In literary circles it’s called voice, and John Harkness definitely had it. I’m not referring to that loud bark of his that filled any room he occupied. I’m talking about the perspective, sensibility – “attitude” really gets it – that he brought to his writing.
You could hear John speaking when he wrote – literally – because he liked to talk his pieces through. He’d come back from a screening and give you his opinions, his allusions, his off-the-wall comparisons, and then they’d appear in his copy, almost word for word. That’s voice.
You have voice when you have complete confidence in your opinions, and John definitely had that, too. It helped that he was the most voracious consumer of culture you could ever meet, encyclopedic in areas many people weren’t aware of: sports, rock ’n’ roll, visual art, classical music. He could compare the way a film was cut to a Picasso painting, or a blow-’em-up-real-good actioner to the coda in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
John, obstreperous as always, complained bitterly when we had to cut his stuff, not because he thought every word he wrote was a pearl – though he did – but because he felt his readers deserved extensive critical pieces from NOW. He could toss them off in an afternoon – not that he didn’t think hard about them, but he could synthesize quickly and easily.
When we lost a cover story just one week before the pub date, we dreamed up the idea of a Top 50 DVDs Ever cover story (www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2004-01-08/cover_story.php) and phoned John to ask if he could produce the copy within 24 hours.
“Oh, sure,” he said, and then delivered the list of DVDs he was going to write about – all 50 of them – in exactly 12 minutes.
He embraced the Web precisely because of its infinite capacity. When we couldn’t run his 2,500-word pieces, he offered extra articles for us to post on NOW’s website, thousands and thousands of words. Check out the one surveying the most important rock ’n’ roll movies ever (www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2007-10-25/movie_feature.php) or the one tracking cinema’s essential political films (www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2007-11-08/movie_feature.php), both his own ideas, neither assigned by me or anyone else.
And where most critics tired of their beat – note how the dailies’ writers shuffle their beats like cards every three years or so – he never got sick of film. I loved the way he’d fondle the Criterion DVD sets when they came into the office, as if he’d struck gold.
When he took a year’s leave of absence two years ago, did he put his feet up on a beach somewhere and suck back pina coladas? No, he spent his time looking at all the silent movies he’d never seen.
The most amazing thing about the consistently amazing John Harkness was that, financially speaking, he didn’t have to write a line. A poker-related dot-com windfall allowed him to do whatever the hell he wanted. He did travel to Europe so he could head to the Louvre and stare at the Rubenses he adored and to Venice to admire the Tintorettos.
But he wouldn’t stop writing.
He couldn’t help himself. It’s as if that voice of his just couldn’t be contained.