Review: Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground

Featured Image: Barbara Rubin in London 1965 photograph by Allen Ginsberg (Property of Peter Hale via Wikipedia Commons)

In a scene from Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground the camera follows filmmaker Jonas Mekas through his extensive and eclectic archives. He pulls from a teetering stack an unassuming box containing Allen Ginsberg’s beard, cut off by Barbara Rubin with Mekas’ film scissors. The charming novelty of this and many other archived stories like this are what fill Chuck Smith’s documentary with satisfying nostalgia for the 1960’s.

The October 2018 screening was part of the 47th annual Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC) held at Cinéma du Parc. It was followed by a Q&A with director Chuck Smith and writer/director Heather Young, whose short The Night is The Hardest Time preceded the documentary. Smith follows the story of the relatively unknown filmmaker and performance artist Barbara Rubin, documenting her contributions to the early 1960’s experimental film scene in New York and her influence on the wider counterculture.

Screenshot from Barbara Rubin’s film Christmas on Earth (1963).

The film begins with Mekas hiring Rubin to work in his film cooperative shortly after her discharge from a mental hospital at seventeen. Through interviews and archival footage, a mature, angel-faced, and magnetic picture of Rubin develops. Over the course of the film, she makes an impact in the predominantly male cooperative, impressing older male artists in the scene with a superior and precocious knowledge of psychedelics. Rubin directs Christmas On Earth, her most infamous work, while still a teenager.

Smith’s film details Rubin’s influence in the 1960’s avant-garde movement. Archival footage, correspondences, and current interviews with her friends, family, and peers, form a picture of an incredibly forceful and significant figure. This is bolstered by interviews with film scholar Ara Osterweil (who currently teaches at McGill university and attended the screening). Over the course of Rubin’s short career she helps with the development of Warhol’s Factory, pioneers multimedia techniques with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable event series, and perhaps most romantically plays the role of artistic matchmaker to those in her celebrated circle of friends. Rubin introduces a wide array of American icons, responsible for the unions of Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, Dylan and Warhol, and Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Smith’s film excels at showing Rubin’s wide web of influences which helped to build the legendary 1960’s counterculture in New York. It is thrilling to see her on the back of a Bob Dylan record, in a Warhol screen test, or sitting on Ginsberg’s lap at the International Poetry Incarnation in 1965 (which she herself organized).

Allen Ginsberg on Barbara Rubin’s lap at the International Poetry Incarnation at Albert Hall in London 1965. Copyright John “Hoppy” Hopkins.

During the Q&A, Smith addressed the difficulties of making a documentary about a filmmaker. As they are primarily behind the camera, acquiring footage from privately owned archives was expensive. There is a general scarcity of film from that period, as much was lost or destroyed due to filmmakers who could not afford to retrieve their footage from film labs, oras is the case with Rubinwas intentionally destroyed.

This lack of concrete footage detracts somewhat from the viewing experience. Recycled footage is noticeable throughout the film, such as a shot of Ginsberg digging a well at East Hill Farm. Smith also uses a voice actor to read from Rubin’s letters and other writing. While there is a similarity between their voices, the actor is conspicuously not Rubin. In Queer Coupling, or the Stain of the Bearded Woman Ara Osterweil describes the surreal process of searching for a recording of her voice. It is a hunt for a Rubin who “exists only in fragments.” Evasive, contradictory, enchanting, and remote, Rubin’s scarceness is frustratingly surrounded and often overshadowed by the mythic figures of Dylan, Ginsberg, and Warhol. The ventriloquism of her writing and dreamy filter of shaky 35mm seem even more distant in contrast to the conventional, digitally shot interviews with those who survived her.

Chuck Smith’s film cannot escape a nostalgic tone, overwhelmed by the myths of the decade. It approaches the subject matter in an earnest and perhaps overly optimistic manner. Ironically this enthusiasm simplifies and idealizes her role in the art world despite the intense toll it took on her. Complexities of Rubin’s life get a rose-tinted treatment; her heavy use of drugs is portrayed as an attempt to impress the boys’ club at the film cooperative and a way into the male art world.

It is only later in the film that the physical effects of Rubin’s lifestyle are mentioned. One friend describes how her hair would fall out regularly. This detail is cheerily folded into the narrative as just another part of her unique style; a proclivity for large head scarves. The film zeroes in on her role as a medium in the intense and idealistic atmosphere of the burgeoning art scene. Though women’s roles as facilitators in artistic movements are often overlooked, focusing on her facilitation diverts attention away from her actual art making. Instead of her radical performance art, interviewers would rather discuss her angelic face, magnetic coolness, the muse-like relationship with Mekas, and romantic involvement with Dylan and Ginsberg. Her process in filmmaking is romanticized with an anecdote of her cutting film topless; her free-spirited aura is presented as the most significant insight into how someone so young created a film as forward as Christmas on Earth.

Barbara Rubin as a nun filming Piero Heliczer’s Venus in Furs (1965) with the Velvet Underground. Copyright Adam Ritchie.

Ara Osterweil raised the issue of fidelity to Rubin’s artistic intent during the Q&A, pointing out the problematic aspects of showing parts of Christmas on Earth in the film, how specific Rubin’s projection instructions were, and how a recreation fails to capture the performative nature of the film. The director takes quite a bit of license by including clips from her work, finding parts of the lost film Alan which Rubin partially destroyed and spliced with Holocaust footage after her conversion to Orthodox Judaism. It is sensational to see this lost footage about Ginsberg, but incongruent with Rubin’s intention for the film; cutting it back together is perhaps a violation of her artistic choices.

Barbara Rubin’s relatively short career in the vibrant underground film scene is bookended with two instances of isolation and control. The first was externally imposed on her when she was incarcerated in a mental hospital at a young age. The second was chosen, her surprising conversion to Orthodox Judaism and renouncement of the art world. Both are framed as equally tragic, her “real” life beginning and ending with her participation in the art scene. Most of the film’s attention to this subject is spent lamenting the void within the art world after she left and how confounding it remains to the figures who knew her during that part of her life. This reveals a possessiveness on the part of the art scene and an unwillingness to entertain the possibility that her choice was rational. The documentary implies that Rubin’s departure was an emotional reaction to the rejection of her impossibly ambitious script Snow White and a romantic strife with Alan Ginsberg. What seems like an ousting from Warhol’s Factory because of her clashing with a male director is glossed over, as are the exploitative elements of the Factory itself.

Rubin in London 1965. Copyright John “Hoppy” Hopkins.

Still, the end result of her conversion was Rubin’s tragic and preventable death in childbirth at the age of thirty-five. She died in a rural part of France without access to medical care, and while the documentary mourns her, it does not try very hard to understand her choice. For a critical viewer, many important questions are left unanswered. What aspects of the film scene became so alienating to her? Did her involvement benefit her or did it lead her to greater harm? How should her renouncement of her role in the counterculture inform how her work is viewed now? Smith is too emotionally close to the subject matter to answer these questions adequately in the film. Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground remains a fascinating archival work marred by hagiography. It is hard to be overly frustrated with Chuck Smith for these shortcomings. The task of making a conventional documentary out of such an unconventional woman is confounded by Rubin’s alluring elusiveness as a subject. Osterweil describes herself being drawn in: “I am entering the dangerous territory of relics and saints. I am not a fondler of fingernails and teeth. Here are the facts.” At the very least, this film brings together some of these facts and commemorates an overlooked and essential piece of art history.


Christmas on Earth Barbara Rubin

Wholly Communion Peter Whitehead

Flaming Creatures Jack Smith

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