In 2002, I was 19 and had just gotten a slightly-above-minimum-wage job at “The Carmike.” After my first shift, a Saturday during the opening weekend of the latest Star Wars epic, I went home and considered never going back. I felt uncomfortable there with all those strangers, and the pay was awful. But I knew my mom, whom I still lived with in those days, would be disappointed, 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 Hanke.
He was an assistant manager 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 mishmash of stoners, drunks, film nerds and general screw-ups of various ages — a real cross section of American inertia. It was in this milieu that I somehow became friends with Ken.
I’m not sure how: He was nearly three decades my senior, 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 it for Xpress, and I found his knowledge impressive, as did everyone who knew Ken. He was fascinating in that respect.
I’d grown up in a singlewide in the middle of nowhere in Henderson County, and though I’d always been interested in art and movies, I 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, handing me a brown plastic grocery bag full of DVDs: films by Peter Greenaway, Charlie Chaplin, Ken Russell, Woody Allen, Richard Lester and others. “These are films that all well-rounded young people should know,” he told me.
Ken 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 people we worked with or folks who’d gotten in touch with Ken through the paper. Yes, he was a curmudgeon: Although he joked that the “Cranky” nickname existed only because it rhymed, I knew better. But even at his grumpiest, Ken was always patient with people. He approached movies the same way. Even if he was sure a film would be terrible, he gave it a fair shake. Cinema, he felt, required this of him.
It was during those after-hours screenings (and, years later, when we started the Asheville Film Society) that I gradually figured out what film meant to Ken: For him, movies were communal, something to be shared with friends and strangers alike, and he respected the opportunity he was given to do that. He was constantly re-watching films, trying to figure out how they ticked, unpack their tricks, all the while re-assessing his own previous ideas. If I ever disagreed with him, he’d tell me, “You’re wrong!” but in the end, he never really saw himself as infallible.
It’s strange to talk about a person in terms of the ephemera with which he surrounded himself, but this is who Ken was. He loved art in all its forms. There’s a point 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 film adaptation (which I suspect most people have forgotten) came out in 2006, and Ken opened his review by discussing that passage. “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 the importance of human connection, understood that art can connect us to our humanity, explaining not only the frustration and difficulty we find in the world but the love and kindness that are out there as well.
And though we rarely spoke about it, I know one of his great disappointments was that he was never 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 was easily transferred to DVD — but the rest remained trapped on 16 mm. He also wrote at least one screenplay, for a movie called Blood, and he’d brag about how much fake blood would be needed to film it.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this disappointment a regret, however, because I also know how much he loved writing about film. In 2010, we estimated that he’d reviewed 2,000 movies up till then, and I can’t even imagine what that number’s up to now. You don’t do all that plus write four books on film without loving the work.
And as I think about it now, I believe film criticism was his creative outlet. Like all artists, he was sharing with us what he found important, what was good in life. You could see this reflected in his taste. Films that others dismissed as self-indulgent, Ken lauded for their ability to embrace creativity and energy with a full-throated verve. At the same time, he loved trashy movies and melodrama, understanding that life isn’t worth living if you take yourself too seriously.
Art was the way Ken connected with filmmakers, screenwriters, musicians, authors: all these people he’d probably never meet. But sometimes, he did meet them. Ken loved the work of Ken Russell, which spoke to him like no other filmmaker’s. And while writing a book about Russell’s films, Ken became friends with the director (or T’Other Ken, as each was accustomed to calling the other). Those movies defined Ken in many ways, and both men cherished the friendship — Russell, perhaps unfairly labeled the enfant terrible of British cinema, and Hanke, the young writer. It was a relationship born of their shared passion: movies. And it was such a piece of the Ken I knew that I have a hard time writing about it: I know I can’t hope to do it justice.
Like many people here, I think I took for granted the way Ken became an Asheville institution. I always believed, and still do, that his talent and knowledge deserved a bigger stage. But at the same time, Ken fit Asheville and its quirks so perfectly.
Sure, he could be entertaining when razing some terrible movie, but Ken was at his best when he was writing about things he loved or admired. And over the years, he became iconic in his own small way, a subtle champion of what’s good in this world. I fear we didn’t fully appreciate what we had in Ken, but unfortunately, we will soon come to understand what we’ve lost.
In 2006, he asked me to start writing with him, which I now see as a gesture of respect and trust. And he always pushed me to become a better writer, though I’m not sure how far I’ve gotten with that. In any case, Ken gave me the opportunity to at least feign being a professional writer.
I keep thinking of the impact this man had on my life. He taught me how to examine my own tastes, including my dislikes, and approach everything with an open mind. He taught me not only how to appreciate but how 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 — and how would it even have been possible? He gave me more than I deserved, but he was always glad to do so.
Writing this, I worry about leaving out a key anecdote or memory. I worry that I won’t do the man justice. He has a wife and daughter whom he loved and cared for and who did the same for him; they will carry on without him. He had so many friends who wanted to see him healthy and happy. I want their voices to be heard — I worry that mine is not enough, that this piece isn’t enough, that no one will understand.
Ken’s health had been waning for years, so slowly that I think we all just assumed he’d stick around forever. His passing was expected — he’d been diagnosed with COPD several years before — but for it to come so suddenly was still a shock. As soon as the news got out about Ken’s passing, I started seeing the effect he’d had on so many people. 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 folks I’d forgotten were so close to him, a broad swath of former co-workers and acquaintances. All of them wanted to celebrate his life. I honestly can’t think of any better tribute.
Over the past year, things had unwound in my personal life, as they’re wont to do, and I’d lost contact with Ken, slowly pulling back from the film society and reviewing for the paper, and from calling or emailing him as much. 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 any way he could. He always did.
I saw him for the last time a few weeks ago at the Grail (of course: It had to be a movie theater, always). It’d been months, maybe, since we’d been face to face, and there was no great reveal, nothing cathartic, because life, unfortunately, is not a film. It’s 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, made snide comments back and forth, chatted about movies, and it honestly felt the way it always had with us, all those years gone by. And I’ll happily take that. I wish it were more, but I’ll take it.