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DocuChronicles: Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

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DocuChronicles is a blog dedicated to independent documentary cinema by filmmaker Marjorie Sturm. It includes a mix of reviews, interviews, and longer pieces. 

By Marjorie Sturm.

Barbara Rubin was an experimental filmmaker most known for the pulsating, sexually graphic “Christmas on Earth” that she shot when she was only eighteen. She was a full blown instigator in the Underground art scene in NY in the early sixties, a force of nature and mystic. She introduced Beat poetry to Europe when she organized the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall in London in 1965.

Strange that I never had heard of her, but not strange as well. Even after studying film history, I had never learned of Alice Guy-Blaché, the pioneering French filmmaker who was one of the first to make narrative films. So here now we have Barbara Rubin, the radical, sexual artist and provocateur who is credited with being at the inception of multimedia installations and projection. Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground makes up for lost time. This new documentary by Chuck Smith is hypnotic, emotionally stirring, and informative. The spirit of Barbara Rubin is a powerful reminder of film as a transcendental medium— a type of magic that captures the present moment in time by projecting and mirroring into the future and past.

Barbara_Rubin_and_the_Exploding_New_York_Underground_ STILL 4A_Rubin_WarholAccording to the author and artist Ara Osterweil, a Rubin authority who figures throughout the film, it was common for Jewish middle class parents during the fifties and sixties to stage “interventions” when a young girl or teenager was “acting out.” Apparently, Barbara had been a bit plump and was given diet pills to control her weight, but the plan to conform Barbara backfired. She liked the pills (methamphetamines). This led to her rebelliousness and institutionalization, which led to further drug experimentation at the sanatorium. (While watching, I couldn’t help but remember the numerous creative and highly intelligent young women I met throughout my life who all ended up institutionalized, and wonder where this trend of ‘intervention’ stands now.) The film is dedicated to Jonas Mekas, who figures throughout the film via an interview, poetic journal readings, and archival footage. He passed away this last January, and we witness him as a mensch in regards to Rubin’s destiny. He was approached by Rubin’s uncle because Rubin needed a job in order to be released from the sanatorium. Mekas hired her to work at the Filmmaker’s Cooperative. Barbara at eighteen didn’t intellectually miss a beat amidst this male and older group of avant-garde filmmakers. As this documentary tells it, she more than held her own. She thrived. While they may have been more established artists, she was a more experienced drug connoisseur. At the Filmmaker’s cooperative, equipped with Bolex cameras, Rubin and her conspirators believed in subversive art, and were of the mind that all situations that are created for the camera are good and revealing, studies of reality.

Rubin was self-assured and inspired, notoriously making introductions such as Warhol to the Velvet Underground as well as to Bob Dylan. She was in love with Allen Ginsberg, and he claimed her film work as the visual component of what he was trying to express via his poetry. She was both subject and cinematographer of Warhol’s Screen Tests, shooting Dylan’s at the Factory. Rubin did not consent to the repression that had been dictated. Her sexual films and fervor wholly unearthed and paved a frequency that was free and contagious with hopes to change the world. Perhaps she did?

Again, it is so striking that Barbara Rubin has gone completely under the radar especially when contrasted to artists like Warhol, Dylan, Ginsberg where there’s arguably a pathological obsessiveness in their iconography. But this is how Barbara Rubin also chose it. She gave Mekas her films and said that she didn’t care what he did with them. I don’t want to give any spoilers about Rubin’s tragic life, but her trajectory continues to where she ends up Hasidic with many children in France. I always had heard, but had no details, that Bob Dylan had dabbled in Orthodox Judaism before committing himself to Christianity for a period. It was Rubin who introduced him to a mystical Rabbi who was guiding many a lost Jew at the time.

So how did Rubin’s religious conversion take place? As the story goes, she found 90 acres of “mystical land” upstate in New York that she convinced Allen Ginsberg to buy. She hoped to settle down and have a child with him. Ginsberg was interested in the land being a defacto rehab center or refuge for his urban drug addict friends, namely his lover Peter Orlovsky, who was cleaning NYC streets with his toothbrush. Their dreams weren’t panning out. Ginsberg wasn’t interested in domestic life with Rubin. Needles continued to be strewn around. Tensions were high. Without family money, where does one go after completely rejecting secular culture and its’ values?

Religious communities are fairly fascinating, the way they seemingly live parallel to our modern lives with their timeless templates. I spent a couple of weeks on a yeshiva in Jerusalem in my mid-twenties, partly out of spiritual curiosity but also as a recreational anthropologist. So perhaps I don’t have the knee-jerk repulsion that many secular Jews have for the Hasidic community. However, I can also see from an outside perspective how they present as stark raving mad.

