December 10, 2019

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Documentary explores life of avant-garde filmmaker

Barbara Rubin</p>

Barbara Rubin

In this packed, hepped-up documentary, director Chuck Smith jumps right into the story of Barbara Rubin, a little-known but influential presence in a 1960s New York scene that fused avant-garde film, music and art. Like its incandescent subject, whose creative life was brief, intense and transformative, this necessary film covers a lot of material in a short time.

Born into a liberal, middle-class Jewish family in Queens, Rubin was a risk-taking, rule-breaking kid. Committed to a psychiatric institution as an adolescent, she was released on the condition she have a regular job. A helpful uncle got her a gig with Jonas Mekas, founder of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and a force in experimental film. Rubin’s risk-taking and rule-breaking didn’t go away, but they found a new purpose.

With a genius for provocation and promotion, Rubin broke down barriers between art and life, fuelled by passionate intensity (and sometimes by amphetamines). Smith likewise dives into the 1960s, using a strobing, pulsing esthetic to suggest its mix of sex, drugs, happenings, political protest and mystical searching. We watch as Rubin brings Bob Dylan to Andy Warhol’s Factory, connects Warhol and the Velvet Underground, and hangs out with Allen Ginsberg.

Then there’s Rubin’s own work, especially her transgressive 1963 film Christmas on Earth, which she made while still a teenager and which features painted bodies involved in messy, exploratory, ecstatic sex. This omni-erotic piece of expanded cinema melded film, performance and installation art into a radical new form.

Smith’s approach, with contributions from interview subjects like critic Amy Taubin, suggests a feminist reframing of history. The film reminds us that while the 1960s counterculture promised complete liberation, it generally stuck to freedom as men saw it, with women relegated to supporting roles as wives and girlfriends. Rubin’s contributions might be overlooked in accounts of the period because she was a very young woman in a predominantly male movement.

Barbara Rubin and Velvet Underground</p>

Barbara Rubin and Velvet Underground

Another reason for this erasure could be Rubin’s sudden "disappearance." Suffering from exhaustion and despair after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, depressed by the disintegration of her complicated relationship with Ginsberg, in 1969 Rubin joined an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, a decision that initially shocked her friends.

Today, some still feel betrayed and bereft, while others now see Rubin’s choice as just another direction in her lifelong yearning for meaning.

That’s the tricky thing: Smith essentially constructs his film around Rubin’s absence. We get her visual image — and her fascinating, changing face — but we get no footage of her talking. She is refracted through the accounts of friends, family and current film scholars.

This approach is often evocative but frequently frustrating. In the mid-1960s, for example, Rubin wrote a letter to Walt Disney, of all people, requesting financing for a fantastical film project with an imagined cast that included Sophia Loren, Jean Genet, the Beatles, Lenny Bruce and Frank Sinatra. Whether this extravagant and unworkable proposal was a Dada-style stunt or a manic delusion is not clear, though Rubin’s anger at Mekas’s failure to support the project suggests the latter.

At one point, Mekas distinguishes between the narrative and the poetic functions of film. Smith is in a tricky position: He’s basically constructing a narrative biography of a highly poetic artist, and sometimes those two strands get all tangled up. There are sections that vibrate with avant-garde energy — Smith uses a lot of experimental film footage to set the scene — but there are also weird gaps in the factual account.

Sometimes Barbara Rubin & and the Exploding NY Underground feels exhilarating and open-ended, and sometimes it feels like Smith needs to press harder for documentary truth.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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Updated on Friday, October 25, 2019 at 6:59 AM CDT: Adds photos

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