Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 24, 2019

Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground

Filed under: Film,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

Opening at the IFC in New York today and at the Laemmle in LA on June 14, “Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground” is a documentary about a woman who was a key player in the early 1960s experimental film scene who went on to become a friend and companion to cultural icons like Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. Interesting as a personality in her own right, Rubin is also a symbol of the exhaustion of some members of the cultural and political avant-garde who retreated into mysticism. At the age of 18, Rubin was the protégé of Jonas Mekas, the godfather of underground films. At the time of her death in 1980 at the age of 35, she was the mother of 5 children and a Hasidic housewife living in France.

Born the same year as me, Rubin (as well as me) was drawn to the emerging counter-culture like a moth to a flame. In 1963, she went to work for Mekas at The Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York, which was dedicated to the distribution of films by people like Stan Brakhage who that very year came up to Bard College to introduce some of his films that—to be honest—left me perplexed. Mekas, who died in January of this year, is one of the main talking heads in a documentary that is a rich trove of footage from the wild and woolly days of the early 60s. At one point, he states that the responsibility of a filmmaker is to inform and to make poetry with films made by Barbara Rubin emphasizing the poetry.

She is best known for a film titled “Christmas on Earth” that can be downloaded here. (https://trakt.tv/movies/christmas-on-earth-1963). It features masked and painted actors engaging in both gay and straight sex. It is very much in the same spirit as Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” that was stopped in midstream by the cops in a raid on Bleecker Street Cinema in 1964. Just before the war in Vietnam generated a political radicalization, people like Rubin and me were oriented to the senior citizens of the beat generation. Rubin was madly in love with Ginsberg and hoped one day to bear his children. As a gay man, he had other ideas.

Like many others, she became an activist after the war deepened but not an organizer. In the legendary protest at the Pentagon in 1967, she joined Shirley Clark, an underground filmmaker of major importance, and Fugs band member Tuli Kupferberg in civil disobedience that led to a week in jail.

As the sixties wore on, the possibilities for making a living as an underground artist faded and Rubin’s health declined, a function of both being poor and a heavy drug user. Looking for an exit path from what was becoming a dead end, she drifted toward the Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish text that promised the kind of release from worldly temptations found in Eastern religion. Among those who would attach themselves to this kind of mysticism besides Rubin include Madonna and Rosanne Barr.

Unlike them, Rubin was ready to drop all connections to the secular world. She became an acolyte of a Hasidic rabbi in Far Rockaway and embraced the patriarchal lifestyle of his sect. Stymied by the sexism of the counter-culture, she ironically felt comfortable in a world where men thanked god each day that they were not born a woman.

Among the other commentators on her life and career is J. Hoberman who blogged about her in the New York Review of Books:

Rubin’s accomplishments can all be seen as way stations in a search for transcendence. Was she a saint who finally found redemption? Or, in secular terms, did this incandescent woman, unschooled and hyperactive, find a protective community and self-medicate her way to some sort of serenity? In the face of such questions, Rubin remains remarkably elusive. Although her image appears throughout Smith’s movie, she never looks quite the same. It’s as though Rubin, forever going through changes, was too quick for the camera.

Finding a protective community, of course, is what drives so many people today to embrace socialism—however they define it. I invite young people who only know about the sixties from history books to check out this film, which will help to fill in the blanks.

1 Comment »

  1. It’s really a tremendous film with an amazing sound track among other things. Fans of the Velvet Underground owe it to see the film as do fans of Dylan. But mostly it’s so well edited and the narrative flows beautifully. Because Jonas Mekas was a pack rat, their letters are great, and his reading of his memorial obit for her is particularly touching. It’s a minor masterpiece in its way and it does capture quite well the sense of burn out (a lot of it self-inflicted through drugs — speed in particular) that took over large sections of the counter-culture movement. The scenes at the farm, which was supposed to be the great escape, are especially telling.

    Comment by HH — May 26, 2019 @ 4:38 am

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