×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground’

This bold, enthusiastic documentary details the unsung yet important role played by its subject in the 1960s artistic counterculture.

Director:
Chuck Smith
With:
Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, Richard Foreman, J. Hoberman.
Release Date:
May 24, 2019

1 hour 19 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: ‘Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground’

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., May 22, 2019. Running time: 79 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Juno Films release of a Chuck Smith Prods. production. Producer: Chuck Smith.

Crew: Director: Chuck Smith. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Andy Bowley. Editor: Chuck Smith. Music: Lee Ranaldo.

With: Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, Richard Foreman, J. Hoberman.

More Film

  • Wings of Desire

    German Heritage Sector Applauds Increased Digitization, Preservation Funding

    LYON, France  — Germany’s film heritage sector is celebrating a new federal and state-funded initiative launching in January that will provide €10 million ($11.15 million) a year towards the digitization and preservation of feature films. Rainer Rother, the artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, outlined the plan at a panel discussion at the Lumière Festival’s [...]

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    Why Emma Stone Was Haunted by Fear of Vomiting While Shooting 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains a slight spoiler for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The zombie slayers are back! Ten years after Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin first killed dead people walking in “Zombieland,” they’ve reunited for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” “You take stock of your life a little bit,” Stone says of [...]

  • Hereditary

    The Best Horror Films to Stream Right Now

    Good horror movies aren’t always easy to scare up, but with Halloween on the horizon, Variety has compiled a list of some of the best horror films available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. NETFLIX Apostle Cult horror meets religious hypocrisy in this creepy gothic thriller, which follows prodigal son Thomas Richardson, who returns home [...]

  • Brett Gelman

    'Stranger Things' Star Brett Gelman Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse'

    Brett Gelman, best known for his scene-stealing roles in “Fleabag,” “Stranger Things” and “Love,” has joined Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse.” Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith are also on board. Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known as John Terrence Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who [...]

  • US director Francis Ford Coppola holds

    Francis Ford Coppola Honored With Prestigious Lumiere Prize by Thierry Fremaux, Bong Joon Ho

    Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to claim the Lumière Festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Lumière Prize, in a stirring celebration that marked the festival’s 10th edition on Friday night in Lyon, France. The four-time Academy Award winner accepted the prize after a series of video tributes, musical performances and testimonials from family, friends and [...]

  • 'Human Capital' Sells to Vertical Entertainment,

    Liev Schreiber, Maya Hawke's 'Human Capital' Sells Rights to DirecTV, Vertical Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vertical Entertainment and DirecTV have jointly acquired the North American distribution rights to “Human Capital,” an official selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from director Marc Meyers. The film stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Hawke. The ensemble drama follows numerous interconnected stories surrounding a hit and run, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content