We at NOW are hurting at the sudden loss of our founding film writer, John Harkness, who, we believe, was the greatest Canadian film writer of the last 26 years.
John was the kind of live-large guy you would hope worked at an alternative newspaper, and yes, a great screenwriter making a movie about NOW would have to have invented him. Fortunately for us, Harkness invented himself and walked through our front door.
He spoke as he wrote, with humour and intelligence, often trying out lines on unsuspecting fellow staffers who could be spellbound – or headlocked – listening to him, his wiseass conversational cracks refined and repeated in copy in the next day’s paper.
John’s favourite muscle was his brain, and while he could at times appear oblivious to outward appearances, his intellect was as fresh-pressed and natty as the fine Italian suits he began wearing later in life, after he became fabulously wealthy through a dot-com windfall.
But he was always what late Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott called a “heavy metal film writer.” Often clad in threadbare film-company giveaway T-shirts with hints of yesterday’s lunch on them, he almost defied you to dismiss him, but his wit and knowledge, not just of film but of almost everything, made him impossible to ignore.
He had an astounding knowledge of pop culture, could explain the intricacies of poker or a curve ball pitch, yet also had a deep understanding of classic literature, the visual arts and the joys of watching things “blow up real good” on the screen.John’s work has appeared in every edition of NOW since we started in September 1981, and he never missed a deadline.
When we were a sloppy pile of post-college kids first creating NOW, John modelled a professionalism that we all espoused but weren’t so sure we could pull off right away.
Just as he expected filmmakers, no matter how small their budget or effort, to behave like professionals, his own standards were just as high. That meant he had no relationship with our advertising department and did everything he could to fairly assess the films he was sent to see.
He didn’t give a shit if somebody had bought an ad, if Robert Lantos really wanted the film to open big or if someone he once championed had made the picture. He never reviewed a film based on a book without reading the original work, even if it was published only in French.
He never understood why we had such a hard time starting meetings on time, but he never abandoned our effort. That’s why when John missed a deadline for the first time ever on Tuesday, we dispatched colleagues to his apartment, in the same building he had lived in when he started at NOW, to discover our dear friend had died.
I first met John mere weeks before launching NOW, at my first press conference, as I was playing hooky from my expiring day job. It was a Festival Of Festivals presser – TIFF to us now – in August 1981, and in a room of 200 people I spied Harkness across the aisle. I didn’t like him right away. He seemed too intense, too serious about this entertainment.
I was convinced the torn Converse sneaker he wore on his left foot, its rubber soul disengaged from its canvas upper, was some form of affected poverty. I couldn’t believe he was so broke he had to wear a rundown running shoe to this film fest splendour.
As the press conference ended, a friend chatted with Harkness at the far end of the room, pointing in my direction, no doubt telling him I was starting a weekly and looking for a film writer.I ran away. Eventually, however, his clippings caught up with me. One late night as Alice Klein and I were deep in NOW’s countdown to launch, I finally read John’s articles – and was blown away.
The first clip was from Cinema Canada, a trade mag he wrote for. In 200 words he dissected a crappy Canadian horror movie, offering a lesson in tax credit filmmaking and still finding the right things to like about this wrong movie.
A spellbinding noir narrative was also in the package, one of many standout assignments he’d done for his mentor Andrew Sarris, the Village Voice film writer and John’s prof at Columbia in NYC, where he incubated before joining NOW.
“I hope I haven’t scared this guy off,’’ I told Klein worriedly. “This stuff is the reason we’re starting this paper.”
Garth Drabinsky once ordered us to fire Harkness in 1984. John had been quoted in GQ magazine commenting on the Cineplex wunderkind (and future fugitive) who was getting kid-glove treatment from all other press. John said Cineplex had “ersatz films on the screen, real butter on the popcorn.”
An enraged Drabinsky kicked NOW out of his theatres and cancelled our biggest advertising account, but Harkness wouldn’t learn of the conversation until months later, and he barely raised his easily cocked eyebrow.
It would neither prejudice him against a Drabinsky film nor make him hesitate to shoot off his mouth next time.Desperate as we were to keep the bullying Drabinsky on our side, there was never a chance of cutting Harkness. We were often called on to defend him from attacks by yet another wounded filmmaker all the angrier that Harkness’s biting words were so intelligent, hi-larious and, often, right on point.
We were always proud to stand with him no matter how deep the rage he’d engendered.
As NOW wrestled with political correctness, Harkness refused to be correct or predictable about anything. But he was never frivolously controversial – just incapable of saying things he didn’t believe or prattling platitudes to please anyone.
Sometimes he freaked us out, but never just for effect, always because of a firmly held, intelligently developed belief. We once coerced him into contributing to our first Queer Issue and expected him to produce a characteristically erudite contemplation of gay filmmaking.
Instead, he wrote a totally honest account in which he confessed that he just couldn’t watch men kiss on screen – sorry, folks, that’s just the way it is.
Suddenly, I was getting calls from Citytv, posters denouncing us appeared on Church Street, and John had again made us apply the filter of real life to our professed publishing principles.John was capable of writing reviews that were better than the movies they referred to, and if readers went with him for the ride, they were usually rewarded with information and insight that few others could squeeze out of such seemingly insignificant work.
He taught me to love the right big-budget Hollywood movies, to appreciate why things “blowing up real good” could be cool and how not to be snowed by well-intentioned foreign or independent films.
He could see beauty in a cartoon, a fistfight and a fuck. He knew in his bones why John Ford was certain there was no better image than a man thundering across a screen on a galloping horse, and he could still get goose bumps watching a chopper fly low and fast over a rice paddy, all the while enjoying the classical music exploding on the soundtrack.
In the days before he died, John had picked up the keys to the new luxury condo he was about to move into, appropriately close to Yonge and Eg’s movie theatres. We can at least take comfort in knowing he was in the midst of an amazing period of revival and discovery before he left us.
He was in the remarkable position of no longer having to work due to his dot-com dividends. And yet, free from any financial imperative, John couldn’t walk away from film writing. He was as productive as ever, positively gushing with insight online and in print.
He was never attracted to movies for the stars, only for the starlight.
John was a big enough personality to have actually contemplated what he’d call his autobiography. “My Life In The Dark,” he’d say. “I’ve spent my life sitting by myself in a dark room.”
No, John, you were never alone. We were lucky enough to be there with you as you shone your light on the Lumiere.
More on John Harkness’s legacy in NOW’s January 3 issue. Post your own tributes at www.nowtoronto.com.