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Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground


Featuring Ara Osterweil, Amy Taubin, Jonas Mekas, Wendy Clarke, J. Hoberman, Joey Freeman, Stella Jane, Richard Foreman, Stephen Bornstein, Gordon Ball, Rosebud Feliu-Pettet, Susan Baustman, Debra Feiner Coddington, Randall Bourscheidt, Bracha Dean, Ahron Horowitz, Rafael Weingot, Selma Katz, Brett Aronowitz, Itka Brill and archival footage of Barbara Rubin, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.

Directed by Chuck Smith.

Distributed by Juno Films. 78 minutes. Not Rated.

Chances are that unless you were part of the very specific New York underground scene in the 1960s, you probably do not know who Barbara Rubin was. However, she packed a whole lot into a very short life.

Barbara Rubin was an experimental filmmaker in her late teens and twenties, quickly becoming a shot of estrogen in the very male-centric Greenwich Village art film scene, and specifically becoming an integral part of the famed Filmmakers Cooperative.

Though her films are rarely seen now, she was considered a groundbreaking filmmaker.

Rubin was a striking-looking, just vaguely androgynous woman. She was more into art than commerce, mysticality than intellect, faith than proof, following a whim rather than planning. She was inspired by Luis Bunuel and Walt Disney. She had a striking visual eye and was not afraid to poke at society’s taboos.

She thought that cinema could be a guerrilla art form – in fact she was one of a small group who created international headlines by literally hijacking the 1963 Knokke Experimental Film Festival in Belgium to play Jack Smith’s sexually explicit film Blazing Creatures, after it had been rejected by the festival’s board for breaking local obscenity laws.

Her best-known film is the barely seen Christmas on Earth, which despite the family-friendly title was a ground-breakingly arty and erotic film – obviously somewhat inspired by Blazing Creatures.

The movie was as technically adventurous as well as it was sexually graphic for the time. It had two projectors playing together. The first, larger shot was a series of closeups of women’s vaginas. Then a smaller film was played on top of it, essentially framed by the larger shot, which had painted nude actors and models performing straight and gay sex acts.

Considering this was during the Hays Commission era of the early 1960s, this was very risky.

Rubin was something of a connection on the New York art scene. She introduced Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan. (She dated both at different points as well.) She was the person who first told Andy Warhol about The Velvet Underground – even taking the pop artist to see the group his first time. She had friends in high and low places, and she fit in with everyone.

She worked with many of her friends – often filming at Warhol’s Factory, making films of Ginsberg, doing early movies of the VU. She also supplemented her filmmaking with acting, performance art and just being a vital part of the awakening New York counterculture.

She was championed by beloved New York film icon Jonas Mekas (who is extensively interviewed here, and sadly died just a few months ago), who was attracted to her as an artist, a close friend, and maybe a bit more.

Rubin herself did not seem to believe in love in general, though she quickly became infatuated, eventually to a disturbing extent, with Ginsberg. Sadly, while the poet cared for her, he was not as invested in their relationship as she was.

Eventually, frustrated with her career and life, she chucked it all, throwing herself into Orthodox Judaism and becoming a housewife and a mother of five children before dying in childbirth in rural France in 1980 at the age of 35.

This documentary is a bit hamstrung by the fact that while Rubin was right in the thrum of a cultural shift – she was mostly just a tiny bit over to the side. Therefore, while there is a good amount of footage of her in action, there seems to be no interview footage with the woman, forcing the filmmakers to rely on friends, family, fans and co-workers acting as talking heads to tell her story, rather than getting it from Rubin herself. A more personal take is touched on by having actors read some of her letters over the years.

Yet, even to the filmmakers, Barbara Rubin seems to remain a bit inscrutable. She was a complicated woman, and she is not giving up all her secrets, even in death.

However, she was an important and unsung child of the revolution, so even if Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground does not tell the whole story, it brings a sadly forgotten artist back to the public eye. For this reason alone, the movie is worthy. Luckily its subject is intriguing enough that there are even more reasons to rediscover this pioneering artist.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: May 24, 2019.

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