It’s strange to me to write about Ken Hanke for an audience outside of Asheville. For me — and for a lot of people I know — he was an institution here. He started writing film criticism for Asheville’s alt-weekly The Mountain Xpress in 2000. A few years later, his name had been plastered to the top of the page: Cranky Hanke. He told me numerous times that the “Cranky” was only there because it rhymed with his last name, but I knew better. He could be cantankerous and curmudgeonly at times, but even in that, he was generous with his time and patient with people (even when, perhaps he need not be).
His patience extended to me. In 2002, I was 19 and had just gotten a slightly above minimum wage job at a Carmike. I worked my first shift, a Saturday the opening weekend of the latest Star Wars movie, went home, and thought about never going back. I felt uncomfortable there with all these strangers and the pay was awful, but I knew my mom, who I still lived with in those days, would be disappointed in me because I’d been without a job for about four months at that point. So I went back because I thought I should, a small, pragmatic decision that changed my whole life, because that’s where I met Ken.
He was one of the assistant managers there at the time, and he struck me as a prickly, somewhat intimidating figure. If you’ve ever worked at a multiplex, you’ll know that it’s a weird mish-mash of stoners and drunks and film nerds and general screw-ups of various ages, a real cross-section of American inertia. It was in this milieu that somehow, I became friends with Ken. I’m not sure how. He was nearly three decades my senior, and our tastes didn’t really overlap in those days, and I was a terribly shy and introverted teen. But somewhere in there, we started talking. There was a lot of downtime, so I’d sit upstairs in the projection booth, him smoking cigarettes by the fire exit and telling me about his one great passion, film. I knew he wrote about film for the Xpress, and I found his knowledge impressive, something true of everyone who knew Ken. He was fascinating in that respect.
I was a kid that’d grown up in a single-wide trailer in the middle of nowhere in Western North Carolina, and I’d always been interested in art and movies but hadn’t really been exposed to much. I’d tracked down some of the local Blockbuster’s more artsy titles, but my frame of reference was incredibly narrow. Ken soon fixed that, giving me a brown plastic grocery bag full of DVDs, films by Peter Greenaway, Charlie Chaplin, Ken Russell, Woody Allen, Richard Lester, and others, telling me, “Theses are films that all well-rounded young people should know.”
He continued trying to teach me about film and books and music. We’d watch movies after hours at the theater, joined by whoever wanted to come, whether they were the people we worked with or people who’d gotten in touch with Ken through the paper. Again, it was this patience with people, this welcoming of them, that always impressed me. I think he learned this from the way in which he approached movies. Even if he was sure it would be terrible, he gave the work its fair shake. He was honest in this respect — cinema asked this of him — and he did his part.
It was here that I learned what film meant to him. It was in these times, times which continued years later when we started the Asheville Film Society in 2009, that figured out that movies were communal for him. This is what he wanted to do with his friends and with strangers, too; he wanted to share, and he respected the opportunity he was given to do just this. He was constantly rewatching films, trying to figure out how they ticked, unpack their tricks, all the while reassessing his own previous ideas. If I ever disagreed with him, he’d tell me, “You’re wrong!” But in the end he never truly saw himself as infallible.
It’s strange to talk about a person in regards to the ephemera he surrounded himself with, but this is who Ken was. He loved art in all its forms. There’s a line in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys that’s always stuck with me, where a professor says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
The play was adapted in 2006, and Ken opened his review of the film, a film I suspect most people have forgotten, discussing this line in the movie. “These are sublime (if intensely subjective) moments where art goes beyond communication into true connection, making the viewer/reader/listener feel less alone in the world,” he wrote. Ken understood that art is what connects us to humanity, explains all the frustration and difficulty we find in the world, but the love and kindness that’s out there, too. He understood the importance of human connection.
We talked very little about it, but I know one of his great disappointments was that he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to make his own films. He’d made some shorts here and there (I saw one because it’d been shot on a camcorder and thus easily transferred to DVD; the rest remained trapped on 16mm) and written at least one screenplay for a movie called Blood; he’d brag about the amount of fake blood one would need to film it. I’m not sure how much this affected him, but I fear calling it a regret would be too much, because I know how much he loved to write about film. We estimated he reviewed 2,000 movies in 2010, and I can’t imagine what that number’s up to now. You don’t write that many reviews, plus four books on film, without loving that work. But as I think about it now, I feel like his criticism was his creative outlet. As with all art, he was sharing with us what he found important, what was good in life. You could see this reflected in his tastes. Films that others dismissed as self-indulgent, he lauded for their ability to embrace creativity and energy with a full-throated verve. At the same time, he was a great fan of trashy movies and melodrama and understood a life isn’t worth living if you take yourself too seriously.
