New York’s avant-garde art and film scene of the early 1960s may have been dominated by the likes of Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol, but “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground” offers a fascinating recontextualization of that history, focusing on young Barbara Rubin’s integral role in shaping the era’s blossoming counterculture. Chuck Smith’s documentary is at once accessible and formally daring, echoing its subject’s style while simultaneously celebrating her radical achievements. It’s an enlightening nonfiction portrait of a feminist pioneer that, in this #MeToo era, should strike a timely chord.
Described as a “hot flame” because of her burning artistic engine, 18-year-old Rubin entered the orbit of experimental film godfather Mekas in 1963. That’s when he gave her a job at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative so she could secure her release from a psychiatric hospital, where she’d landed, courtesy of her parents, because of her feisty, independent behavior. Having developed a serious taste for drugs at the hospital, she brought an unconventional perspective and passion to her subsequent cinematic endeavors. Most famous was 1963’s “Christmas on Earth,” a 29-minute masterpiece in which two separate reels were projected simultaneously, one inside the other — the exterior footage being a closeup of a woman’s vagina, and the interior including nude painted and masked individuals engaged in sexual activity.
Pushing things even further than Jack Smith’s controversial “Flaming Creatures,” “Christmas on Earth” blazed a boundary-defining trail. “She was like the Joan of Arc of underground cinema,” opines critic J. Hoberman, while fellow critic (and Rubin friend) Amy Taubin remarks that the filmmaker had “the most transcendently beautiful face I’d ever seen.” Before long, Rubin was front and center in this male-saturated subculture; the documentary concentrates on her great ability not only to identify similarly eclectic, audacious talent, but to facilitate meetings between artists in order to further stimulate creativity — and to inspire them to seek out brave new frontiers.
Courtesy of anecdotes from friends, relatives, colleagues and admirers, as well as old photos and movies that are often set to narrated readings of letters Rubin wrote to Mekas and others, the documentary relays how Rubin introduced Warhol to Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, and also Dylan to the Kabbalah, the mystical strain of Judaism to which she was increasingly drawn. The documentary also spends time on her close relationship with Allen Ginsberg, with whom she eventually founded a sanctuary for poets in upstate New York, the two linked by a shared interest in finding new modes of expression, thought and existence.
After her falling out with Ginsberg (over, among other things, her desire to have his child), Rubin retreated into an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where she remained as a wife and mother for the rest of her too-brief life (she died after giving birth to her fifth child in 1980). To those who’d known her during her heady artistic days, this turn of events — becoming a subservient religious homemaker — was nothing short of stunning. The documentary, however, suggests that her embrace of a Kabbalah tradition led by men was, perhaps, another extension of her lifelong subversive desire to upend societal gender norms by thriving in milieus that typically boxed out women.
With incisive and enthusiastic commentary from everyone involved, “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground” recounts its story with infectious energy, and uses overlapping color-coded imagery that conjures the spirit of a Zelig-like figure whose contributions to the counterculture were, the director persuasively argues, invaluable.