Every word mattered

Remembering John Harkness as film writer and colleague

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My friend John Harkness once commented to me, “Nobody knows how hard I work to create that apparently effortless, casual style.”

John worked hard at it from the start of his career. He spoke of film reviewing as an art form in its own right, a kind of personal essay, and of the writer’s obligation to the reader, the duty to deliver something worth reading for its own sake.

We met when we were both at the beginning of our careers. We both loved movies, writing and reading. Friendship was a natural, and it launched thousands of hours of focused conversation.

The first of those conversations, in the spring of 1981, was about the shape of that then-new subgenre, the slasher movie – exactly what was necessary and what superfluous to make one work. The last of them, in early December 2007, was about whether or not Roméo Dallaire was a hero and, if so, exactly what constituted his specific heroism.

In those conversations, and the ones in between, John went for the sharpest possible observation of both the subject under discussion and his own responses. He brought that approach to everything, including the people around him. He despised gossip. He preferred deadly-accurate character analysis.

Sharp observation yields vivid language. John strove always for the penetrating phrase. He phoned one night to tell me he’d been listening to very early American folk, blues and gospel field recordings. “This is what people sounded like before they knew what they sounded like,” he said, excited. He knew that phrase nailed the quality of sound he was talking about and the milieu that produced it.

For John, life and work were not separate. Observation, self-examination and expression were a way of life. Even casual, everyday anecdotes got thoroughly refined in the retelling.

In the mid-80s, John discovered E-Prime, an approach to English that avoids the verb “to be” in all its forms. It is torture to learn and produces incredibly tortured sentences in the process. John spent a year on it. His prose tightened up and that casual voice strengthened.

I’ve heard John accused of arrogance many times.

“It isn’t arrogance if you can back it up,” he’d reply.

In fact, John worked without ego. In the late 80s, we collaborated on three screenplays. None got produced, but we had fun and made some money. Throughout that time, John readily gave up hard-won dialogue, scenes and story ideas in the service of a tighter, more dramatic story. He just as readily slashed and burned my contributions.

The work came first. When it went well, he knew it and beamed, no more burdened by false humility than by false arrogance.

Somewhere along the line, method, voice and subject matter gelled and John started to compose entire reviews in his head. No more dinner or a beer after the show. He’d head straight home.

“The writing part only takes 20 minutes now,” he told me, “but it’s got to be fresh.”

That made the work a bit too easy. John leapt at NOW’s online pages for the chance they offered to write longer and broader than the review format offers. His voice relaxed, his thoughts expanded.

In his Best Dramatic Movies About Rock Musicians, he wrote, “Movies about Elvis Presley have generally been tele-films, unless we start including Nicolas Cage’s weird Elvis movies as part of an ongoing metaphorical spiritual biography of The King that exists only in Cage’s mind.”

That’s a rich sentence that we might have waited decades to see in a review had John not thrown it into his Web piece.

At the same time, he was working on a book proposal about the late-60s rise of country rock and was planning a return to school.

He was always looking for ways to develop his voice.


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