Best Coast

'Steinbeck Country' captures vivid coastal nature

The ineffability of the central coast of California has drawn artists in all fields, and director John Harris is no exception. Of his image-laden, wordless film Steinbeck Country: Monterey to Big Sur, Harris says, “It’s not a documentary or a travelogue; the premise is to live in the moment, capturing daily routines in specific locations.” Against a soundtrack Harris himself composed, Steinbeck Country unfurls with scenes of nature—pelicans, harbor seals, a particularly outgoing squirrel—alongside surfers, lighthouses, the Bixby Bridge and more.

Harris is well known in Monterey as the founder of two theaters. At the 812 Cinema at 812 Cannery Row, the visuals were superb and the accommodations consisted of pillows on the floor instead of seats. Later, Harris opened the Dream Theater, which lasted some 25 years nearby on the Row.

Even earlier, Harris had a background in L.A. show business, producing special event films for Ann-Margret and Johnny Mathis. He also made a film for “an environmental art gallery” briefly owned by Jim and Pamela Morrison; the gallery ended when the Doors’ lead singer left for his one-way trip to Paris. Harris remembers. “He wasn’t in love with his career anyway. That was part of his self-destruction.”

When his theaters closed, Harris returned to filmmaking. In a small exhibition space seating 30, Harris asked some people to have a look at Steinbeck Country. “I thought it would be a couple of friends and my cat watching it, but I had to turn people away,” he says. After playing at the Carmel Art and Film Festival last winter, a popular run in Monterey led to Harris’ film being brought to Santa Rosa. “I’m very pleased and gratified,” he says. “There’s a story here—a film doesn’t have to be dialogue-driven for the audience to have affection for it. It goes to show you never really know what you’re doing.”