Editor’s note: Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald remembers her predecessor, John Hartl, who died June 3.
John Hartl loved movies.
Of course, there was so much more to him than that — he was, for starters, the kindest and gentlest of men, with a soft voice, an ever-present quiet smile and a low-key way of always saying the smartest thing in the room. But in remembering John, the longtime Seattle Times film critic who died earlier this month at the age of 76, I think of the movies.
I think of John’s remarkable encyclopedic knowledge of film — you could toss any obscure movie description at him and he’d come right back with the title. I think of how he loved to introduce friends to his favorite movies, often on the enormous screen in his living room. I think of how he’d see multiple movies a day at Seattle International Film Festival and always be eager for just one more. I think of how so many of us grew up reading his reviews in the paper and being thrilled by the experience of seeing movies through his eyes. I think of how being a movie critic means you’re never watching alone; you’re always thinking about sharing the moment.
And I think of how a love of film was a throughline for John, from his childhood in Eastern Washington to his last years as he faced Lewy body dementia, a progressive neurological disorder. John died peacefully on the morning of June 3, at the cozy Seattle home he shared with his husband, Michael Upchurch, also a longtime Seattle Times arts writer. For those who knew and loved John (and if you knew him, you loved him), it’s a comfort to know that the end came gently, even if his last years didn’t follow the script we might have wanted. But the movies were always there, a passion until his final days.
Born in Wenatchee and growing up in a number of small Washington towns — his father was a teacher and school administrator who worked in various districts — John was the eldest of six siblings, and a movie lover from his earliest years, saving money from his paper route to rent or buy 8mm movies. His Oscar prognostication skills came early: While still in high school (then living in Camas, Clark County), John won an Oscar prediction contest held by The Oregonian, winning the dream prize of free tickets to Portland movie theaters for a year. He attended Clark College and then the University of Washington, where he studied journalism and worked on the UW Daily student newspaper. Along the way, he made a few films, including a 1969 half-hour adaptation of “The Who’s Tommy” starring his siblings, along with his baby niece as the infant Tommy. (That niece, Tobi Vail, later became the drummer for Bikini Kill.)
John’s writing career at The Seattle Times encompassed nearly his entire adult life, beginning at the age of 20 as he finished up his journalism degree. His first Times byline was a 1966 review of the Steve McQueen movie “Nevada Smith,” which young John described as “an overproduced, sporadically interesting potboiler.” Hired to join the arts staff that year, he tirelessly wrote thousands of reviews in the following decades.
As a critic, John was astonishingly prolific, reviewing not only an endless parade of new theatrical releases but also, for many years, providing capsule reviews of movies on television. His writing was calm and thoughtful; he wrote from a place of great knowledge, but had no need to make himself important. You sensed in his work the generous person he was: a fair and careful observer, letting readers know what was good and what wasn’t, giving every movie its due, always hoping for gold. Thrilled by great movies — among his all-time favorites were “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Spartacus,” “Shane” and the 1939 screwball comedy “Midnight” — John always hoped the next classic was just waiting to unspool.
After three-and-a-half decades, John took an early retirement in 2001, discouraged by the quality of many of the Hollywood films he was reviewing and weary of the daily grind. “Near-criminal foolishness has always been a large part of this business,” he wrote in his farewell piece. “It’s the escalating hype surrounding the release of the junkiest stuff, the willingness of the press to play along, the lust to be ‘No. 1 in America’ on thousands of screens.” Despite those frustrations, he was unable to entirely walk away from the art form he loved, continuing to write frequent freelance reviews and features until 2018.
A few months after John’s 2001 departure, I was hired to follow in his footsteps as the Times movie critic — an incredibly daunting prospect, helped enormously by John’s generosity of spirit. After I was hired, John kindly extended a lunch invitation — we knew each other slightly from screenings — and we had a long and wonderful conversation about movies and life. I asked him if he had any advice for me as I stepped into his former position, and he smiled his quiet smile and said no, I should just make the job my own. It was as if a precious gift had been handed over. Throughout the years, John would often email when he’d liked something I’d written; I’ve saved every one of those emails, still dazzled to consider him a colleague.
John had multiple interests outside of movies: His husband, Michael, noted that among the many things John loved were contemporary dance, all forms of music, violent fairground rides and cats. “I still can’t believe my luck at meeting him, loving him and sharing a life together for more than 30 years,” Michael wrote in an email. “We had so much fun and lively exploration together. I would have taken another 30 years, but I guess we just don’t get that in this life. He was the perfect combination of sweetness and mischief.”
In a final act of generosity, John donated brain tissue to the UW for research into brain activity in the elderly, including those with dementia. A memorial service for him will be planned for a later date. For those wishing to make a charitable donation on John’s behalf, Michael suggested any food bank — local, national or international. In addition to Michael, John is survived by his siblings Mary Johnson, Beth Vail, Paul Hartl, Priscilla Hartl and Jim Hartl; his nieces Tobi Vail, Maggie Vail and Kaity Hartl; his nephew Steven Hartl and many friends.
It’s comforting to think of John watching a movie now, all illness and discomfort gone, just art and joy remaining. Michael thought John’s celestial screening room might be showing “Nights of Cabiria,” by his favorite filmmaker Federico Fellini. Maybe the theater looks a bit like Cinerama, or like the movie palaces in Portland that John loved as a teen, and maybe he’s sitting right now in a seat of honor on the aisle, captivated one more time.