Thursday, July 25, 2019

Filmmaker and Force of Nature Barbara Rubin: Angel of the New American Cinema

Barbara Rubin in her Warhol Screen Test
(Chuck Smith, USA, 2018, 78 minutes) 

"She looks like somebody decided to paint an angel."
--Village Voice critic and friend Amy Taubin on Barbara Rubin

If the New American Cinema of the 1960s was overwhelmingly male, one of its brightest lights was an 18-year-old woman. If you haven't heard of Barbara Rubin, it's probably because that light didn't burn for very long, and not because it didn't burn with an incandescent glow. In Chuck Smith's bittersweet profile, critics, filmmakers, friends, and family members pay tribute to Rubin's talent, energy, and startling lack of inhibition.

In high school, she did things her own way to the extent that her parents sent her away to a sanitarium, not so much because they thought she was mentally ill, but because they thought she was too wild. It didn't take and, upon her release, she continued to expand her consciousness through drugs.

Once she started to make short films, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who had a column in The Village Voice, championed her work. In turn, she championed the work of Jack Smith, the director of 1963's Flaming Creatures. In 1965, she completed Christmas on Earth, an experimental, sexually graphic film featuring a woman painted black and another painted white. It was intended to be screened with two projectors, such that one film would play on top of the other. Critic J. Hoberman (The Dream Life: Movies, Media, And The Mythology Of The Sixties) describes it as "an acid freak-out."

Rubin, photographed by John "Hoppy" Hopkins, 1965
In his review of Rubin's sole film, Mekas proclaims that "angels have no shame," concluding that "Barbara Rubin is an angel."

Smith suggests that Mekas was infatuated with her, although it's unclear if they were ever romantically involved. Instead, she reserved her considerable affections for poet and provocateur Allen Ginsburg. The fact that he was in a relationship with fellow poet Peter Orlovsky doesn't appear to have put her off in any way. She even made a film about him, Allen for Allen, but the elements went missing somewhere along the way.

Rubin was also close to Andy Warhol who appreciated her film work as much as she appreciated his. Along with hundreds of other Factory denizens, he filmed her for his series of Screen Tests, though she didn't make the cut for 13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests, the same assemblage for which Luna's Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips composed the Velvet Underground-inspired score that they toured with in 2009 (I caught their very fine performance that year at the Seattle Art Museum).

Rubin's interest in music encompassed Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, both of whom she introduced to Warhol. By the mid-1960s, the former was already a star, but without Rubin, things might not have happened as quickly for the Velvets. Unfortunately, she got pushed to the margins at The Factory as Paul Morrissey, director of Flesh and other Warhol-produced features, asserted himself as its primary filmmaker--next to Warhol, of course. Rubin took a hint and split their scene.

Rubin ruffles Dylan's hair on Bringing It All Back Home
She then attempted to get a sequel going to Christmas on Earth. It would star the top musicians of the day, and she hoped to get Disney to bankroll it. At this point, it's hard to tell if she was delusional or desperate, because her proposed film seems even more unlikely than Jodorowsky's Dune, which was too ambitious to come to fruition and now lives on as a fascinating documentary about what might have been.

Instead of giving up in frustration, Rubin turned to Jewish mysticism. She also pursued a futile quest to wrest Ginsberg, with whom she hoped to have children, away from Orlovsky, who she dismissed as schizophrenic. Just when it seemed as if she couldn't have been more lost, she found Orthodox Judaism, and that was that. No more drugs, no more counterculture.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Rubin maintained her friendship with Dylan, at least while she was still living in New York, to discuss Kabbalah. He even attended her first wedding to a Hasidic gentleman.

McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1964 © Daniel Kramer
Notably, four Dylan songs appear on the soundtrack, all from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966. I can't imagine that it's cheap to include one Dylan song on a soundtrack, let alone four, so I would like to think that he did what he could to make them accessible to the filmmaker. The rest of the material, overseen by composer and music advisor Lee Ranaldo, is equally impressive, and includes tracks from the Velvets, Françoise Hardy, and Ranaldo with the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

Rubin would eventually divorce, marry again, and settle down in rural France, where she had five children. Not to give too much away, but just as her new life was beginning, it came to a sudden, unhappy end. She began life as in the US as Barbara Rubin and ended it in Europe as Bracha Basha.

Since the entire film serves as a testament to her influence, there's no epilogue, and I suppose it wasn't necessary. Smith also eschews comments from her husband and children, so it's unclear how much they knew about the life she led in the 1960s. Now that this film exists, I hope they'll be able to embrace the non-secular person that she was before she left it all behind.

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Friday, July 26. Screen Test image from MUBI.

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