a film about loving the spaces that those people love and making a film that loves the spaces that those people touch. That was the primary motivation. How can I love Black people at a remove and how do I love these spaces that are so degraded and hated and not cared for? One thing I like to say about the film is it’s not about extraction per se, but it’s a film produced by extraction. It’s kind of like a testimony or evidentiary product about the remains, about how extraction has marked the landscape. I wanted to lavish a deep, loving gaze on places that weren't ever supposed to be looked at. 

NOTEBOOK: And I like how it doesn’t feel like the typical depiction of an urban space. 

HARRIS: You know, somebody stopped me on the street just the other day, another filmmaker who had been at [one of my] screenings. He said he really enjoyed the film, but I really appreciate him saying that what he really liked about it is that it's not ruin porn. It's not touristy. It's not spectacular. He got a sense of my personal investment in the film and in the images, and that's what I was trying to do—make a film about love, you know?

NOTEBOOK: That loving investment feels evident in the film, in part I think because St. Louis is your hometown. How does the film chart your personal relationship to the city?

HARRIS: I hadn't been to St. Louis very often during the ‘80s when I lived in Chicago. And so when I came back, it's as if the city was leveled overnight for me, whereas if you had been living there, you might have noticed how things changed gradually. So for me it looked like a war zone, like a place that had been bombed out. Although, unlike Europe after World War Two, there had been no bombing [in St. Louis] and there was no Marshall Plan. The United States and the Allies bombed Germany into oblivion, and then built it back up. In effect, the United States bombed North St. Louis into oblivion, but didn’t bother to build it back up. 

NOTEBOOK: That historical haunting and sense of abandonment is something that really stands out to me in the film. The ringing phone that’s never answered and the St. Louis Housing Authority voicemail recording. There’s a socio-historical component at the heart of the film, but it’s not overt. 

HARRIS: I wanted to gesture towards [the socio-historical], but there are a lot of people who can write and talk about these forces much more precisely than I can. There aren’t many people who can make a better film about the experience, and the aftermath of what those forces have produced. I’m interested in the experiential aspect and what it feels like to be in those spaces. So it’s all about creating visual ruptures and visual contradictions. I did some research about the policies that produced these spaces or that resulted in these spaces being left in a state of ruin, but underneath all this seemingly impersonal, bureaucratic decision-making, the reason [North St. Louis] looks the way it does is because powerful forces want it to look that way. Like I said, when I left St. Louis in 1982 to go to school, it didn’t look like that. Not coincidentally, Ronald Reagan became the President of the United States around the same time. When I returned in the ‘90s, it did look like that. So the Reagan ‘80s produced what you see in the film, and there were also local forces ancillary to Reaganomics and following the lead of the Reagan administration that sought to extract wealth and resources out of disenfranchised communities. For example, I found out in my research that the south side of St. Louis, which was at the time overwhelmingly white working class to lower middle class, had laws that prohibited absentee landlords. The north side with Black working class and poor people didn’t have those laws. So what you had in effect were a lot of people who owned the housing and rented it out to poor and working class people. Since [the landlords] didn’t live in those communities, they had no investment in them. So they just extracted rent without reinvesting in those places. Over time, buildings and houses would begin to need repairs and gradually fall into disrepair, with no one to invest in those places to keep them livable. 

Still Here

NOTEBOOK: It’s like history repeating itself if you think of something like the abandonment and ultimate demolition of Pruitt-Igoe.

HARRIS: You know that colloquially the area around Pruitt-Igoe is referred to as Hiroshima flats, because they cleared it out and there’s nothing there. It was as if a bomb dropped.  

NOTEBOOK: What’s interesting to me about still/here is how it builds upon or subverts the historical memory of St. Louis. In fact, a few weeks ago I was watching Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and I couldn’t help thinking about your film and the Minnelli film as a sort of pair. 

HARRIS: There’s a reference to Meet Me in St. Louis in the film! It’s referring to the song, and it’s tiny but it’s there! It’s funny because a lot of the areas where I’m shooting in the film are the same as in the movie, the same places where there were once all these beautiful, great Victorian homes. In that film, they’re shot in Hollywood backlots but it’s the same place, once full of upper middle class families and homes. But now they’re completely ruined, completely leveled, and razed to the ground. 

NOTEBOOK: That film is a Technicolor musical, whereas still/here is in black and white, and the use of sound is somewhat disjointed. 

HARRIS: I sometimes like to call still/here a city symphony in reverse. You know, city symphonies were about the glories of modernism and industry, skyscrapers and built environments as praise songs to capitalism. This is like the flip side—the post-industrial city symphony in a minor key.

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to talk about the museum portion of the film, when we turn to these domestic artifacts housed in a museum. It made me think about the politics of what and whose culture gets special treatment, and what gets preserved in museum spaces. Can you speak to this pivot point in the film?

HARRIS: Again this sort of obliquely references the period of time in which Meet Me in St. Louis would have been set. In the film, we’re looking at a display of furniture and artifacts—not exactly an exhibit but a show put on by the St. Louis Historical Society about the Gilded Age. It was interesting to me, for example, that when we see the ruins they’re vacated, and it’s all about absence, presence within absence and absence within presence. In the museum the artifacts are in these preserved spaces to be seen and appreciated—and they’re literally the artifacts that would have been in those now destroyed spaces. I wanted to work backwards through history, and I wanted to try and make a film that worked in multiple temporal registers all at the same time to create a kind of undecidability between past, present, and future. There’s the past-ness of these images and ruins being represented and repurposed for you now, the soundtrack that is at once both a premonition of a possible future and a haunting from the past. And for me, the Historical Society exhibit grounds all that in a historical context and references the ravages of the Gilded Age, the ravages of the Reagan ‘80s which was an echo of the Gilded Age in terms of class exploitation. It’s all connected by these spaces, which were once inhabited by wealthy, upper middle class families, and then eventually inhabited by African Americans, and then ultimately left to ruins. All of that history passes through the same spaces. There are these artifacts that show what and who has been evacuated from these spaces, and the objects that wealthy white people have touched are carefully preserved and cherished, while those that belong to Black people are nowhere to be found. So it’s the dichotomy between these two phenomena that I was interested in showing.

NOTEBOOK: I’m curious as to your use of very deconstructionist language like “absence,” “presence” and “unknowability” to describe the film.

HARRIS: That’s my graduate school training. I was greatly influenced by some of my teachers there that were making work that dealt with similar issues, but about different things. For example, Dan Eisenberg made a film called Persistence that I saw that was formative for me, and that opened up my thinking in terms of how to approach this film. Also Ernie Gehr’s Signal: Germany on the Air, which deals with Germany and the Holocaust and the aftermath of World War II. That was all about the question of how to represent the unrepresentable, and that was key to me and really set me on the path to thinking about how I was going to represent my unrepresentable. I decided you can’t really show it. You can, however, put an experience in cinematic form and give the viewer the feeling rather than show them what it looks like. You can give them the feeling of how it feels to encounter the ineffable. 

NOTEBOOK: Is cinema the form best equipped to represent the unknowable?

HARRIS: For me it is! Others might disagree. But in cinema you have two things—you have sound and image. And it’s amazing because there’s an almost infinite number of variations of how you can juxtapose or relate the two things together. And while I was working from a raw, fundamental place, there were also so many things that informed my thinking about the film. I was reading Bresson’s Notes on a Cinematograph at the time, I was in Chicago, I had these new mentors. So for bringing all these elements together, for me, cinema is the way to go.

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