“Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground”

“An Art-Porn Masterpiece”

Amos Lassen

There are those that believe that Barbara Rubin was the single most important person in American culture in the early 60s. She was a young woman who showed up in Manhattan, got a job with experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas when she was just 17-years-old and wound up influencing not just her mentor but also Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed and many others. Before she abandoned the New York scene, she changed the course of Manhattan culture. She brought Warhol to the first Velvet Underground show, she introduced Dylan to Jewish mysticism and made a sexually graphic short film,” Christmas On Earth”, that served as a feminist counterpoint to Jack Smith’s far better known “Flaming Creatures.” Then she abandoned it all for a life as far removed from the Factory scene as one can imagine. , Rubin was seeking a deeper meaning to life. After retiring to a farm with Allen Ginsberg, she shocked everyone by converting to Hasidic Judaism, marrying and moving to France to live an anonymous life. She died in 1980 after giving birth to her fifth child.  For years, Mekas treasured all of Barbara’s letters and films and cherished her memory. Now with Mekas’ footage, this film takes us inside the world and mind of Barbara Rubin; a woman who truly believed that film could change the world.

Director Chuck Smith presents Barbara Rubin to us in vivid detail. He use archival footage with present-day testimonials from her family and friends (including film critic Amy Taubin) and Rubin’s own letters, read by Claire Jamison. What we get is a portrait of an artist determined to make the most of every last artistic impulse “even if that meant pitching Walt Disney on a pornographic sequel to Christmas On Earth that she believed would expand the minds of anyone who saw it. She just needed a little help with the animation.”

Barbara Rubin’s “Christmas On Earth” (1963-65) is an art-porn masterpiece that shocked NYC’s experimental film scene and inspired the underground. Its orgy scenes, double projections and overlapping images shattered artistic conventions and announced a powerful new voice in the city’s underground film scene. All the more remarkable was that the vision belonged to an 18 year old teenager. For the next four years her filmmaking and irrepressible energy helped shatter artistic and sexist boundaries.

Rubin’s unbridled creativity inspired her to make films when women simply didn’t and saw her breach yet another male domain, Orthodox Judaism, before her mysterious death at 35. She became  nearly forgotten artist, an avant-garde maverick, a rebel in a man’s world, who now finally regains her rightful place in film history. This film is a recontextualization of the 1960s New York art and experimental film scene through the story of an influential, yet unheralded, figure, Barbara Rubin, the extraordinary young filmmaker, who defied sexist conventions.

Jonas Mekas shares that the filmmakers he presents and champions are not interested in the narrative but the poetic side of cinema. But this is not true for “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground”, a straightforward doc about a larger-than-life character among a whole scene of larger-than-life characters. 

After her years in the New York underground, Rubin had a religious epiphany while driving by an Orthodox Jewish orphanage with her friends. She made them stop the car, jumped out, started working at the orphanage, and that was that—Rubin was out of the movie scene. She married one Orthodox Jew, then quickly divorced him and married another, and lived the rest of her life as a devout Hasid, first back in New York City and then in France, having child after child until she tragically died after giving birth to her fifth. 

Unfortunately, the film’s talking heads have very little insight into this change of direction, and the final word goes to Amy Taubin calling it unfathomable and almost a tragedy for the scene, for art. Perhaps we need to be reminded that Rubin always had spiritual yearnings; she felt betrayed by the scene she had helped to build; she wanted children and a family life; she felt that her art was ultimately hollow; she had mental illnesses going back to her teen years that were exacerbated by prolific drug use and being surrounded by addicts. She was always religiously curious and grappling with these things would have balanced the film’s narrative, stripping away some of the nostalgia from the middle of the film—which, while pleasant, doesn’t get to the heart of the matter of finding detect of her future change of lifestyle and the disintegration of that whole milieu.

Yet even with that, this is an amazing experience that is so much more than fascinating.

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