NEW YORK — There’s no topic that’s been done to death like the underground art movement of the 1960s. Yet filmmaker Chuck Smith has found a new point of view from which to tell this story. “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground” presents a young Jewish woman from Queens who fell in with the “right crowd” — which went on to nurture two of her innate abilities.
The first was she was a natural born networker. Her beautiful looks, enthusiastic, omnidirectional sexuality, and her first-hand knowledge of where to score good drugs were certainly part of it. But she also had enthusiasm and a keen eye for talent. Barbara Rubin introduced Andy Warhol to Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan to Allen Ginsberg. She somehow put together the first major reading of counter-cultural poets in London at the age of 20, and helped make international news of a screening of avant-garde filmmaker Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” in Belgium when she was just 18.
Her other talent was as a filmmaker herself. While very little remains of her work (for reasons we’ll get into), her 1963 short film “Christmas on Earth” (shot in the Velvet Underground’s John Cale’s apartment) was a revolutionary piece of avant-garde art that pushed boundaries of acceptability. The goatee-stroking critics recognized its innovative use of double-projection, creating a kind of third dimension within the same frame. Squares and cops called it hardcore pornography. (I say why not both?!?)
Rubin’s first mentor was legendary New York filmmaker and impresario Jonas Mekas, who died earlier this year at the age of 96, but after she presented “Christmas on Earth” she became attached to poet-activist Ginsberg. The two actually bought and, for a short time, ran a farm in upstate New York that was meant to be an oasis for artists looking to kick their hard drug habits.
Rubin was in love with Ginsberg, who did not reciprocate. Then, at the age of 24 or so, she gravitated to Orthodox Judaism. While still maintaining friendships, she lived a devout life, turned her back on her art and eventually moved to a religious community in France. She died from infection after a difficult childbirth at the age of 35 in 1980.
Though two more men jabbering about a great woman artist isn’t exactly what the world needs now, I had the good fortune to discuss “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground” with its director, Chuck Smith. Below is an edited transcript.
I’m a little embarrassed. I’d heard of “Christmas on Earth,” but other than that I’ll admit I don’t think I knew anything about Barbara Rubin before.
That’s what drew me to the story. Who needs another documentary about Muhammad Ali?
[Film critic and Rubin’s friend] Amy Taubin says that if Barbara had been born just five years later she’d have had a completely different life. The women’s movement would have paved the way a bit more for her, and she would have thrived.
She was one of those people who lived in the present. Everyone who was around back then remembered her, but she didn’t leave much behind. She wanted to erase her legacy. When she became Orthodox she burned a lot of letters and photos.
And even before that, the way she lived her life, she didn’t do much to preserve. She never owned her own cameras so, luckily, the few films we do have, she either left them with Andy Warhol or Jonas Mekas or other people. She was a wanderer.
And very young. I guess with the social ruptures that were happening a very young artist could be taken seriously.
One thing I realized making this film is that the so-called “wild women” were so young. Barbara hitchhiked across the country at the age of 14. An important thing to realize is that when young men or boys were being disobedient they were encouraged to go into sports and settle down, or they could go off and be artists and it was acceptable. Girls were sent to asylums, like Barbara was at a young age, in the hopes they’d reform.
I also discovered that the star of “Christmas on Earth,” who is in my film — a friend and contemporary of Barbara’s — was really young. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but the accusations against it that it is pornography and not art, well, if you go that route it’s basically child pornography.
Yikes. I’m sure she was just days shy of 18.
Uh, other topics – part of what makes your film so interesting is how, even though she remains somewhat esoteric, Barbara was a touchpoint for so many important people.
These are the people who are really in the moment. Socrates probably had a hilarious drinking buddy who gave him tons of ideas but we just don’t know it. They are known in the present day, but are in danger of being forgotten.
