John Harkness wrote about all movies with complete authority, not because he knew everything, but because he knew what he thought about everything. And why.
Photo By David Laurence
John Harkness (left) and Cameron Bailey
I worked alongside John at NOW Magazine for 19 years, from 1988. I don’t think it occurred to me until he died that he was the best film critic in the country. Now that he’s gone, it’s obvious.
He had a vast knowledge of almost all kinds of movies. Very few of us have that.
He was a connoisseur, and if his fondness for certain DVD box sets was almost erotic, that was just a sign of how much he cared.
He was a pure film critic, not a music critic writing about film or a novelist writing about film or a political activist writing about film. He spoke movie. And he wrote with absolute honesty. That’s what made him good at his job. What made him impressive as a man went further.
He could compare different recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic as easily as he could compare the relative hotness of each and every Scarlett Johansson movie. John had enough intellect and enough curiosity to become an expert on Renaissance painting, the Civil War and vintage watches. It was humbling.
So it was no surprise that he mastered poker well enough to advise a dot-com start-up. That that work made him rich was more of a surprise. And maybe the greatest surprise of all was how being rich, and being successful beyond his film criticism, changed him. It gave him a kind of ease, and that was what I loved about John lately.
He still had the ferocious John Harkness tongue, but it was matched by amazing generosity. Many of his friends and even acquaintances benefited from it. I know I did. For my wedding in September, John brought a very simple gift, in large denominations. It was certainly more than I could afford to give at a wedding. There was a card with the envelope. All it said was “Have some fun with it.”
I love that. I’m trying to take that as a principle for living my life now.
John didn’t let his good fortune make him miserable or stupid or suspicious. He once said he’d be a great catch for a woman now because he was rich and he had a bum ticker. He was never delicate.
But for a guy who seemed to take pride in saying just about the rudest true facts you could imagine – out loud and sometimes right to your face – John had a graciousness that could surprise you.
For me that explains his favourite film. According to John, Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game was the greatest film of all time.
He wrote about it in the pages of NOW as often as he could, and admitted, “I’ve been looking at The Rules Of The Game for three decades, in 35mm, 16mm, VHS. I once spent a week with the film on a Steenbeck editing table trying to figure out how it was edited.
“One proof of its greatness is that so many really good directors have tried to make their own version of it: Woody Allen in Hannah And Her Sisters; Robert Altman about five times, most directly in Gosford Park but also in Nashville and A Wedding; Denys Arcand in Le Déclin De L’Empire Américain. And that’s just the A-list.”
But here’s the crux of it for me. This is what he wrote a few years back when his beloved Criterion edition DVD of the film was released:
“The Rules Of The Game works the upstairs/downstairs dynamic during a weekend at a country house, and the romantic complications have fatal implications. It comes out of the tradition of the French romantic comedy, particularly that of Marivaux and Musset, but offers so many contradictory angles at once that it becomes a genre paradox.
“It’s a political commentary in which politics are never mentioned. It’s an intricately constructed piece of dramatic machinery that was largely improvised by the cast from Renoir’s notes. It’s a slapstick tragedy.”
Beyond the effortless erudition in that critique, there is that one phrase: slapstick tragedy. That was his take on life. He reviewed The Kite Runner just a few weeks back and dismissed it on just those grounds:
What The Kite Runner didn’t get was that “what makes life interesting – and dramatic – is that there is humour in the midst of tragedy and darkness in comedy. Drama gains from its impurities – even Macbeth and King Lear have jokes in them.”
John Harkness, 1987
I always turned to Harkness’s articles in NOW because he was a flat-out great read: funny and informed and insightful. But what I hadn’t realized until now was that there was a philosophy lurking inside that seemingly casual writing style he had.
The Rules Of The Game is unblinking in its vision of people, but ultimately forgiving because they are people. John would have hated to let you know it, but that was him, too. That was his philosophy: Life can be cruel. Have some fun with it.
Cameron Bailey, recently named co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, gave this eulogy at John Harkness’s funeral, December firstname.lastname@example.org