Art was how he connected with filmmakers, screenwriters, musicians, authors, all these people he’d probably never meet, their work passed down through time. Sometimes, he did meet them. While working on a book about the film of director Ken Russell, the British director — or T’Other Ken, as each was accustomed to calling one another — and Hanke became friends. Mr. Russell’s films defined Ken in many ways, spoke to him, and the friendship that blossomed from it — Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema as he was unfairly labeled and Hanke, the young writer —was cherished by both men and a relationship borne out of movies. Russell’s films had connected with Ken like no other filmmaker’s, and now their relationship was real. This friendship was such a piece of the Ken I knew that I have a hard time writing about it. I know I can do it no justice.
I think even I took for granted the way in which Ken became ingrained within Asheville’s culture. I always believe — and still do — that his talent and knowledge was more than a small city like Asheville deserved. Not that we’re unworthy, but that he deserved a bigger audience or a bigger market. But at the same time, he fit Asheville and its quirks so perfectly. I know that witnessing him razing some terrible movie could be entertaining, Ken was at his best when he had the opportunity to write about the things he loved or found worthy, and he was generous to give us that. He became — in his own small way — iconic over the years here, a subtle champion of what is good in this world. I fear we didn’t know what we had in Ken, but we’ll soon, unfortunately, understand what we’re missing. I hope Charleston enjoyed him, too.
In 2006, he asked me to start writing with him at the Xpress and the City Paper, a gesture I know see as a great sign of respect and trust. He always tried to push me into being a better writer, something I’m not sure I ever filled out into, but he gave me the opportunity, at least, to feign being a professional writer. I keep thinking of the pull this man had on my life. He taught me how to examine my own tastes and dislikes and approach everything with an open mind. He taught me not only how to appreciate, but to understand why I appreciated. I fear the type of man I might be today if it weren’t for him, how terribly dull my life would be, the self-awareness I’d lack, the joy I’d have missed out on, the opportunities missed. But on top of this, and more importantly, he took care of me. I had a complicated relationship with my father, and Ken filled out that role for me in a lot of ways. He never expected repayment for any of this — how would it have been possible, even? He gave me more than I deserved, but he was always glad to do so.
Writing this, I worry I’ll miss an anecdote or a memory. I worry I won’t do the man justice. He has a wife and daughter who carry on without him, who he loved and cared for and who did the same for him. He had so many friends who wanted to see him healthy and happy. I want their voices to be heard. I worry mine isn’t enough, that this isn’t enough, that no one will understand. Ken’s health had been waning for years now, so slowly that I think we all just assumed he’d stick around forever. His passing was both expected — he’d been diagnosed with COPD for a few years now — but for it to come so suddenly is shocking. But as soon as news got out about Ken’s passing, I started to see the effect he had on so many people, people I both knew and didn’t. I got calls from old friends, texts and emails from people I hadn’t heard from in ages. I saw posts on social media from people I’d forgotten were so close to him, a wide swath of old coworkers and acquaintances, all diverse and different, who wanted to celebrate his life. I can’t think of anything better, honestly.
Due to my own personal life and the way things had unwound in the way they’re wont to do, I’d lost contact with Ken over the past year, slowly pulling back from the film society in Asheville and reviewing for the Xpress, from calling him or emailing him as much as I once did. I never talked to him about why this was happening, because it’s always been easier for me to recede into myself than to disappoint him, though I know full well he’d have listened and helped me in anyway he could. He always did. I saw him for the last time a few weeks ago at the movies — of course at a movie theater, always a movie theater. It’d been months, maybe, since we’d been face-to-face, and there was no great reveal, nothing cathartic here, because life, unfortunately, is not a film; it is rarely profound, the mysteries remain shrouded, the killer gets away, and you never say the right thing at the right time. But that final night he was in good spirits. We joked and made snide comments back and forth and chatted about movies, and it honestly felt how it always did with us, all those years gone by. And I’ll happily take that. I wish it was more, but I’ll take it.