By Marion Thullbery
I grew up with Ken Hanke. He was my best friend in elementary school, and we remained good friends all through high school and into our college and young adult years. During that time, we watched movies — all kinds of movies.
With no notion of VHS recorders, let alone the concept of a personal computer, we had only two options: We could go to a theater to see movies or we could watch movies on TV. Ken eventually purchased a 16-millimeter projector and 16-millimeter copies of such films as Love Me Tonight and Duck Soup.
As anyone reading Ken’s columns for very long would know, in addition to attending the local theater and watching TV, Ken went to film festivals. His parents would patiently drive us to them, sometimes 90 minutes away, usually on college campuses — to see various old movies—Karloff and Lugosi, Astaire and Rogers, Chevalier and McDonald, the Marx Brothers, and others you may well guess or have read about. Here is one of my regrets: I can’t remember the details. Ken seemed to remember everything: the directors, the actors, the companies, the variety of creative shots, the sound…all of it. I counted on his memory, which was almost as amazing for life as it was for film. And now it is gone.
Through those years, while I enjoyed most of the movies we watched, I just didn’t see what Ken saw. I found magic in the stories (often), as well as meaning on a personal, interior level. Ken saw magic in the art and design and flow of the films, as well as meaning. He knew when one film was honoring, mimicking or borrowing from another.
Ken often imitated lines or movements from movies in playful ways. His timing was usually perfect. His W.C. Fields exaggerated movement of surprise never failed to make me laugh. Nor his deep Bela Legosi leering voice from, I think, The Black Cat saying, “Come……heerrrrre.” And of course, he had excellent Groucho and Chico voices. One of my favorites came from One Hour with You, with Jeannette McDonald saying to Maurice Chevalier, “Darling, look like an owl.” We who hung around Ken began to pick up many of his oft-quoted lines and that last was my favorite.
For some reason, I embraced with enthusiasm most of the classic horror, classic romance and classic comedy that Ken introduced me to. But when it came to my own, personal love of musicals, we pretty much clashed. Ken really didn’t get into musicals after the days of Cole Porter, with a few exceptions such as Moulin Rouge! and Across the Universe and, of course, Tommy. Our biggest clash back in the day was over The Sound of Music, a film that stirred all kinds of feelings in me. Ken would have none of it. I still remember his mocking rendition of one song: “I Must Have Done Someone Good.” Once, out of some sort of chivalry, he drove about 70 miles to the beach town where The Sound of Music was showing, to take me to my seventh or so viewing. I’d actually forgotten that incident until he reminded me just a few years ago — by which time, surprisingly, Ken had shifted his view a bit. When Moulin Rouge! came out, enigmatically, his love for that movie, and its use of the title song from The Sound of Music, created more space for his viewing of The Sound of Music.
Ken toyed with the idea of directing. In our 11th-grade English class we broke up into groups of four to do a project that depicted something about Hawthorne’s book The Scarlet Letter. Our group, of course, made a movie, with Ken behind the camera and the rest of us acting out his screenplay. Also, my parents had an attic that Ken found a bit magical. He used old furniture to create different movie sets, and interacted with that space to start some screenplays. My favorite set was of a flat in Paris. It was a fun way to pass the time.
At some point when I was in college, Ken bought a camera store. He sold cameras and film and sent customers’ negatives off to be developed; this was long before one-hour photo labs and certainly long before the immediacy of mobile phones or iPads. I was amazed at Ken’s in-depth understanding of lenses and settings and such. He loved being behind the camera. But ultimately, Ken realized his passion was not making movies, but watching, interpreting and understanding movies.
Ken and I lost track of each other when I went off to seminary. Throughout our childhood years together, from elementary school on, aside from our focus on small-town news and the requisite discussions about relationships, Ken and I had talked about two things: movies and theology. The former was our main concern, of course, but we usually found our way before too long into some sort of theological discussion. Although we came from quite different vantage points, we never really tried to change the other: I was a life-long Episcopalian with a sacramental (read: “meaning and metaphor”) view of/approach to life, and he was an externally cynical but just-beneath-the-surface hopeless romantic humanist. But we couldn’t resist the conversations. He ended up a movie critic and I ended up a priest. Years later, when we found each other through the mundane but effective means of Facebook, we both were proud of one another. We said as much in an email exchange.
So we picked back up, via conversations, very occasional visits, regular email. I was astounded at the memories called forth in these written and spoken conversations. Parts of my life were given back to me that I didn’t even know I had lost, which made my present life richer and deeper for it. And, of course, as we filled one another in on our histories, we quickly transitioned to the movies we each had seen and liked…or not. I was and wasn’t surprised to find that, for the most part, Ken had a positive take on many of the movies I was drawn to (except musicals, of course…and I won’t mention which ones). Some of my favorite movies over the years turned out to be in the top 10 of, and even No. 1 on, his yearly lists. I asked about Breakfast on Pluto and Across the Universe immediately. He sent me his write-ups of both. In one early email I remarked what a mistake it had been for the Academy Awards for best movie and best actress to go to Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby instead of Annette Bening and Being Julia. Ken’s reply email congratulated me on my taste and included his reviews of both movies.
Here is the thing: I quickly became dependent on Ken’s reviews, either when I wasn’t sure about taking the time to see a certain movie, or to help me process one I had seen. He had been my eyes and ears for movies in the first 30-odd years of my life. Since we reconnected, he became, even more effectively and more encompassingly, my eyes and ears and senses for movies, more than I ever knew — often validating, occasionally clashing, always providing perspective.
I wish I could tell him how much our conversations meant to me, how much they have affected me. My wishing, longing, grieving will last some time. The night after Ken died, I went to a movie he had already reviewed and liked, trying to soothe my spirit. It didn’t work as well as I had hoped. I mostly grieved that I couldn’t ask him about his insights or those questions I wanted to discuss with him.
The Legend of Tarzan was the first movie I read about in Ken’s “Weekly Reeler” but saw while knowing he would not be reviewing it. Realizing that I couldn’t see his take on the movie caused me great sadness. But it also caused me to watch, or to make the attempt to watch, the film with more intention. I tried to see more of what I depended on Ken to help me see. I even tried to write a review of the movie. It wasn’t good enough to quote from here.
In the past few days, I have had some movie questions that I wanted to ask Ken. After spending some time in deep sadness and regret that he wasn’t around to provide answer, it occurred to me to look at his columns. As it turned out, Ken was able, more than once, to answer my queries.
For instance, in a moment of nostalgia a few nights ago, I was watching Love Me Tonight. During the hunt scene, I said to a couple of friends watching with me, “This seems to me to be almost exactly like the hunt scene in Auntie Mame. I wish I could call or email Ken and ask him about that.” It then occurred to me to pick up my phone, tap my link to Ken’s movie reviews, and look to see if he had by any chance critiqued the old Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell (he had) and if, in that critique, he’d commented on the similarity between the hunt scenes. (He did. Feel free to look them up). Ten or 12 times since Ken’s recent passing, his legacy of film criticism has provided answers to my questions.
When Ken and I first reconnected early in this current century, the subject line of his emails to me often had some old favorite movie quotes. One of them, a W. C. Fields’s quote from You’re Telling Me, read, “It’s a funny old world. A man’s lucky if he gets out of it alive.” You, Ken, got out of this world alive. I know I’m not alone in counting on your reviews, your “Weekly Reelers,” and your “Screening Rooms” to continue to speak to us movie lovers at many levels. You will be alive for a long time in your 5,000-plus posts, layered and wise, drawing from your amazing knowledge of, and your deep love for, movies. Thank you. I miss you. And, Ken…Look like an owl.