Canadian film critic John Harkness and I crossed paths many times over the past quarter-century during my annual trek to his Toronto turf for the world’s greatest film festival. And while I would not presume to describe us as close friends, I must say I always enjoyed our spirited conversations – during which, more often than not, John did most of the talking, and made by far the funnier wisecracks (which, of course, I would later repeat and claim as my own) – even as he gleefully trashed a movie I meekly admitted to half-liking. He was an excellent writer with a devoted following. Indeed, I remember one of my film history students appearing extremely impressed when I told her I knew the author of her favorite book, John’s The Academy Awards Handbook. Later, when I told John about this, he smiled wickedly and inquired: “So, did that help you get laid?” That it most certainly did not seemed to genuinely disappoint him.
BTW: Quite inadvertently, John once taught me an invaluable lesson about how little we sometimes know, and how much we may assume, about colleagues with whom we share professional relationships. Anyone who has ever covered a major film festival can tell you that, while you’re immersed in the day-to-day, morning-to-midnight grind, you tend to narrow your focus to the point of ignoring, or simply forgetting, the outside world. (While at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, I caught a TV news report about the escalation of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Shortly afterwards, I ran into a very well-known film critic – whom I will not name, because he’s no longer with us – and I remarked: “Isn’t it amazing what’s going on in China right now?” The film critic, who obviously had not been paying attention to world news, responded with a stricken expression and an anxious query: “There’s a new Chinese movie here? When was it screened? Where?”) One year at Toronto, John and I were hanging with a few people in a hotel bar, discussing some movie or another, when I made a passing reference to my son (who was, if memory serves me correctly, about eight or nine at the time). John gave me a quizzical look, then said: “You know, Joe, you and I have known each other for years – but this is the first time you ever mentioned having a son.” At first, I was shocked: Surely John was mistaken, surely I had mentioned someone as important to me as my child many times before. But it hit me: No, I probably hadn’t. Because while I’m at a film festival, talking with colleagues I see only at film festivals -- well, all we usually talk about is movies. That, and where’s the best place to get a quick meal between screenings.
If you totaled all the time I spent with John over the years at various festivals – or with any one of a few other colleagues I never see in any other context -- it might add up to more hours I’ve spent with blood relatives over the same period. And, yes, there’s something ineffably deceptive about spending long periods in close quarters alongside people with similar interests: You start to think that you actually know these people. But you don’t. Such is life.