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Ben Barenholtz

Related: American cinema - film production - midnight movies - Elgin Theatre


Ben Barenholtz is an American film producer.

Barenholtz got his start in the film business in 1958 working as assistant theater manager. In 1968, he opened the Elgin Cinema in New York City. He used the Elgin as a showcase to champion films by Buster Keaton, D. W. Griffith, the Marx Brothers and many other classic American and European movies. The Elgin rose to prominence in the United States as a result. He also originated the "Midnight Movie" format with his successful screenings of El Topo, Pink Flamingos and others.

In 1975, Barenholtz formed Libra Films, a specialized film distribution company. From 1975-1982, Libra launched and distributed such independent films as George A. Romero's Martin, John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus 7, David Lynch's Eraserhead and Jean-Charles Tacchella's Cousin Cousine, which received three Academy Award nominations and proved to be one of the most successful foreign films ever released in North America at the time.

In 1982, Barenholtz sold Libra to the Almi Group and stayed on as the president of the newly-formed Libra-Cinema 5 Films. In 1984, he left Almi to start up the Circle Releasing Corporation with Ted and Jim Pedas. The films launched and distributed by Chris Bernard's Letter to Brezhnev, Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple, John Woo's The Killer, and Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital.

In 1986, Circle Films produced the Coens' second feature, the commercially and critically successful Raising Arizona. Barenholtz followed up as executive producer of their third film, Miller's Crossing, which was released worldwide by 20th Century Fox. He continued his successful relationship with the Coens as the executive producer of their fourth feature, Barton Fink, which won the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. After leaving Circle Films, under the Barenholtz Productions banner, he went on to executive produce the critically-acclaimed film, Georgia, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In recent years, he's produced George Romero's Bruiser and co-executive produced Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Barenholtz [Aug 2006]


Eraserhead [...]

Lynch had a print of the film sent to Barenholtz, who was known for turning EL TOPO, PINK FLAMINGOS and THE HARDER THEY COME (films that would never survive a regular theatrical release) into midnight hits.

El Topo [...]

Ben Barenholtz, the owner of the Elgin, first saw El Topo at a private screening at the Museum of Modem Art. "Half the audience walked out, but I was fascinated by it," he recalls. "I thought it was a film of its time." Barenholtz attempted to purchase the American rights and, failing that, persuaded El Topo's novice distributor, music producer Alan Douglas, to begin previewing the film midnights at the Elgin.

As the onetime manager of the Village Theater (a sort of bargain-basement counterculture Carnegie Hall which later became the Fillmore East), Barenholtz knew his audience. He figured that the midnight showings during the week-1:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays-would attract hipsters, encourage a sense of "personal discovery," and stimulate word of mouth. On all three counts, his instincts were sensationally correct. El Topo premiered on the night of December 18, 1970, and ran continuously, seven nights a week, through the end of June 1971. There was practically no advertising-not even a poster, aside from an usher's crudely drawn sign outside the theater-and, for most of the run, no mention of the film in the daily press. Nevertheless, from January on, the Elgin's phone never stopped ringing. El Topo was doing turnaway business ($4,000 a week, Variety reported on March 10) and virtually subsidizing the entire theater. "Within two months, the limos lined up every night," Barenholtz remembers. "It became a must-see item."

The burgeoning cult (which was abetted by the Elgin management's canny refusal to clear the house after the premidnight show and resigned tolerance of marijuana consumption in the balcony) finally went public in late March when Glenn O'Brien published an ecstatic report in the Village Voice. "It's midnight mass at the Elgin," the O'Brien piece began.

Cocteau's Atwood of a Poet has just ended and the Wdit for El Topo is a brief grope for comfort before sinking back into fantastic stillness. The audience is young. It applauded Cocteau's sanguine dream as though he were in the theatre, but as credits appear on the screen, it settles again into rapt attention. They've come to see the light„and the screen before them is illumined by an abstract landscape of desert and sky„and the ritual begins again.... Jodorowsky is here to confess; the young audience is here for communion.

By this time, El Topo had begun to garner the prestige of such hippie texts as J. R. R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings', Robert Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land', Herman Hesse's 'Steppenwolf', R. Crumb's "Mr. Natural," and Carlos Castaneda's 'The Teachings of Don Juan'. More profound than Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, Ed Topo captured the countercultural imagination like no movie since Stanley Kubrick's 2001. The Los Angeles Free Press called it "the greatest film ever made," Changes found it "a work of incomprehensible depth." Dennis Hopper was said to be studying El Topo as he edited his follow-up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie. Indeed, both he and Peter Fonda had offered to appear in Jodorowsky's next film.

By late May, the New York Times dispatched Vincent Canby to investigate the phenomenon which, ask Canby put it, had more than once emptied Elaine's (a fashionable literary saloon) "at that point in the evening when the more aged merry-makers face the alternative of either going home or getting into fights at the bar." The critic was not impressed. He called Jodorowsky an intellectual William Randolph Hearst and El Topo his San Simeon. Actually, the "uncritical reverence" of the Elgin audience seemed to interest Canby more than the film.

I was amazed when, at the end of the screening there was so little audience response. I would have assumed that a film with this much underground reputation would have prompted cheers. There was some desultory applause, but most of thepeople around me seemed to want to be told whether it was good or bad, if not what it really meant. It's difficult, especially at three o'clock in the morning, to admit that you've been conned.

O'Brien was so taken with his perception of the El Topo screenings as a surrogate mass that he assumed Jodorowsky was himself a Catholic: "As a good Catholic, as only a fallen-away Catholic can be, Jodorowsky makes his ritual perform the universe."

"It would be a terrible mistake," Canby concluded, "to show the movie at an earlier hour." Canby's piece provoked a host of angry letters to the Times (one reader saw the film as a protest against the war in Vietnam, another wrote to say that he had attended the film eight times and each viewing was more powerful than the last, a third compared Jodorowsky to Shakespeare and Picasso). The newspaper felt compelled to print a lengthy defense of El Topo by art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who called it "a monumental work of filmic art."

Among the Elgin regulars that spring was John Lennon, whom Barenholtz recalls seeing at three or four screenings. Lennon had just returned from the Cannes Film Festival, where he and Yoko Ono had exhibited their films and been knocked out by Arrabal's first feature, Viva la Muerte. The ex-Beatle wanted his manager, Allen Klein, to purchase the rights to Arrabal's film but, after he saw El Topo, Lennon changed his mind. In June, Klein's Abkco Films bought El Topo and immediately withdrew the film from the Elgin, where it was still selling out seven nights a week. Klein had big plans for Jodorowsky: "My whole idea was to build him up as an international director." At the same time that he acquired El Topo, Klein signed Jodorowsky to an exclusive contract.
--Jeffrey Hoberman, Midnight Movies (1983)

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