Ken take 10

"Ken Hanke has something unique: the gift of being able to be amused by his own misfortunes, such as seeing a really bad film. He has the bigger picture. He can also decipher exactly a good viewing experience. Everyone should have a constant supply of Hanke's columns. He's the smartest writer on films of anyone I've read. I keep his orange book under my pillow to give me good dreams. He is my good friend and the most loyal person I've ever come to know." – Ken Russell

It all began a little more than a decade ago, with a perfectly understandable desire. “I wanted to get out of Florida,” says Ken Hanke, who, 10 years ago this month, officially became the Xpress' full-time film critic. But this wasn't a case of Hanke showing up in Asheville and taking the city's moviegoing culture by storm. “I had had a very flimsy offer from the Xpress to do some freelance work, not realizing that was nothing like a proper job,” he explains. “The first thing they offered me was this Brewgrass thing. I know very little about beer. I know less about bluegrass — and wish to know less about bluegrass. But I was afraid if I said no, they'd never offer me anything ever again.”

The article — along with a pretty good joke about jug-swigging — can still be found, buried deep within the online archives of the Xpress. We'll never know what may or may not have happened if Hanke hadn't said yes, because soon thereafter opportunities for writing about film came along.

“They knew [film] was my specialty and they knew I was associated with Scarlet Street magazine.” In fact, Hanke was associate editor of Scarlet Street, which specialized in horror, mystery and film noir (the final issue published in 2006). “Because of that connection, whenever there was something of the horror-film nature that [Xpress] needed reviewed, they would contact me. I did The Exorcist 2000 reissue, I did Lost Souls, I did Red Planet. I finally said, I have seen more movies than fantasy and horror, you could give me something else.”

Hanke soon found himself with a much wider range of movies to write about. “At that time, word came down to me that the critic-in-residence was leaving, and would I be interested in the position? And I said, 'Don't be silly, of course I would.' Then in December of [2000], I found myself in charge of the whole works.”

And how did he get the moniker? “Back when they wanted a new name for the column, I suggested ‘An Elitist Bastard Goes to the Movies’ [now the title of our weekly podcast],” Hanke says. “It was thought that might give offense, at which point someone remembered that [local filmmaker] Paul Schattel had called me ‘Cranky Ken Hanke’ in a letter — defending me, I should note — and it became the choice, mostly because it rhymes, I think. I mean, no one would really think of my as cranky, would they?”

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic and embarrassing Hanke, the face of Asheville's movie scene hasn't been the same since. With thousands of movies reviewed (including about 2,000 new releases, by his estimate) in the intervening years, two weekly online columns, a regular online podcast and curating the Asheville Film Society, as well as hosting retrospectives (with yours truly) twice a week at The Carolina Asheville, Asheville doesn't have — and never has had — such a recognizable personality in the world of film criticism, not to mention one as in tune with the idiosyncratic nature of this city. And I'm not just talking about giant blockbusters, but film on a local level, too.

It's something that hasn't been lost on Asheville's other film institutions. Neal Reed, who runs the downtown Fine Arts Theater, says, “In the last 10 years, Ken Hanke has become an Asheville icon. Ken's distinct way of dissecting a movie, combined with his wit and knowledge of film, keeps us waiting each week to see how he will praise, pan or condescend.”

Marc McCloud, the owner of West Asheville's Orbit DVD, noticed the difference as well. “I was managing a Blockbuster when I first started reading Ken Hanke's reviews … . Right away I picked up on Ken's love for horror films and I did something that I've never done before — I reached out and befriended a critic. We might not always agree, but every review has been thought out and written well.”

When I met Ken Hanke more than eight years ago, I was an impressionable youth who liked bad science-fiction movies. I still, on occasion, like bad science-fiction movies, but now I know how to say why I like them, and that (along with the dubious claim I can now make as a “professional writer”) is all due to him. But he also sees himself as a purveyor of good taste. I, for one, know I (as well as anyone who is friends with him) have received a free film education simply from knowing the man.

“What I would like to do more than anything is convey my enthusiasm for the medium and for individual films,” Hanke points out. “But it mostly is — to put it in the vernacular — to turn people on to movies they might otherwise never consider going to see.”

