Thursday, November 6, 2014

Herk

Harold "Herk" Harvey, Toronto, Jan. 1990

HERK HARVEY MADE JUST ONE FEATURE FILM.  For almost thirty years Carnival of Souls was one of those cult films that was occasionally glimpsed on late night TV, where a friend of a friend would see it and try to describe it to you. It probably got a whole lot stranger with each re-telling, but by the turn of the '90s a group of fans organized a reunion of the original cast and crew, got a new print struck and sent it out on the festival and rep cinema circuit.

Toronto was apparently key to the revival of Carnival of Souls, which is why Harvey, by now retired from a career as an industrial filmmaker and doing theatre in his Lawrence, Kansas hometown, made it up here for a personal appearance. I photographed him, but almost twenty-five years later I can't tell you where or why, who assigned me, and what I was supposed to do with these photos.

Harold "Herk" Harvey, Toronto, Jan. 1990

Greil Marcus once described the intense, compelling stew of blues, country and gospel music that inspired Bob Dylan and the Band to make the Basement Tapes as the "old, weird America." For those of us who came of age in the '70s and '80s, films like Carnival of Souls were that old, weird America's successor, recorded for posterity in B-movies, blurry TV kinescopes and pulp magazines.

They were our evidence that the whole complacent postwar economic boom culture with its crinolines, grey flannel suits and sunny suburbs was just a veneer over a strange, uneasy and even sinister world that had abided long before cars had tailfins and would - we dearly hoped - linger in the shadows long afterward. There was nothing terribly original in this theory, of course, and if we'd bothered to take a longer look at the Doris Day films, Technicolor melodramas, westerns and early TV sitcoms we'd have glimpsed that same simmering anxiety in its adult form, hiding in plain sight.

For the generation that embraced punk and new wave, though, we thought we were making a discovery, and certainly one that encouraged our only slightly ironic fascination with the retro culture that our older siblings had made such a big, hairy show of rebelling against. We'd been sitting in mildewy theatres watching Eraserhead over and over, so when Carnival of Souls was finally excavated and dragged into the sunlight, we had our evidence that we were in tune with a cultural current that was as profound as it was unsettling.

Harvey's film was cited as in influence on both George Romero and David Lynch. I'd go further and say that Mulholland Drive is really just the Cinemax lesbian softcore remake of Carnival of Souls. Harvey's single feature can be seen all over most of Lynch's work.

Harold "Herk" Harvey, Toronto, Jan. 1990

I've gone back and forth through the big ledger and I have no record of anyone assigning me to shoot Herk Harvey. 1990 was probably the busiest single year of my career, so it's plausible that I could lose track of a few shoots. I only shot a single roll of 35mm colour slide film of Harvey, which is conspicuous since it would have cost me more than black and white to shoot and develop, and would have affected my very low overhead if I were shooting Harvey on spec.

There isn't a single frame missing from the roll, so nothing was ever clipped out, mounted and sent to a client for publication. This is probably the first time anyone has seen these shots.

It's Ektachrome P800/1600, shot on my ill-starred Nikon F3 with window light that somehow gave the film a very warm cast. If Harvey was wry or bitter about his long-ago flop of a film turning into a cult favorite so late in his life, he didn't act like he was. A vague memory - and the evidence on the film - recalls Harvey as amiable and very happy to endure yet another photo shoot.

In his very professorial corduroy and turtleneck, he came across as that uncle - your mother's favorite brother - whose job no one could recall or describe, and who only showed up every year or two, full of jokes and stories; the one who, one memorable birthday, gave you a present that was both extravagant and perfect.

Herk Harvey died in 1996.


No comments:

Post a Comment