She saw Allen Ginsberg as a model, someone who brought people together and understood the value of new voices. She was very good at PR. Gerard Malanga said he would have followed her anywhere. But I also believe that the people whose own work is extremely avant-garde, contemporaries of Barbara’s like Jerry Jofin or Jack Smith, their work doesn’t get seen, but the influence is felt by more mainstream artists who have seen it, and that’s how it gets out there. They themselves don’t have whatever it is that makes someone succeed – because they are slightly crazy – but the ripple effect is real.
On your film’s website you describe Barbara using the phrase “the limits of complete freedom.” This is a great line.
When you have constraints in life, you can work with it to create something. Someone else who turned Orthodox, Ellen Gordon, who was married to Jerry Jofin, she was a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, and like Barbara she was a wild young woman. She referred to the “beautiful rules of Orthodoxy.” Most people don’t think of rules as beautiful, but that’s how she put it.
Barbara lived a way where anything goes, so at a certain point what she wanted more than anything was a family, someone to focus her.
And self-destructively she decides Allen Ginsburg, who was gay, was that guy. Did he give her any indication that they could ever have a so-called normal relationship?
She somehow thought they’d have kids together. He did sleep with her, though. In a projection booth after showing “Christmas on Earth”! It’s too gossipy so it isn’t in the film. He slept with women from time to time.
Okay, so I can understand then if she was a little confused. She was beautiful and everybody else wanted her. Jonas Mekas was certainly in love with her.
For Ginsburg it was more about running the farm. And he would keep leaving – he left for readings, or the Democratic National Convention. When he was there, things went well. When he took off things went nuts, there were drunken fights. Runaway kids who were hungry, and Gregory Corso would be grilling food that he brought saying “you can’t have any.”
Before Barbara fell in with the Orthodox community, most of her circle was already Jewish. Allen Ginsburg, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Richard Foreman, Amy Taubin, Tuli Kupferberg. You could even say the non-Jews like Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol were Jewish by Lenny Bruce’s rules.
She knew Lenny Bruce, too.
Of course she did. But, even though these were rebellious, secular people, was there a Jewish connection, you think?
Yeah, I think so. Similar backgrounds. And later, when Barbara [became Orthodox], whenever she’d remind Allen Ginsburg he was Jewish he would say “don’t do this to me,” you know? He didn’t live that life openly, in a sense. In the 1960s it wasn’t cool yet. Judaism, or any religious belief, really, it wasn’t cool.
Bob Dylan became interested in it later. A story that’s been forgotten are the hippie rabbis, they’d go around singing songs and get people more involved.
She fell in first with the Satmar Hasidim in upstate New York, but then she began following Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, who was different.
Yeah, the first husband was a Satmar [Hasid], and she was able to get a gett [ritual divorce], which shows she was still a determined woman. Her second husband was from France and that’s why they moved there.
Freifeld was a well-loved man, people still speak of him fondly. I think Barbara took Bob Dylan to meet him prior to her wedding, as they were still in touch. She sent Dylan xeroxes from her spiritual books.
It’s not very easy for an average person to see “Christmas on Earth” right now. Your documentary’s clips are something of the only game in town.
It’s basically an orphaned film, at least that’s what the lawyers say. I’m using it as “fair use,” because I’m discussing it. No one has the rights. Jonas had the spiritual rights, because she gave it to him. She told him to burn it, but he didn’t.
She had to know that he wouldn’t.
Maybe. Or maybe she knew it meant something to Jonas. She loved Jonas enough to say “it’s your choice.”
Part of why I love this era of avant-garde filmmaking is because it truly took effort to shoot and edit and project this material. The kids today with their iPhones don’t have any clue.
But I have audio of her saying “I can’t wait for the day my camera is my hand – that my hand itself will be a camera, small enough.” And she filmed some of the Warhol events in an iPhone style. The difficulty of access hurt her a lot. Jonas has tons of letters, “I can’t pay to get my footage out of the lab. Please send money.” I’m sure there’s a lot of material that got abandoned.
“Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground” opens in New York City on May 24, and in Los Angeles and San Francisco on June 14.