Angelic Order

Barbara Rubin & the exploding NY Underground Directed by Chuck Smith

Memory’s dark twin is forgetfulness. Because of its presence, history is often obliged to curl back on itself so that it can set in motion a different story. Chuck Smith’s 78-minute-long documentary on the place of Barbara Rubin in New York’s film and music underground in the 1960s is a film that puts memory so unequivocally back into the historical narrative, it is impossible to view the years from 1963 to 1968 in the way they had previously been presented.

If you hadn’t heard of Barbara Rubin, as I hadn’t, this intelligently layered documentary will come as a complete surprise. Much of that surprise comes from the comments made about her and her work as an avant-garde filmmaker and film advocate by the impressive list of individuals who are interviewed for the documentary, many of them filmmakers and writers themselves. Among them are some of the most important and respected members of the New York underground, including Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, Wendy Clarke and Richard Foreman.

The film opens with a remarkable claim: “In New York City in 1963, underground film is turning on the world. And the most daring filmmaker of all is … an 18-year-old girl.” Without missing a beat, the documentary provides testimonial evidence for Rubin’s unique personality and achievement. “She was the one who helped to make the chemistry of that period,” says Jonas Mekas, “everybody wanted to talk to her, invite her, to be with her.” Film theorist Ara Osterweil says, “She was friends with really established male artists, but she was someone who energized these people.” Debra Coddington, a friend and performer in Christmas on Earth, Rubin’s explicitly erotic film, adds, “Her energy was a hot flame. It’s the kind of person you put your hands up to and go, whoa.”

But it is Amy Taubin, now a film critic and professor, but an actress when she first met Rubin, who introduces an idea that the film will return to again and again: “She had the most transcendently beautiful face I had ever seen. She didn’t look like a boy; she didn’t look like a girl. She looked like somebody decided to paint an angel.” Mekas, who was enamoured of Rubin, adds soul and substance to Taubin’s painted surface. His writing about Christmas on Earth offers a tidy syllogism: “We have seldom seen such down-to-earth beauty, so real as only beauty can be. Terrible beauty that man, that woman is, that Love is. This 18-year-old girl must have no shame; only angels have no shame. Barbara Rubin is an angel.” What Taubin’s and Mekas’s descriptions make clear is that beauty is more in the eye of the beholder than is membership in the angelic order. The pictures we see of Rubin, which are taken from a variety of sources—including stills, a section from her screen test for Warhol and the passionate kiss she bestows on Naomi Levine—show an attractive enough young woman, but unparalleled, transcendent beauty is nowhere in evidence.

What is abundantly clear, though, is her presence at the centre of what was happening in this explosive milieu. In the documentary’s first minute Osterweil asks, “Who is Barbara Rubin?” and the film sets out to provide answers. Born into a permissive middle-class Jewish family, she turned wild, began to experiment with drugs and was sent to a correctional house, which she was allowed to leave with the promise of a job at the Film-Makers’ Co-operative, run by Jonas Mekas. Almost immediately her charisma and intelligence became evident. The documentary is dense with photos of her deep in conversation with Donovan, mussing Dylan’s hair backstage at a concert, filming for Warhol at The Factory in New York, and in London with Allen Ginsberg as one of the organizers of the International Poetry Incarnation, a poetry festival and “underground invasion” at Royal Albert Hall in June of 1965 that drew an audience of over 7,000 people. As the designer of the saturated image-and-sound component that was part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable performances at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, she was given equal billing with Warhol. She was an early enthusiast for the Velvet Underground—she said they were like Zen Buddhists and listening to their music was a meditation—and introducing them to Warhol led to their ascendency as the house band for The Factory.

Taubin remarks that Rubin had a special gift for connecting creative people. One of the most telling indications of that ability is a photograph of Dylan and Warhol looking at a silkscreen painting of Elvis Presley. Rubin had brought Dylan to The Factory, and Warhol was so delighted with the meeting that he gave the singer a Double Portrait of Presley as a gift. What we see is a delightful set of stills showing Rubin and Dylan trying to load the painting into the back of a Chevrolet station wagon in the street below, recognizing that it wouldn’t fit and finally strapping it onto the car’s roof before driving off. The music we hear under this sequence is from Dylan’s “Outlaw Blues”: “I ain’t going to hang no picture, I ain’t going to hang no picture frame.” It’s worth noting that the choice and placement of music by Lee Ronaldo, the film’s composer and music advisor, is pitch perfect. In the early section of the film where Rubin’s catalytic effect is being described, we hear references to shiny pieces of leather from the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” and Dylan’s lyrics from “She Belongs to Me”: “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back.”

Rubin’s meteoric rise was not without the occasional setback. Christmas on Earth was unquestionably the most sexually explicit movie that anyone had made up to that point, including Jack Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures, a film that Rubin championed while working as a programmer at the Film-Makers’ Co-operative. It was her intention to follow her film with an ambitious sequel to be called Christmas on Earth Continued. It was to be shot in Ireland and would star Jean Genet as a Bowery bum Santa Claus who is saved by a constellation of fairies played “by the heroes and stars of our time.” The projected cast of 350 included the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Robert and Mary Frank, Picasso, Joan Baez, James Baldwin, Brigitte Bardot, Salvador Dali and the Royal Family. She was 20 when she wrote an open letter to Walt Disney soliciting financial aid: “I loved you as a child and now that I have grown to give birth to my own dreams and thoughts … it is to you that I return.” When she didn’t get the support she felt her project deserved, her disappointment turned to anger. In yet another letter to Jonas, she called the film “a natural outcome of the beauty and constructive part of me. Don’t you see that I am presenting a prophecy for the future? If you deny it, you deny me.”