— Justin Souther can be reached at the.running.board@gmail.com.

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19 thoughts on “Ken take 10

  1. Justin Souther

    I just wanted to add that I had gotten in touch with Ken’s friend Don Mancini (the creator of the Child’s Play series, director of Seed of Chucky and good friend to the now defunct Asheville Film Festival) for some words on Ken. Unfortunately, time constraints kept the him from being included in the article, but I promised I’d get his words online, at least for posterity. So here they are:

    “A few years ago, Ken wrote a kind review of my film Seed of Chucky, giving it three-and-a-half stars. I sent him a note of thanks, and we’ve been friends ever since. But I’m still waiting for the standard half-star friendship upgrade.”

  2. His reviews are better written that most of the films he reviews, and I await the arrival of a new batch every Wednesday with immense anticipatory glee. You guys are lucky to have him.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Such an outpouring of nice things being said about me makes me feel like I must be at my own funeral. Thank you all very much. I’m genuinely touched.

    I do feel I should note that the earlier photo is from Sept. 20, 1977 — my 23rd birthday — and Narcissus (that’s my hairy friend) was a birthday present. And, no, he wasn’t mighty good with mustard, he was a pet — and a pain in the ass of a pet at that. I really do think we ought to have gotten a picture of me and a goat in a theater watching a movie together, but no goats would do it.

  4. I really do think we ought to have gotten a picture of me and a goat in a theater watching a movie together
    Does Justin know that’s how you feel about him?

  5. Ken Hanke

    Does Justin know that’s how you feel about him?

    Nonsense. Justin smells better and he will sit with me.

  6. Michael Cornett

    Ken’s one of the few critics who I enjoy reading even when I disagree with them, because his stuff is just that good. I can see his points, and sometimes am browbeaten to the extent that I concede that a movie is indeed a piece of crap, and mumble despairingly, “But I still enjoyed it…” Still, a Hanke review is well worth reading, even if you don’t agree.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Ken’s one of the few critics who I enjoy reading even when I disagree with them, because his stuff is just that good.

    Thank you, Michael.

  8. I’m happy to see after 10 years that Mr. Hanke gave a favorable review to a Linklater film.

    Congrats for a decade of top notch reviews.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I’m happy to see after 10 years that Mr. Hanke gave a favorable review to a Linklater film.

    Well, he finally made a good one — and it didn’t make me watch Ethan Hawke.

    Congrats for a decade of top notch reviews.

    Thank you.

  10. Arlene

    Ten years… can it be?

    You need to compile your reviews, a la (Zeus forbid) Pauline Kael. They are so often so much better than the films you’re commenting upon.

    I often agree with you, But even when I want to smash the computer screen with a well-placed stiletto- I’m always entertained. There is always food for thought and I’m often reluctantly forced to see a film I would not choose on my own.

    Local friends often wait for me to forward a review before they pick the weekend’s poison.

    Thank you for ten years of trying to cull the wheat from the chaff. And no, it’s not a eulogy.

  11. Ken Hanke

    Ten years… can it be?

    Most of the time it does seem improbable, but it appears to be unarguable truth.

  12. mary

    i picked up this article off the peter o toole website. just by reading a little bit here, i can see that ken is very good at what he does.
    ashville nc, is a beautiful city, what a lovely place to live. i had the pleasure of touring the beautiful biltmore while i was there. i will never forget it.

  13. Ken Hanke

    You realise, Ken, that when you started doing these reviews, I was ten years old.

    But within a year or two you were reading me and look where you are today!

  14. Ken Hanke

    Jeremy, if Ken doesn’t want to strangle you, I do!

    Trust me, he’ll get over being young.

  15. dpewen

    I enjoy Ken’s reviews and find him to be very accurate … great writing and great work … to another 10 years!

  16. Ken Hanke

    I enjoy Ken’s reviews and find him to be very accurate … great writing and great work … to another 10 years!

    Thanks. Another 10 years? I better go rest up.

  17. ptrrrlorre

    I must say, it all got me a little misty-eyed. Here’s to another 10 years… and beyond.

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