The Accompaniment of Trashcans and Ashtrays
Jim Ridley wrote about movies for Nashville Scene for over twenty-five years. When he passed away unexpectedly in 2016, he left behind a mountain of good-hearted reviews and essays. Steve Haruch, Ridley’s former colleague, has collected over ninety of those pieces in People Only Die of Love in Movies, out now from Vanderbilt University Press. I’d be lying if I said I read Ridley religiously over the years, but I started to encounter his reviews with some frequency when I moved south ten years ago and began making regular trips from Oxford to Nashville to see shows at the Ryman. The release of this book was on my radar because of through-the-grapevine reports from journalist and cinephile friends that it was essential, and I was of course struck by the title, a line from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, on which Ridley wrote a beautiful and memorable piece (the last in the book).
People Only Die of Love in Movies is much more than an anthology of film writing. It’s a book that I’ve really allowed myself to get lost in lately because it reminds me why I love the things I love, that how I love movies and books and music matters, that the spark of a meaningful existence starts there. As bad news rolls in daily—children stripped from their parents at the border, mass shootings, women’s rights taken away, voter suppression, the rise of white supremacy, the death of decency (or did decency ever even exist?)—it can feel so selfish and small-minded to get lost in writing stories, in holing up with books and films, but art is where I’ve always gone to seek refuge, and to make sense of the world. Ridley’s work is an affirmation that this is okay, that it’s important.
Thus, this is not a review. This is an appreciation of Ridley’s book, which is—in and of itself—a great act of love. I could highlight what I think makes him such a great film writer (that will be clear enough, once you pick up the book), and I could go in depth on how in sync our tastes are (his enthusiastic love of Robert Altman, David Lynch, and Brian De Palma, in particular, makes us kindred spirits). But there’s something more than style and taste at work here. As I began reading, I was—despite not knowing Ridley personally and only having a passing familiarity with his work before this—overcome with emotion. Reading Haruch’s twelve-page introduction, a moving survey of Ridley’s life and work, I cried at least five times. When trying to pin down why, it became clear to me that Ridley was encompassing my worldview in a way I needed to hear it, and at a time when I needed to hear it. Haruch writes: “The writer and theology professor, David Dark, an occasional Nashville Scene contributor, once remarked that the lesson Jim taught him was that ‘you can find your voice by loving things.’” Here is where I wept openly and profusely. It’s a statement of purpose for what I’ve been trying to say in this column, and—on a larger scale—it’s a statement of purpose on how to live, how to write, how to survive.
Haruch uses striking examples from Ridley’s writing to accentuate his humanity. A 1999 piece about Nashville’s art-house theater, the Belcourt, being on the brink of closing is excerpted in the introduction; Ridley in a near-empty theater where Truffaut’s Day for Night is playing, buying a few extra tickets just so they can say they sold ten. A brave act. A moral act. An act of love. Then: Ridley’s piece was the spark needed to keep the Belcourt in business. It’s one of the many moments the book insists that writing can matter, both in personal and practical ways. Haruch writes: “Jim’s writing reminds aspiring journalists that the printed word can and should be used as a bully pulpit to demand better.” A powerful notion to encounter at a time when journalists are demonized for seeking answers, for demanding better.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ridley’s review of Allan Moyle’s great, nearly-forgotten Pump Up the Volume is one of my favorite pieces in the book. The 1990 film stars Christian Slater as Hard Harry, the teenage host of an underground radio show who rails against the administration of his high school and seeks communion with his listeners. Too shy to talk in real life, the radio persona provides him an outlet, and he receives calls from other teens who feel lost and confused and fear for their futures. Samantha Mathis steals the movie as teen poet Nora Diniro, who finds out Harry’s true identity and strikes up a relationship with him. I was twelve when Pump Up the Volume came out. I rented it, watched it, and loved it. It felt dangerous. It gave me answers I’d been looking for. It made sense of some of what I’d been feeling that I didn’t know how to name. I took my mother’s VCR and my grandparents’ VCR and hooked them together and dubbed a grainy copy of the rental tape. I watched that movie almost every day for about four years. At least three or four times a week through junior high and into my freshman year of high school. Hundreds of viewings. I was in love with Mathis’s Nora Diniro, sure, and I discovered so much good music through the soundtrack, but I also must’ve felt, as Ridley writes, that it was one of the rare movies of the time that “portrays teens as literate, inquisitive, creative, and smart.” Ridley talks gently about the movie’s technical flaws, insisting none of that matters. It’s raw filmmaking that sings with life and energy, in his estimation. “Sometimes a movie that isn’t very good captures the mood and spark of a moment better than a good one,” he writes.
The book is organized into themed chapters—by film genre, cinematic theme, or writing style—each briefly introduced by Haruch. In the chapter on Westerns—which includes Ridley’s takes on films by Sergio Lione, Sergio Corbucci, Sam Peckinpah, Maggie Greenwald, Robert Altman, and Kelly Reichardt—Haruch recalls that Ridley had an envelope over his Nashville Scene desk with the words “THAT’S WHAT I’VE GOT” written in green Sharpie. It’s a memorable line from Rio Bravo. As John Wayne’s John T. Chance prepares to go up against the bad guys with his ragtag crew of two, a friend says to him, “A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you’ve got?” “That’s what I’ve got,” Chance replies. Haruch quotes Scene staff writer Steven Hale: “‘Jim told me he had put that sign on his wall to remind him not to give in to the discouragement that could come from being short-staffed and under-resourced . . . He made you believe that in a pickup game of journalism, with everyone on the field to choose from, he’d want you on his team.’” It’s another small, empowering moment. If you’re from a cultural wasteland, if you’re not surrounded by like-minded folks, if this or that goes wrong, if you don’t have the same advantages that the other person has, well, you have what you have.
This optimistic attitude permeates the entire book. Even when Ridley pans a movie, he does it with heart. His takedown of Luc Besson’s The Messenger is written as “a short story that imagines a film executive in purgatory summoning Carl Theodore Dreyer [director of the ethereal and perfect The Passion of Joan of Arc] to his office.” Haruch says this is “a doff of the cap, of sorts, to Godard’s notion that one should make a movie to criticize a movie.” According to Haruch, one of Ridley’s chief mottos was: “Don’t waste space you could use to celebrate a good movie by tearing apart a bad one.” Again, sage writing advice but also good life advice. Just this morning, I was feeling down about something stupid, some perceived slight, and I remembered Ridley’s line and decided to focus that energy instead on helping to spread the word about Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh’s masterful adaptation of the novel by my favorite writer, Willy Vlautin (a film, I feel certain, that Ridley would’ve adored).
These despairing days, when so many people are so clearly guided and defined by what they hate and oppose, it seems more important than ever to find your voice (and your humanity) through loving things. Haruch writes: “[Great] film writing is like great film: It changes how we see the world.” That’s certainly been true in my experience. I’m thankful for the films that opened my eyes as a lost, lonely kid, films like Pump Up the Volume, The Last Picture Show, Boyz N the Hood, and The Piano (all covered beautifully by Ridley here), and I’m thankful now for Ridley’s writing, for his emphasis on joyous communion with art. Even though he’s gone, he’s present in these pages. And he’s given me hope.
“The Accompaniment of Trashcans and Ashtrays” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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