On one hand, Rubin had to swallow a bunch of contradictions to become a traditionally religious Jewish woman, but it wasn’t like her life was without contradictions before. The NY underground art world clearly was not without its sickness, ruthlessness, and competition, as all alternatives cultures are not immune from the problems of the dominant culture. Warhol, from some people’s account, had what can only be considered a sadistic and manipulative streak. Ara Osterweil points out in this film that he made films that were deliberately boring. So, in one sense, it’s not surprising that Rubin was able to slip in and devote herself to the Kaballah (mystical Judaism), a study reserved for men, the way she had devoted herself to film, also surrounded by men.

Barbara_Rubin_and_the_Exploding_NY_Underground_ STILL 1_by Nat FinkelsteinWhen watching “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground,” I couldn’t not repeatedly think of an old close friend of mine. (Maybe Barbara Rubin will remind you of somebody? Maybe she will remind you of yourself? ) My friend, whose name I will purposely not mention, was a self-assured, brave, and powerful force like Rubin.  She was outspokenly feminist. After studying violin orchestral music at Yale, and touring Europe with an orchestra, she was in a car accident. The wheel just popped off while she was driving down a highway. Afterwards, she could no longer play her violin. Somehow this catastrophe, aided by psychedelics, jettisoned her spiritually. She reinvented herself and seemed to only thrive and inspire. Bisexual, non-monogamous and an incredible performer, she would sit and work causally topless, as Rubin was mentioned to have done. One time she staged a performance art piece where she invited different artists and musicians to sleep over her place for thirty days in row to chart the sexual energy between herself and the subject (I politely abstained). One of the last times I saw her, she was upside down and naked on a trapeze doing a performance about her step-mother’s choice to kill herself on her birthday. My dear friend wasn’t the first person that I would have imagined to become an observant Jewish woman, but also not the last. After a trip to India, she landed at a Rainbow Gathering in Israel. It was there her conversion took place.

When my newly reborn friend and I discussed living a life of Jewish faith, it was already after my Yeshiva stint. I was clear that I had no interest— whatever that world could possibly offer me, the trade-offs were daunting. The gender roles were rigid. Yet, I still found her immersion intriguing and curious. My brilliant, talented friend explained to me that she had previously been creating spiritual rituals out of thin air (which was true) and here she came from this rich, deep tradition that had all that she was craving as far as community and spiritual pursuit. Like Barbara Rubin, my friend was blessed and cursed with a need to get to the light, along with an inability or an unwillingness to brush aside existential questions and/or questions about the nature of god’s existence that we must block out in order to go about out daily lives in the secular world. For people as far-out as Barbara Rubin and my friend, Orthodoxy provides directive, ego-containment, and guidance, along with a community who may not let you live, but they won’t let you die on the streets either. It most definitely can be discombobulating to witness someone you love cross over into a whole different way of living. That, after all, is the point. Their choices were meant to be a line in the sand, a conscious tearing and rejection of old values. In the documentary, I related to how some of the Barbara Rubin’s friends felt, mystified. Particularly if your culture overlapped with queer culture, it was hard to understand how one could rationalize their participation. Whenever I had asked a ba’al teshuvah (a returning secular to Orthodox Jew) about the exclusion of gays, I would receive the same answer, “I had problems with that at first, too.” And now? Don’t you have problems with it now? So when my formerly bi-sexual, non-monogamous friend gave that stock response, I felt chilled. After watching this Rubin documentary, I couldn’t help but do a google search to see if I could track her after what is now fifteen years. When she last returned to visit San Francisco, she was pregnant with four kids in tow. I did find a video of her, playing her violin wildly with other women musicians, with their heads in colorful wraps and flowing skirts. She seemed as happy and healthy as anybody, if not more so, as far as I could tell from this one video slice of her world. I felt a sweet, wistful relief, she didn’t seem to meet a tragic end (so far).

One could make a good argument that if perhaps Barbara Rubin lived in a culture that better supported women artists or had more options for artistic and experimental living, she would have been less in need, less vulnerable to the Hasidic world. After her world with Allen Ginsberg on “the mystical land” broke up, there weren’t many viable alternatives where she could be free, particularly within the constraints of “work, produce, consume” capitalism.  Poignantly, approximately fifty years later, there’s still a dearth of resources allocated to women filmmakers and artistic, communal spaces are all but vanishing to rent hikes. It is certainly exciting that Rubin is now being celebrated with the release of this documentary and her “Christmas on Earth” has had a digital restoration to screen alongside it. “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground” is also a contemplation of the sincere quest for “peace, love, and harmony.” This was Rubin’s life dream, beyond any production. I highly recommend this documentary if your spirit needs a kick, and who’s doesn’t these days?

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground opened in LA and SF on June 14th. 

Marjorie Sturm is an award-winning filmmaker whose films span a broad perspective: narrative, documentary, and experimental. Her documentary The Cult of JT LeRoy won two prizes and five nominations for best feature documentary in 2015. Sturm works as a professor of digital story-telling and has created social activism videos for Consumers Union. She lives in San Francisco with composer Ernesto Diaz-Infante and their two children.

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