'Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground': Film Review

Juno Films, Inc.
'Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground'
An evocative portrait of a vibrant and mysterious artist.
5/24/2019

Chuck Smith's documentary chronicles the life, work and influence of a little-known but key figure in the avant-garde art and film scene of 1960s Manhattan.

The press notes for Chuck Smith's concise and stirring new documentary describe its subject, Barbara Rubin, as a Zelig of sorts. That makes a certain sense: She appears, again and again, in photographs with Warhol, Ginsberg, Dylan — that's her on the back cover of Bringing It All Back Home, running her hand through the young troubadour's hair. For most viewers, even those well-versed in '60s culture, her identity is a mystery. But Rubin, it turns out, was no shadowy background player. During the brief years that she was part of downtown New York's avant-garde, she was a fearless creator and a life-changing catalyst. More than one person interviewed for the documentary describes her as angelic, and the late Jonas Mekas, her mentor and dear friend, compares her to Rimbaud, making her subversive mark and then disappearing "into the sands of some spiritual Africa."

Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground is less concerned with explaining Rubin than with restoring her place in a much-told, usually male-centric narrative. She was the one who brought a new band called the Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol's attention. She was the one who took Bob Dylan to the Factory and shot his Screen Test for Warhol's legendary series. “She was the one," says Mekas, "who helped to make the chemistry of the period." And at just 18 in 1963, Rubin made a half-hour film, Christmas on Earth, whose unflinching sexual explicitness — particularly its images of female genitalia — is notable even by today's standards. Five years later, she had devoted herself to Hasidism, embracing its age-old gender-prescribed roles.

A Queens native, Rubin arrived in Manhattan after a rough patch, when her generally lenient middle-class parents didn't know what to do with her and, in the euphemistic lingo of the day, had her "put away for a while" in a psychiatric hospital. Through the good fortune of coincidence or destiny, a relative got her a job at the nascent Film-Makers' Cooperative run by Mekas, and from there, with preternatural self-confidence, she was unstoppable, a crucial figure in the vanguard of experimental film and performance art.

Mekas, who died in January at 96, opened his ample archives to Smith, and the doc reveals writings and 16mm clips about and by Rubin that are infused with a bold sensitivity. Certainly the most unexpected item pulled from the shelves is a box containing Allen Ginsberg's beard, cut off at the suggestion of Rubin, who, as more than one interviewee remarks, was deeply in love with the unequivocally gay poet.

A documentary about Ginsberg, Allen for Allen, is one of the long-lost or incomplete Rubin projects that Smith excerpts, to revelatory effect. An ardent advocate and kinetic chronicler of the artists around her, Rubin also took her own breathtaking artistic leaps, as in the dual-projection, image-within-image configuration of Christmas on Earth. But it's footage from a hand-painted abstract film she made that all but bursts off the screen with its aesthetic power and sheer life force.

For all her creativity and people-connecting pizazz, within a few short years Rubin apparently grew tired of — and felt invisible in — the Factory scene, and set out, in her non-business-savvy way, to secure financing for a feature extravaganza with an all-star cast. ("All-star" is putting it mildly; her wish list of performers is a who's who of 1960s pop culture and beyond.) In her Open Letter to Walt Disney, and her pleading/berating notes to Mekas ("Do you not see that I'm presenting a prophecy?"), there might be echoes of the teenage crisis that led to her hospitalization.

To a viewer unfamiliar with Rubin's story, the question of her fate hangs over much of the documentary, a fear that we'll learn she became another fringe-dwelling casualty of drugs or despair. The moment that set her life on a new trajectory is all the more jaw-dropping after all that tension coursing through the film. Rubin's epiphany is described by friends of hers who witnessed the incident in upstate New York (where she'd convinced Ginsberg and other friends to buy land and create a communal retreat): It's the moment when she found her new calling as an Orthodox Jew.

The movie might implicitly bemoan the change of direction and the unrealized potential of a groundbreaking artist, but the people who knew her understand, for the most part, that this wasn't so much a break as a continuum. As tragic as her death would be, at only 35, Rubin experienced the interceding years, and her day-to-day life as a religious wife and mother, as its own form of artistic expression.

The documentary's talking heads include Rubin's aunt and cousin as well as artists, friends and critics — notably Amy Taubin, whose personal recollections are particularly incisive. Even with this mix of voices, Smith doesn't try to fill in the many gaps in Rubin's story but to honor them, along with her creative and spiritual impulses. His film is a biography in expressionistic brushstrokes. It brings to mind a label other than "Zelig" to describe its subject, a word from the opposite end of the alphabet: "aleph," the name of the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, but, more than that, a poetic symbol in Rubin's beloved Kabbalah. It's a word associated with angels and beginnings, and with sparks of light that fall to Earth.


Director-producer: Chuck Smith
Director of photography: Andy Bowley
Editor: Steve Heffner
Composer: Lee Ranaldo

78 minutes