Mr. Lynch recalled: “I actually lived in a room in Ben’s house at 33rd and Third back in 1977, for about two months because the lab would not print ‘Eraserhead’ dark enough. It was just a nightmare.”
He added: “We finally got a great print and were about to open, and Ben told me, ‘I’m not going to spend any money, I’m not going to do much promotion, but after two months there will be lines around the block.’ And it turned out to be true.” (He said he “really enjoyed” Mr. Barenholtz’s film: “I thought Ben and Darya Ekamasova did a great, great job, a great character, great performance.”)
Mr. Sayles’s first film, “Return of the Secaucus Seven” (1979), was co-distributed by Mr. Barenholtz. “What Ben was good at was working a movie,” Mr. Sayles said. “If it didn’t work in this run, in this city, he’d say let’s redo this and try that.”
Mr. Barenholtz distributed the Coens’ first movie, “Blood Simple” (1984), and was an executive producer on their early movies “Miller’s Crossing” and “Barton Fink.” But the business, of course, has radically changed. “The hardest thing now is getting a theater in New York,” Mr. Barenholtz said.
“There were three or four close friends who were helpful, because they remember,” he said over lunch at an East Side Manhattan restaurant, adding, “It’s showbiz you know. ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I figure, what are you going to do? Next time around, I’m not going to help them.” He laughed, digging into a plate of spaghetti.
Ms. Ekamasova said she met her director in the Russian Samovar on West 52nd Street (where many scenes were shot) through “a drunk musician who came up to me and said that the producer of the Coen brothers had watched my film” — the 2011 “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman,” which won Ms. Ekamasova a Nika, Russia’s equivalent of an Oscar. “He wanted to meet me. I thought it was a joke.”
She said Mr. Barenholtz’s age was irrelevant. “I’m ready to support him in everything!” she said. “Even if he is 100 years old and wants me as an extra. Everything is just beginning for him.”
Mr. Barenholtz is of much the same mind: “People started bugging me about retirement, which pissed me off.”
He has always been running. Born in a part of Poland that is now in Ukraine, Mr. Barenholtz, his family and other Jews in his community took to the forests after the Germans came in 1941 and the final solution “took shape,” as he wrote in a series of blog posts begun in 2010. His father was killed during a raid by Ukrainian fascists in league with the Nazis. The young Ben and his surviving family lived in the Ukrainian forest until they were liberated by the Soviets. (The first film he saw, “Chapaev,” was a Soviet war film being shown to a tent full of soldiers about to be shipped to the front. That would be the first feature he ever showed at the Elgin; no one showed up.)
The blog posts were a revelation, even to people who had known him for years. “Yes, it was a horrible thing that I went through,” he said, shrugging. “But it’s not unique — a lot of people went through it. I’m not special. I’m certainly an atheist, a convinced atheist. I’m alive because the Ukrainian who was shooting at me was probably drunk.
“But I got tired of myself, tired of talking about it. I started saying I was born in Brooklyn. It’s like when people ask, ‘What do you do?’ I say I’m an accountant — so they don’t hand me a script. I say ‘I’m an accountant,’ suddenly there’s no one around me.”
The key, he said, is trusting yourself and not being afraid. “You’re human, you’re not going to be right all the time, but if you lose your passion, then what are you?
“I get these kids out of school, they’re all looking for formulas. I say, ‘I don’t know anything!’” And they look at me and they’re thinking, ‘You know, but you don’t want to tell me.’ I don’t. You have to find your own way.”