Posted in: Books, by Richard T. Jameson, Commentary, Contributors, Industry

Tear sheets

In the age of Netflix, when just about any film made anywhere can be summoned painlessly to your mailbox [or streamed to your flatscreen], we do well to remember that once upon a time there were only a handful of independently operated movie theaters in the United States dedicated to showing foreign-language cinema. Prints were few, sane distributors fewer, and even as the beleaguered exhibitors struggled to build an audience for “movies you had to read,” often as not they had to fight off local censor boards, right-wing xenophobes, and self-appointed arbiters of morality and decency. Jim Selvidge was one of these cultural heroes (if you can feature a hero in horn-rimmed glasses heavy enough to tilt the Titanic). Singlehandedly at times, he championed Bergman, Godard, Buñuel, Kurosawa, et al., put the Seattle Censor Board out of business, founded the Seattle Film Society, and enticed his community to take the first decisive steps toward acquiring a reputation as one of the savviest movie towns in the country. It’s an important story.

I wrote that blurb for Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa: The Foreign Film in America, James N. Selvidge’s memoir of a couple decades as a Seattle film exhibitor. Chances are the name doesn’t ring a bell – unless, perhaps, you’re into horseracing. That’s the field Selvidge went into bigtime in the 1970s, after U.S. interest in the foreign-film scene shrank drastically, and he rode those horses a long way. In fact, his website is named horsestalk (though I’m not sure whether that’s “horses talk” or “horse stalk” … never mind).

Non-horse people knew the name when I arrived in Seattle in autumn 1965. Selvidge had made major contributions to the local scene, not just culturally but also politically. His activist stance in the previous decade had been key to delivering a potentially world-class city from the provincial constraints of a film censor board, and his profile was high enough that right-wingers circulated the rumor (and probably believed it) that you could get into Selvidge’s Ridgemont Theatre for free if you whispered the letters “ACLU” through the box-office window. Good times.

You can read about that stuff in his self-published memoir. It’s written in the same voice one encountered in the mailers displayed in his theater lobbies – promotion with intelligent perspective. Mostly, the Ridgemont bill changed weekly; two weeks was a long run. There were usually two features (Seattle was a double-feature town in those days), and they’d be exclusives; the then-independent Guild 45th and Varsity theaters showed the occasional foreign film – foreign usually meaning British, in their case – but the reliably ongoing subtitled action was up on Phinney Ridge. I rarely missed an offering, and often went back for a second look. (Eventually I got a job with Selvidge, which I mention only because I shouldn’t fail to do so.)

The noble enterprise was undone by success as much as by changing patterns in the distribution and exhibition of foreign-language films. Late in 1966 Selvidge undertook to play a film for four weeks. It was the soft-focus pretty A Man and a Woman, a lyrical French romance he rightly anticipated would be a crossover hit. Unfortunately, the contract obliged him to hold the movie over if the weekend box-office maintained a certain level. A Man and a Woman met that mark for fourteen months, creating a logjam for all the provocative-sounding art films waiting to inherit the screen. The little moviehouse to which the faithful used to go every week became just another theater.

As for the book, I wish the title were something else. Seekers of an auteurist study of Bergman, Fellini, and/or Kurosawa won’t find it; those demigods are invoked more like brand names exemplifying certain aspects of the appeal foreign-language film held for Selvidge and his audiences. But appropriately enough in this context, you can trust the subtitle. This is history, and it matters. Or should. And the four-color reproductions of film advertising art are pretty spiffy. The price has been knocked down for holiday gift sale ($21.95, available from Amazon or horsestalk).

Oh, the Ridgemont isn’t there anymore at the corner of 78th and Greenwood. As a movie theater, it closed in 1989, then saw sporadic use by little-theater groups. The building was razed in 2001 and four stories of condos rose in its place. In a bow to nostalgia, the architects gave the façade a marquee-like thrust.