"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 , 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 email@example.com.