When Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley died suddenly last year at age fifty, he left behind an entire city full of grieving people: his beautiful family, an uncountable number of friends, and a vast continent of readers. He also left a legacy of brilliant writing about movies, literature, music, art, and the vibrant life of a growing city. This week, in recognition of that achievement, Vanderbilt University Press announced that it will publish an anthology of Ridley’s most memorable film reviews. People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley will appear in August 2018—curated, edited, and introduced by Ridley’s friend and former colleague Steve Haruch.
The book takes its title from a line in the 1964 movie musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, “one of Jim’s favorite movies and the subject of one of his best essays,” Haruch says. “It speaks to the power and magic of film, one of the themes that suffuses the book.”
Jennifer Fay, director of Cinema & Media Arts at Vanderbilt, was one of the book proposal’s early readers: “Ridley is among those few ‘reviewers,’ whose writing really does move into the realm of enduring film criticism,” she says. “His examples are taken from the wide history of international cinema and he makes unexpected connections between films that abide by a taste for cinema that is also, I want to say, an ethics of cinema. The organization of this volume brings Ridley’s critical imagination to the fore.”
Steve Haruch, formerly the culture editor of the Nashville Scene, is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker. He answered questions from Chapter 16 via email about the book he has worked on for the better part of a year:
Chapter 16: After Jim Ridley’s death last spring, a whole lot of people were talking about collecting the best of his film columns into a book, but the idea seemed to lose steam when everyone realized how daunting that task would be. What made you plow ahead anyway?
Steve Haruch: When it came to putting a collection together, I, like a lot of people, thought, “Of course that should happen.” And I really thought that eventually someone who was also close to Jim and who was not me would step forward to do it. But at the same time, the most natural candidates for the job probably work at the Scene, and I know firsthand what staffers are up against on a weekly basis—the minute the paper’s finished, it’s time to start working on the paper—and so I guess what it came down to was that I had flexibility in my schedule that others did not. Then, once I made the initial inquiry with Vanderbilt University Press about putting a proposal together, that feeling of “of course this should happen” became “this needs to happen,” and I knew there was no turning back.
Chapter 16: Preparing this book had to have seemed overwhelming at times: Jim wrote so many film reviews, and he wrote about so many other subjects, too. What was it like to read through an entire career’s worth of brilliant writing?
Haruch: In one sense, it was daunting, as you say, to sift through twenty-seven years of work, but as I told Alicia [Adkerson, Jim Ridley’s wife] when we found out the book would be published, there are many, many worse jobs to have than reading Jim’s stuff all day. He was just so brilliant. Sometimes I would have to force myself not to read non-film stuff just so I could to stay focused on seeing this project through. Really, it was a blast.
Chapter 16: Jim was one of your best friends and also a mentor. Reading through his life’s work must have been as emotionally taxing as any task I can imagine. How did you manage?
Haruch: There were times when it was really overwhelming, but it was also therapeutic. It forced me to travel all the way into my grief. Working on the book has been a way to keep Jim alive in the world, which is so incredibly bittersweet, of course, but also a tremendous joy. We use the term “labor of love” mostly to mean “work I won’t get paid for,” but in this case it really is the animating purpose. Jim’s life was one long lesson in acting—and writing, and working—out of love, and I think all of us wanted to dedicate ourselves to paying that forward. This project gave me a concrete way of doing that. I remember the way Jim would give me a big slap on the back and say, “It’s gonna be great,” and flash one of his smiles. He believed in me at times when I wasn’t sure I believed in myself, so to have this opportunity to honor his life and his work was really its own motivation. It also helped to have friends cheering me on.
Chapter 16: In seeing Jim’s work for the first time as a kind of sweep, did you become aware of any themes or obsessive topics or inside jokes in his writing that you hadn’t recognized during the years when you were working together?
Haruch: I’m sure there are inside jokes that went right past me, but there are certain touchstones that turn up repeatedly, like Godard’s notion that one should make a movie to criticize a movie, or the fine line between what makes genre films click and what reduces them into cliché.
One thing I noticed that I wasn’t really aware of before was how he would shout out upstart film writers who were posting reviews or updates online. I know now that these were conscious gestures on his part, granting the legitimacy of print to folks he had connected with online and whose views he respected. In several cases, these people have gone on to become professional critics. That wasn’t a revelation so much as a deepening of my understanding—Jim was always finding ways to lift up those around him.
Chapter 16: Is there anything truly surprising that you learned about Jim Ridley in the process of putting this book together?
Haruch: I don’t know that there’s any one thing, but it was really something, going through the old print archives, to see how the film section of the Scene really grew around him. When he first started, movie reviews were just one small piece of the “Eight Days a Week” calendar—the equivalent of the “Critics’ Picks” now. Within a couple years, he’s at the helm of a full-on film page, which hadn’t existed before. Months go by where there’s hardly a movie worthy of his talents—it’s easy to lose sight of how good we have it now—but he reviews them anyway, while still contributing short blurbs for the film calendar, which he was also in charge of assembling.
Chapter 16: Who’s the ideal audience for this book, in your view?
Haruch: Outside of people who already know his work, who I hope will find it really fun to see these essays together in one place, I think anyone with overlapping interests in film, music, art, and just plain good writing will eat this up. Jim’s work is at once kaleidoscopic—he references The Velvet Underground in a review of a Jacques Demy film, and finds parallels between Jackass: The Movie and Luis Buñuel, to name just two—but also so precise. I think students and aspiring critics will love it. I know that reading Jim on a weekly basis made me feel like I always had more to learn from him, and even though I’ve read and reread some of these essays dozens of times, I still feel that way.
Margaret Renkl is the editor of Chapter 16 and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. She lives in Nashville.