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.