Her other miscalculation was convincing Ginsberg to buy a 90-acre farm in 1969 that ended up being called “The Committee on Poetry.” Ginsberg saw it as a drug-free refuge for his friends; Rubin viewed it as the location for turning their deep friendship into a form of romance that would include children, running water, a cow and some goats. Their expectations were at cross-purposes and the experiment ended catastrophically.

It’s one thing to say who Barbara Rubin was by providing biographical facts and showing photographic evidence of the connections she made, but the larger and more problematic question is what provoked the complete renunciation of her film life to embrace a role as an ultra-orthodox Jewish wife and mother. Attitudes towards religion and spirituality play a major role in the film because they were at the core of Rubin’s personality: J Hoberman says that she “embraced underground film with a religious fervour” and Rubin herself speaks about her attraction to transcendence as “a way of seeing infinite.” In one of her many letters she writes to Mekas, “I will be your messenger always, just look outward to the universe. I’m always here, there and everywhere.” From her earliest correspondence she was promulgating the need for a radical shift in consciousness, a shift that, aided by drugs, found its fullest expression through cinema, until she began studying the Talmud, changed her name to Bracha and married into Jewish orthodoxy. That union lasted two years, then she remarried—this time to a rabbi—moved to France and began a large family. She died at the age of 34 from a postnatal infection after the birth of her fifth child.

Her transformation from radical filmmaker and uncompromising opponent to any kind of censorship to becoming a housewife and devoted Hasidic mother is the mystery that her fellow artists in the underground art community found hard to explain. When she “renounced everything she and we had done,” filmmaker Stephen Bornstein said, “it was like the gypsies stole her.” Upon being told of her conversion, Adam Ritchie, the photographer who had worked with Rubin to document the Velvet Underground’s first gig at the Café Bizarre, remarked that “it was so impossible that it must be somebody else with the same name.”

Chuck Smith’s handling of this, and every aspect of her life, is intelligent and nuanced. He is especially effective in having one interview subject pick up a cue from an earlier subject, so that the story of Rubin’s life unfolds like a single narrative told through a number of different voices. He also uses a poetic subtext as a device that floats just under the surface of the more complete narrative. In an early television interview Mekas says that “underground filmmakers are exploring the poetic aspect of cinema,” so when he describes the effect Rubin’s film has on viewers, he finds an equivalent in WB Yeats’s “terrible beauty”; Osterweil refers “to the best minds of her generation,” a lift from Howl; Foreman talks about “filming a kind of raw poetry of being outsiders” and remarks that Flaming Creatures was “like watching William Blake come to life”; finally, in Rubin’s film Allen for Allen, we see Ginsberg visiting Blake’s gravestone. These poetic echoes establish a subtle resonance that runs throughout the documentary.

Smith adds a further dimension to Rubin’s conversion through his frequent use of spiritual quotations in the body of the film. A pair of them acts as bookends. “Before it comes to earth, each and every soul is wrapped in divine light and shown its future destiny,” we hear a male voice say. “But as soon as we drop out of our mothers, our lips are struck by an angel and we forget everything.” The final voiceover refers to “the redemptive great song of hope.” All these words are taken from books her husband compiled on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Hasidic group Rubin had enthusiastically joined in the 1970s. Her friend Rosebud Feliu-Pettet sees the woman who joined this sect as no less intense than the one who flashed through the underground film community less than a decade earlier: “Even there, she wanted to be a luminous being in the world of the Hassids.”

Rubin understood that the magical feelings filmmaking had provided were insufficient for the life she led after she left New York. In a letter postmarked June 2, 1966, from Jamaica, NY, she writes to Mekas, “I don’t know how to say it but what I feel goes beyond movies to life itself. It’s not that I won’t always help you and the filmmakers but I’m looking deep into something else. Please don’t feel like I’m leaving you because I’m closer to you than ever.” This declaration of a new quest was only three years after she arrived at the Film-Makers’ Co-operative. While he never lost his affection for her, Mekas was right to wonder about her declaration of unalterable devotion. Of all her previous intimates, friends and associates, Mekas is the one who seems most unreconciled to her renunciation. He traces her trajectory as “breezing in like a mysterious stranger,” with “inexhaustible energy” and absolute “belief and faith in us and in what we were doing,” to something close to abandonment. Near the end of the film, in his late 80s, he stands in his vast studio, overbrimming with evidence of a life lived in and loved through cinema, and reads his farewell to the friend he had met over a half-century earlier. “Barbara, you left us, like Rimbaud. You disappeared in the sands of some spiritual Africa. Someday some explorer will bring us some shreds of information. Now, however, I’m staring at a white sheet of paper in front of me and I can’t fathom any of it.” He looks directly at the camera, shakes his head and closes the book. His radiant angel has disappeared into that white sheet of paper.

The official theatrical premier for Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground will take place in May at the IFC Center in New York City. Anyone interested in more details about Rubin’s life should see The Legend of Barbara Rubin (Film Culture 80), an anthology edited by Jonas Mekas and a number of contributing editors, including Chuck Smith.

Volume 38 Number 1 : Language + Art

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #149, published March 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.