Film Culture Loses Two Innovators

On Film / The Daily — Jul 8, 2019
David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977)

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve lost two innovators whose impact on film culture has been all but immeasurable. Ben Barenholtz, the programmer, distributor, and producer widely credited for having launched the midnight-movie craze of the 1970s, passed away on June 27 at the age of eighty-three. And Milos Stehlik, the cofounder and artistic director of the Chicago arts center Facets Multimedia, died on Saturday. He was seventy. Coincidentally, both men immigrated to the United States from Central Europe, Barenholtz from Poland by way of Austria in the late 1940s and Stehlik from Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s.

It was only in the later years of his life that Barenholtz began to speak and write openly about being “what is commonly called a ‘Holocaust survivor.’” For nearly two years in the early 1940s, his family was part of a group of around two dozen Jews hiding out in the forest while the Germans marched across Poland. Before they were liberated by the Russians, his father was killed by Ukrainian nationalists. When Barenholtz and his mother arrived in New York after the war, Barenholtz spent a few years in school, two more in the Army, and then led what the New York TimesRichard Sandomir calls “a knockabout existence as a house painter, bartender, carpenter, and postal worker.” Nights were spent either hanging out with the likes of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline or watching movies. By 1966, he was managing the Village Theatre, the repertory house that would become the Fillmore East, and two years later, he was distributing films and running the Elgin Theater in Chelsea.

Just before Christmas in 1970, Barenholtz ignored just about everyone’s advice and began screening Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo at midnight. “With little advertising but strong word of mouth,” writes Sandomir, “crowds soon filled the Elgin’s nearly 600 seats during the film’s exclusive run.” Midnight runs of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) and Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1973) were hits as well, and by the mid-1970s, as other theaters began replicating Barenholtz’s success, the midnight movie was a coast-to-coast phenomenon, hooking up cult favorites with audiences in search of stimulating alternatives to multiplex fare.

Barenholtz knew what they were looking for, perhaps even better than they did themselves. He didn’t even finish watching Eraserhead (1977) before deciding to distribute it. David Lynch’s debut feature was a midnight favorite in New York for nearly three years, and Barenholtz once claimed that the film had paid his rent for another ten. Other farsighted pickups were debuts by John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven, 1979) and Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, 1984). As Adam Nayman, the author of a book on the Coens, noted on Twitter yesterday, Barenholtz was “as instrumental as any one person in fostering the careers of Joel and Ethan Coen; he gave them support (and final cut) at an early stage.”

As a producer, Barenholtz, whom Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay calls “one of the seminal figures of the modern American independent film movement,” worked on the Coens’ Raising Arizona (1987), Millers Crossing (1990), and Barton Fink (1991); George Romero’s Martin (1978); and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). When he directed his first narrative feature, Alina, in 2017 at the age of eighty-two, he told John Anderson in the New York Times, “I’ll never be Kubrick, but I wasn’t afraid either.”

Milos Stehlik wasn’t one to balk at a challenge, either. While running a bookstore in his early twenties in Chicago, Stehlik offered to help out a struggling theater company by setting up a 16 mm projector, hanging up a bedsheet, and showing films on their off nights. As audiences grew, Stehlik cofounded Facets as a nonprofit cinema center that wandered from the theater to a Lutheran church and eventually to its current location on Fullerton Avenue.

Facets is not only a movie theater and the host of the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the largest and oldest festival of its kind in the U.S., it’s also arguably exerted its greatest influence as a distributor of home video—first on VHS, then DVD, then Blu-ray, and now, via streaming as well. Its library boasts “thousands of otherwise unobtainable titles for sale and rental, both over the counter and by mail,” as Alissa Simon notes in Variety, and its clientele has “included such bold-face names as Martin Scorsese, Stephen Sondheim, and Cher, as well as hundreds of university and public libraries.” For decades, the only way to see certain titles by filmmakers such as Krzysztof Kieślowski, Béla Tarr, Miloš Forman, Forough Farrokhzad, or Heinz Emigholz was to either go to or order from Facets.

“Milos has the biggest collection,” Roger Ebert told Bruce Weber in the New York Times in 1998. “In foreign films, he’s got real depth. Not just French or Japanese, but films from Senegal or Indonesia or Malaysia. Experimental films, silent films. Underground films, as they used to be called. If you can’t find it at Facets, chances are you can’t find it. He’s really making a difference, on a national, even a worldwide, level.”

As Maureen O’Donnell points out in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Stehlik returned Roger Ebert’s admiration. When the Roman Catholic Church criticized Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 Hail Mary, he ‘defended our right to show it’ even though he didn’t think it was a good movie.” Stehlik also introduced Ebert to the work of Errol Morris, calling him over to take a look at Gates of Heaven (1978) without telling him what the documentary was about, namely, pet cemeteries—not a particularly tantalizing topic, but ten years on, Ebert was still referring to Morris’s debut feature as “one of the greatest films ever made.”

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