Ahead of People Only Die of Love in Movies, a Look at Jim Ridley's Film Writing

“Whether parsing the nuances of perplexing obscurities or reveling in the joys of thunderous megaplex fodder,” writes former Scene staffer Steve Haruch in the introduction to People Only Die of Love in Movies, “Jim’s reviews share that atmosphere of warmth.” 

The Jim in question is the late, great Jim Ridley, magnanimous former editor of and longtime film critic for the Nashville Scene; my former boss, as well as Haruch’s. After suffering a cardiac episode here at the Scene offices — in the very room in which I type this — Jim entered a coma from which he never emerged. He died on April 8, 2016, at age 50. People tend to be hyperbolic about the impact of friends they’ve lost, but Jim’s talent truly cannot be understated. He was the best film writer I’ve ever read, the best editor I’ve ever worked with, and the only man aside from my father I consider a personal role model. People Only Die of Love in Movies, a collection of nearly 100 pieces of Jim’s film writing edited by Haruch, is out this week via Vanderbilt University Press.

“Basically looking at the cutting-room floor was the hard part,” says Haruch about the process of putting the book together. The thing is, it’s a film collection, but Jim could write about nearly anything as well as he could write about film. When asked which stories he found it particularly difficult to leave out of the book, Haruch points to a 1997 Scene feature Jim wrote called “Night Spot: The Mysterious, Mundane Magic of Waffle House.” It’s about just what it sounds like, and it’s one of the most remarkable long-form pieces you’ll ever read. Really. It’s been used as teaching material in college courses.

Haruch will celebrate the release of People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley with an event Thursday night at Casa Azafrán. There will also be an event Tuesday, June 26, at the Barnes and Noble on West End. In advance of the book’s release, several of my fellow Scene staffers and I picked out some of our favorite pieces in People Only Die of Love in Movies, all of which were originally published in the Scene. Read our thoughts on those below. D. PATRICK RODGERS, SCENE EDITOR

“Pleading the Fifth,” May 8, 1997

In the middle of a chapter on movies in which the plot is a less-than-pressing concern comes Jim’s review of The Fifth Element, French director Luc Besson’s distinctive twist on the kind of hyper-budget sci-fi action flick that U.S. studios have been churning out like McDonald’s burgers for decades. In a little more than a thousand words, Jim tells you everything you’d want to know about the two-hour-plus film (without spoiling a second of it), while giving you a glimpse of what makes cinema work, observations that serve to deepen your enjoyment of the movie. There’s no way you’d come across this piece in the paper and think of it as a lesson — like the movie, it’s light on its feet with details and quips whizzing by — or a well-aimed jab at the industry for settling into stamping out forgettable garbage, but it’s all that and more. STEPHEN TRAGESER, SCENE MUSIC EDITOR

“Fear of Musicals,” Feb. 6, 2003

Jim’s joint review of Chicago and Singin’ in the Rain is more than just a shining example of the masterful way he could draw links between films with little to nothing in common. It’s also a musical hall pass, giving us permission to proudly express our adoration for the genre, including “the lovestruck duets, the splashy production numbers, the characters who burst into song because that’s how they feel” — film snobs be damned. Not surprisingly, Jim perfectly boiled down the wonder and appeal of musicals: “They don’t have to cling to tethers of realism. If anything, it’s our world that could use a dose of their exuberant conventions.” For those who knew and loved Jim Ridley, it’s not hard to picture him stomping through puddles and twirling around lampposts in giddy wonderment after a midnight showing of Singin’ in the Rain at the Belcourt. In fact, it’s kind of the perfect way to remember the man who took such pure delight in film — all films, even the silly song-and-dance of a ’50s musical. And the very thing that Jim gleaned from the genre — that our world could use a dose of their delight — is exactly what those of us who knew and loved Jim learned from him. NANCY FLOYD, NFOCUS EDITOR

“Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Bridgestone Arena,” April 17, 2014

