In many ways Mike Canning’s whole life set him on the path to become the three-decade film reviewer for the Hill Rag. He loved movies all his life and loved introducing ones he liked best to friends and neighbors and his DC community.
He grew up in Fargo, North Dakota in a family with no TV, but there were a half dozen movie theaters where he could watch abundant cartoons and Western and Disney features. When Mike went on to college at North Dakota State University in Fargo, his interest in films deepened when he became fascinated by foreign films.
In 1963-64 he broadened that knowledge during a year’s scholarship program, first at the University of Tübingen then at the Free University of Berlin. He met Judy Jones on the student ship to Europe. She was also heading for Berlin. Judy and Mike’s courtship included a lot of movie dates watching films like Black Orpheus, La Dolce Vita and Lawrence of Arabia from Mike’s list of 68 movies that he saw in Berlin that year. Soon after, he was accepted into the U.S. Information Agency Foreign Service.
At the time he died of leukemia on June 1 of this year, it had been 30 years since Mike was hired by the Hill Rag as a film reviewer. In 2016, he wrote an engaging short bio called “The Best Job in the World” in which he reported that he had seen about 2500 films and had reviewed about 300 of them (source: Mike’s website mikesflix.com). Since then, many more films have been added to his impressive total.
Mike was well respected in his work as Cultural Affairs Officer and Information (Press) Officer in the U.S. Information Agency. He and Judy served in eight different posts on three continents: in Nicaragua, Peru, Uganda, Kenya, Iran, Italy, Argentina, and Brazil. Mike’s favorite tour was his four years in Rome from 1982-1986 as Embassy Press Officer.
Joe Johnson, the Assistant Press Officer in Rome wrote a portrait of Mike after he died (for the organization The Public Diplomacy Council) giving a sense of the mix of demanding work and pleasure in Rome. “Our workday began with a press briefing, after which we customarily repaired across the street for a cappuccino and cornetto in the bar, which was operated by a Communist Party trade union. After that we got down to work….Mike had his hands full with the large American media presence and influential Italian television networks…..”
His colleague and close friend, Pete Cecere, worked with Mike as young officers, when Mike was made Chief of the Seminar and Youth Programs Office for USIA in Latin America. One task was to come up with a solid understanding of what to expect of student unrest in various Latin American countries and how these differed from the roles of college students in the U.S. The next step was to propose USIA programs that would reach these Latin American young people. Cecere said that “Mike had a gift for clear descriptions of the challenges of Latin American youth movements for the U.S. and sound proposals for elements of USIA programs that would be effective with them.”
Even when absorbed with the political issues and American cultural outreach to the countries where he was posted, Mike found a way to enjoy films and introduce American movies to people in these countries. He would lead film discussions, organize film festivals, and write about films of all types.
Life on the Hill
After returning from Peru in 1969 with first daughter Elizabeth, Mike and Judy bought a house on 5th St. SE. By the time they left for Uganda in 1972, their second daughter, Rachel, had been born. Both girls went to Brent Elementary School later from 1978-82.
After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1993, they had just returned to the 5th St. house when Mike saw an ad in the Hill Rag for a film reviewer, applied, and was hired. In addition to writing film reviews, he and Judy delivered meals for Food and Friends in and were active with the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
In 2007, they became members of the newly formed Board of the Capitol Hill Village, and conducted about 40 gatherings in homes all over Capitol Hill to promote the idea of aging in place with funds for a minimal staff. They were surprised that many people they talked to wanted to volunteer to help their neighbors, through driving them to medical appointments, tending gardens, and solving simple electronic problems. They also wanted to form clubs: bridge, book, walking, exercise and more.
Years ago, Fran and Tom Zaniello moved to DC and joined the Capitol Hill Village. In 2013 they sent out an invitation to Village members to join a “Cinephiles Club”. Mike and Judy signed up immediately and Mike and Tom became co-leaders of the Club. The group would come up with four to five films each month and each member would commit to viewing at least three of them to discuss at the next monthly meeting.
Tom Zaniello had been a professor of English and Film at the University of Northern Kentucky, and had become more and more fascinated by film. He created themes for his course offerings for groups of films that would engage young people, such as Hitchcock (students loved the dramatic plots) and Epidemics, Catastrophes, and Disasters (very popular for college-age kids facing a scary large world in their futures).
As a professional reviewer, Mike Canning brought great access to films for the Cinephiles Club; he was invited to critics’ showings and other free previews and would see films before they were released. He would know when and where each film would be shown in DC theaters. Tom and Mike would occasionally suggest a blockbuster film such as The Black Panther. But they and the Cinephiles were drawn to “E Street Cinemas,” which mostly shows films from independent U.S. and foreign producers.
Of the two, Tom says that Mike had by far the deepest knowledge of film production and Hollywood history. “He had a phenomenal memory for film detail”. Illustrating Mike’s capacity for detail is his 2012 book, Hollywood on the Potomac published by the Friends of the Southeast Library on Capitol Hill (and still available on Amazon).
Each portrait of 58 movies has not only the names of each significant actor and production manager but adds gossip about their relationships and history in other films. In each there is a section called DC/Hill notes about film settings in various DC neighborhoods and another section on Goofs when the producers got it wrong.
Mike kept a list of favorite films. The leaders of his top thirty are first, Citizen Kane; second, Godfathers I and II; three, 8 ½; and four, Casablanca. Judy reports that Mike died peacefully, with very little pain, after treating himself to two of his best loved: Citizen Kane and Casablanca.
It is a magnificent set of gifts that Mike gave us all. We now must make sure that these gifts are saved and nurtured by others. Thank you, Mike Canning.
Authors Mary Procter and Bill Matuszeski are married and have lived on the Hill for 50 years. Bill has known Mike since both worked in USIA headquarters in 1969. Mary has known Mike and Judy for many years, including several years on the Capitol Hill Village Board.