Books

I’m Sorry You Never Knew Him: Meet the Late Nashville Film Critic Jim Ridley

The writings of the beloved cineaste and journalist, who passed away two years ago at fifty, are collected in a heartwarming new book

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Some of my friend Jim Ridley’s best reviews were never written down. For more than 25 years — until he died unexpectedly in 2016, at age fifty — Jim wrote about movies for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene. He also talked about movies, with any of the seemingly hundreds of Nashvillians he considered close friends. He had an unmistakable presence anywhere he went in the city, with his bearish frame, untamed curly hair, and cheery, nasal voice. If he stood still for even a few seconds, he drew a crowd. And if anyone asked, “What’ve you seen lately?” his eyes would light up. Then the Jim Ridley show would begin.

Some of my fondest memories of Jim are of him standing in a random multiplex lobby, surrounded by dear chums and awestruck fans, enthusiastically describing a gloriously gonzo action or horror picture he’d just seen. Even better were the dozens of times I got to enjoy his insights and good humor all by myself — either on the phone or during the couple of years that I shared a desk with him at the Scene.

This month, Vanderbilt University Press will be releasing People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley, edited by Steve Haruch, who was a Nashville Scene colleague of Jim’s after I moved away. Lovingly assembled, the book collects some of the best of the long reviews, shorter takes, and big-picture essays that he wrote in the 1990s, 2000s, and ’10s. Picking up the book and opening to any page is like being near Jim again, listening to him riff.

I understand that it’s hard to persuade people to pick up an anthology of criticism from a writer who wasn’t that well-known outside of Nashville. But there’s such a wide range of films covered in People Only Die of Love in Movies, and so much unique insight into why they matter, that the book doubles as a sweeping cinematic history lesson and an introduction to an immensely likable human being. As a case in point, here are Jim Ridley’s notes on the 1993 Bruce Lee biopic Dragon and the thrill of watching one exciting young performer evoke another:

Wisely, Jason Scott Lee doesn’t try to do a Bruce Lee imitation. He’s so compelling in his own right that he blends into our memory of Lee. He is a better actor, which makes his fight scenes doubly exciting — he keeps us aware of the frailties that the late hero concealed so artfully in his screen appearances.… By enshrining the legendary martial artist in this most conventional of movie vehicles, Dragon ironically grants the wish that, for the most part, the American film industry never accorded the real Bruce Lee during his life.

That’s Jim doing what he always did: taking what a particular picture gave him, seeing it clearly for what it was but also for what it represented. Dragon spoke to the kid who grew up watching kung fu movies on fuzzy UHF channels on lazy Saturdays in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Whenever Jim would get on a tear — urging everyone he knew to watch Seijun Suzuki’s Japanese gangster films or to track down the critically derided horror satire Detention — he’d describe the movies in the breathless tone of a twelve-year-old boy who’d just seen The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for the first time and couldn’t wait to tell his classmates about how “tough” the fight scenes are. Fast cars, karate chops, and splatter pics were a big part of the young Jim Ridley’s cinematic education, and would remain a passion throughout his career.

But he also gobbled up Pauline Kael: You can hear her voice echoing in his use of “our” and “us” in that Dragon review. He read other critics voraciously, and followed their leads; he relied on resources like libraries, video stores, and grey-market bootleg tapes passed along from well-connected pals. So he’d pen loving odes to Bruce Lee, but could be just as enthusiastic about Hollywood musicals, regional indie dramas, trashy blockbusters, or the French New Wave. His taste was ecumenical, and his writing about film often cross-referenced his favorite songwriters, TV shows, or books.

Here’s Ridley on the 2004 Jean-Luc Godard film Notre Musique, which he compared to Bob Dylan’s late-period masterpiece Time Out of Mind in a review that argues cogently for the importance of paying attention to the old masters:

As befits a movie (and a career) so obsessed with claiming equality of text and image, Notre Musique practically demands separate viewings — one for the bristling thicket of Godard’s interlocked provocations, one for his still mesmerizing command of montage and movement. But that doesn’t mean he’ll get them. To converts won by the Band of Outsiders reissue, In Praise of Love resembled something smashed on the ground and imperfectly reassembled, no matter how beautiful and wounding its jagged pieces. Notre Musique is much more linear and thematically accessible — it’s amusing to note how many reviews use the word “lucid” — but it’s still hard to sort out the many unidentified literary figures, and there’s no one person to serve as our guide or point of identification in Godard’s democratic design. The movie won’t placate critics who can’t stand his use of characters as philosophical mouthpieces, or who don’t have the time to unpack arguments as dense and spiraling as supernovas — even if those arguments can change the way you consider the world. People love a seer, until he starts to look beyond them.

That’s Jim giving the benefit of the doubt to an artist who meant a lot to him personally, while staying sensitive to the myriad ways a guru can disappoint disciples. He, too, felt burned as a fan from time to time. (His seething pan of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is one of the rare cases in People Only Die of Love in Movies where a negative Jim Ridley review isn’t the least bit playful.) But more often than not, he walked into theaters with a spirit of faith. There was an implicit understanding in Jim’s conversations about movies — both written and in person — that he didn’t expect anyone’s experience to be the same as his. Nor would he deny what he felt. Instead, he’d do his best to explain what he saw, with vivid language.

Why wasn’t Jim Ridley better known in his lifetime? He did write for other places besides the Nashville Scene. He wrote an essay about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the Criterion Collection that’s one of his most personal and poignant pieces (and the source of People Only Die of Love in Movies’ title). During the time when the Scene and the Village Voice shared ownership, his reviews popped up in these pages occasionally.

Jim never saw much reason, though, to expand his ambitions beyond the pages of the Scene, which kept him plenty busy and gave him the space to write more or less whatever he wanted. He worked on long pieces of reportage, and had the option to spread out across an entire page for a movie review if he felt the need. In the decade before he died, he became the paper’s editor, but still found time to record his thoughts on film (among other things) in short blog posts, some of the best of which are collected in People Only Die of Love in Movies.

The point is: Jim never considered himself “stuck” in Nashville or stifled by writing for an outlet that few people outside the city would read. He saw all the movies that critics in New York saw, and more. He made new cultural discoveries seemingly every day, while rarely leaving middle Tennessee. It’s oddly apt that Jim Ridley himself can now be discovered, by young cinephiles, or just by fans of sterling prose. No, the book can’t precisely re-create the energy of being in a room with the man. But just like Jim in person, the writing’s so vibrant and detailed that it invites readers into his head, where different cultures — high and low, and from around the globe — coexisted agreeably.

Once, Jim introduced a Nashville screening of Charles Burnett’s 1977 slice-of-life Killer of Sheep, and gave an electrifying, off-the-cuff explanation as to why Burnett’s story of a working-class family struggling to get by in Watts should matter to an audience thousands of miles and thirty years removed from late-Seventies Los Angeles. Attendees that night still talk about that speech. As I recall, I was hanging out next to Jim in the lobby beforehand, with no idea of what he was about to do. He said his goodbyes to me, then walked into the auditorium and blew the roof off the place.

I left before his intro started. But I heard about it later. And I can picture it now.

People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley
Edited by Steve Haruch
Vanderbilt University Press
264 pp.

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