Jim was always deferential to his employees — sometimes nearly to the point of absurdity, as when he kindly asked if I (the Scene’s music editor at the time) might let him (my boss) review the Boss’ show at Bridgestone Arena in 2014. The Scene has long run its music reviews under a collective anonymous byline (“The Spin”), but as Haruch points out in People Only Die of Love in Movies, I made the decision in this instance to forego that tradition for the first time ever, because, well, Jim’s review was just too damn good to run under any byline other than his own. Jim’s recap of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s show — the only non-film piece in the book, which Haruch uses as a sort of mid-book “Intermission” — is replete with gorgeous metaphors, turns of phrase and observances that both inform the reader and transport us to the mythic place Springsteen inhabits in the American psyche (“the sea of extended hands and straining fingers across the arena looked like a wheat field in a windstorm,” for instance). But there’s one particular paragraph that will always stick with me: “Time throws you off a rooftop the day you’re born, and the fall you have to the pavement is called a life. The Springsteens of the world are there to remind us the object is to never stop kicking and punching and straining for the sky, all the way to the inevitable finish.” How the hell are any of us supposed to compete with that, Jim? D. PATRICK RODGERS, SCENE EDITOR

“Fade to Black,” Jan. 21, 1999

One of the many heartbreaks in the wake of Jim Ridley’s death was that he didn’t live to see the grand reopening of the Belcourt Theatre three-and-a-half months later after its large-scale remodeling. Jim was a tireless champion of our city’s arthouse theater, and on Jan. 21, 1999, the Scene published “Fade to Black,” his cover story about the Belcourt’s impending demise — a 3,500-word call-to-arms that managed to capture his immense passion for the institution while also offering an unflinching examination of the myriad reasons it was floundering on the verge of extinction. Jim walked a delicate balance between offering gratitude to the investors who purchased the theater from Carmike in 1996, while casting a spotlight on the competing interests and lack of a unifying vision that were hamstringing the effort. And perhaps most importantly, he called out those members of the Belcourt’s target audience — myself included — who loved to talk about how awesome the theater was, but who rarely showed up to actually buy a ticket and see a movie. (Incidentally, I was in line behind Jim at the ticket booth once, and he bought two tickets. When I asked, “Who are you meeting?” he replied, “No one.” Apparently he did that with regularity, a small act to give the Belcourt a little more support.) In Jim’s obituary, Belcourt executive director Stephanie Silverman put it this way: “I think it’s fair to say the renovation project might not be happening if not for Jim.” That’s why the theater’s lobby is now named for him. If you want a template for how to rally a civic movement, read “Fade to Black.” JACK SILVERMAN, FORMER SCENE MANAGING EDITOR

“Meek Shall Not Inherit,” May 19, 2011

When Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff came to the Belcourt, I went to see it with my husband and some friends of ours. I love Westerns — and I love the film’s lead, Michelle Williams — and my friends trusted me to pick the movie we’d see. About halfway through the film, I discovered that all of my companions had fallen asleep, lulled into slumber by the film’s creeping pace. Jim’s review didn’t exactly say the film would be put people to sleep, but he did note the drawn-out, deliberate nature in which it was shot and executed. One line from the review stuck in my head: “Even the speed of desperation has been slowed.” Beyond just the context of the review — in which it’s used to describe a painfully slow scene in which a man carves the word “lost” into a tree — it’s a beautiful phrase. It could be the title of an Explosions in the Sky album, a line delivered in the film itself, a Bob Dylan lyric. But to me, it’s a reminder that in Jim’s work there are so many phrases that deserve praise. I’m thrilled that People Only Die of Love in Movies is making that happen. AMANDA HAGGARD, SCENE STAFF WRITER

“Dr. Strangelove,” July 22, 1999

Jim Ridley read a lot of reviews and was plugged into the film-critic community, but he never prejudged a film before he saw it. When Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, came out in 1999, it was widely and caustically derided. But Jim engaged the movie on its own terms, seeing the elegance and substance among the artistic glitches (like a notoriously peculiar orgy scene that featured post-production digital effects to obscure anything that would earn the film an NC-17 rating). Jim’s review zeroes in on the performance of Nicole Kidman, who at that time had a solid résumé but wasn’t yet acclaimed as one of the finest actresses of her generation. When Kidman’s character, Alice, and Alice’s husband, played by Tom Cruise, have a brief, feckless conversation about infidelity, “Kidman is astonishing in this long, wounding take,” Jim notes. Undistracted by the queasy erotic-thriller hype, Jim proclaims the movie “a triumph not of explicitness, but of intimacy, a gorgeous, human and fascinatingly flawed chamber piece in a career of symphonic works … a farewell gift from a filmmaker who looked at the best and worst man had to offer, and never blinked.” DANA KOPP FRANKLIN, SCENE ASSOCIATE EDITOR

“Moonrise Becomes You,” June 28, 2012

Jim Ridley took in movies with the mind of an academic, the meta-awareness of a pop-culture critic and the heart of a jubilant, sensitive young boy. All of that comes through in his review of Wes Anderson’s 2012 gem Moonrise Kingdom. Jim flips through the Rolodex of film knowledge in his head to sum up Anderson’s oeuvre, uses his sharp eye to break down the way the director arranges the film like an intricate grandfather clock and acknowledges the way that describing him as Salinger-esque can be praise or pejorative. But then there are lines that respond to Anderson’s rendering of the adult-size emotions felt by his precocious adolescent characters, what Jim describes as “a recognition that however affected the kids may act, the passions they feel are no less sharp, or real.” There was no emotion or passion that Jim could not easily access. I will always remember him as the editor who lost himself in a giggle fit whenever I managed to sneak a slightly blue joke in a bit of copy, and the man who burst into tears when I walked into his office holding my newborn daughter. Jim saw so much in movies because he brought so much to them. STEVEN HALE, SCENE STAFF WRITER

“A Man’s Man’s World,” Oct. 28, 1999

Reading Jim’s October 1999 dual review of Boys Don’t Cry and Fight Club now, here, in June 2018, is disconcerting and more than a little depressing. “It’s tough to be a guy these days, and tougher still to be a white guy,” Jim writes, his sarcasm dripping off the page. “At least that’s the impression I’m getting from news and pop culture. Gotta watch out for the damn minorities; gotta watch out for the women. Especially the women.” In the next paragraph — and I am not making this up — he jokes, in passing, about Donald Trump running for president. Jim died before Trump was elected in 2016, but his review of these two films is an eerily prescient meditation on toxic masculinity, which has of course always existed, but is seemingly inescapable in this current moment — #MeToo movement or not. Jim sees how Fight Club, which was released the month before this review was published, was already being “willfully misread as a celebration of fascist might,” adding that the movie’s “biggest liability as a satire is that it doesn’t seem underpinned by any values of its own.” Jim could see that, straight off the bat, which I sure can’t say I did when I saw it as a 22-year-old. Ultimately Jim finds Boys Don’t Cry (which nabbed Hilary Swank a Best Actress Oscar for playing a transgender man, inspired by the true story of Teena Brandon, who was brutally murdered because he was transgender) the “far superior” film because it “doesn’t give us the comfort of distancing us from its darkest truths.” And that is what Jim’s best work does as well: It sees into the dark future 20 years ahead. CARI WADE GERVIN, SCENE STAFF WRITER

“Talk Hard,” Aug. 30, 1990

Arts criticism isn’t binary, no matter what a thumbs-up-thumbs-down system may lead you to believe. A really great review has nuance, and might even compel the reader to view the piece in question even if it’s a negative review. Jim was astute enough to know that dumb movies can be just as good as smart ones. Take his 1990 review of Pump Up the Volume, the Christian Slater vehicle with the soundtrack full of bangers by Bad Brains, Pixies and Concrete Blonde. Jim begins by noting that, by any objective standard of filmmaking, this is not a good film. He then uses the rest of the review to prove why that doesn’t matter. To Jim, highbrow culture and lowbrow culture had much more in common with each other than most people realize. And to someone like me who came of age deeply in love with this film — complete with an antihero named Happy Harry Hard-On and a world full of cigarette smoke, wind-up plastic dicks and Black Jack gum — reading Jim’s positive review, his reckoning that “sometimes a movie that isn’t very good captures the mood and spark of a moment better than a good one,” is a refreshing validation. LAURA HUTSON HUNTER, FORMER SCENE ARTS EDITOR

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