MAMA WAS A FLAMIN’ CREATURE – FILM CULTURE 80: THE LEGEND OF BARBARA RUBIN

This entry was posted on August 7th, 2019

By Calin Boto

“I’m always here, there, everywhere”. That’s how Barbara Rubin ends one of her candid letters [1] to Jonas Mekas. And so she was, be it in a sanitarium, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Warhol’s Factory, Allen Ginsberg’s East Hill Farm, New York or Europe. Rubin was on a rush, and time proved her right. Her sudden death occurred when she was just 35, by that time living under a different name as a converted Hasidic mother of five children.

Some of her chaotic letters, often so tangled that they become grammatically blasphemous, are for the first time collected in print under the logo of the Leipzig-based publishing house Spector Books. Film Culture 80: The Legend of Barbara Rubin has been a much-awaited project, especially by Jonas Mekas. Daniel Belasco mentions in his essay on Barbara Rubin (published in 2005) of Mekas’ “long-planned issue of Film Culture dedicated to Rubin” [2]. But why Barbara Rubin out of all the underground filmmakers who marked the sixties and seventies? The chapbook offers many answers. Briefly, most of Barbara Rubin’s work proved to be ephemeral. And it’s not just the case of her filmography (most of it lost or inaccessible to the public), but mainly her activity as a string-puller inside the underground community. Before expanding cinema, she expanded an entire avant-garde. By introducing Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg to the underground filmmakers and tirelessly creating transatlantic bridges between the American underground and the European one, Rubin modeled the New American Cinema as we know it today. However, she stopped as unexpectedly as she began.

After championing the underground cinema for its crucial five years (1963-1968), Rubin chose the path of self-exclusion. She finished her first short film, the iconic and outrageous Christmas on Earth (1963-1965), by the time she was legally allowed to drink alcohol (not that she was unfamiliar to substance abuse whatsoever). Her following years were dedicated to grandiose events, most of them never completed. Making and breaking have been Rubin’s two extremes.

Christmas on Earth (1963-1965)

When discussed, Christmas on Earth is often compared to Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, for better or worse. What remains is that, compared to Jack Smith’s campy outrageous on-screen orgy, Rubin came up with a radical, ritual-fueled depiction of sexuality, a pioneering work of expanded cinema. As noted in the Film-Makers’ Cooperative catalog, Christmas on Earth “has neither head nor tail”. [6] Consisting of two reels which were supposed to overlap each other, the film required two projectors – one for the background reel and one, 1/3 smaller, for the front reel. Even if Rubin emphasizes the Duchampian aleatory procedure of screening in her writings, people can now enjoy a fixed digital form of Christmas on Earth. But does a fixed form do justice to Rubin’s performative intentions?

Where did the history books stand on her until recently? Like a personal creation of doctor Frankenstein, her afterimage in pop culture used to be made out of bits: writings on The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Allen Ginsberg would briefly mention her [3]. It was for film critics, curators and historians such as J. Hoberman, David E. James, Daniel Belasco, Amy Taubin and Ara Osterweil (the last three collaborated on Film Culture 80) to make meanings out of her work and life. Last year marked a fortunate change – a group of curators, scholars and film critics put together an in-depth curated festival in Berlin: Edit Film Culture! While the festival didn’t screen any of Rubin’s films, it announced the release of an extravagant project – a symbolic last issue of Film Culture, the epicenter of American and European experimental film theory (and not only) for over 40 years (1954-1996). Only a few days after the festival, Chuck Smith’s documentary Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground was released (May 2nd, 2018).

Film Culture 80 is a collective effort of the curatorial team of the festival, Mekas, Smith and the editors of the chapbook. Its redaction is similar to the form of the traditional documentary – the reader/spectator navigates through the documents with the help of a voice of God. Alongside this God, there are the humans who were close to Rubin or to her work – Richard Foreman, Mekas, Taubin, Smith, Osterweil, etc.

In the good old tradition of Film Culture magazine, The Legend of Barbara Rubin contains much behind-the-scenes material. The unfinished scripts and statements give much of the bitter-sweet feeling that Rubin left way too early, firstly from the underground, and then forever. Christmas on Earth Continued was the subject of many of these texts. In many ways larger than life, the sequel of her debut film was supposed to be a children’s movie filmed in Ireland, starring Jean Genet and, well, everybody else from Greta Garbo to the Kennedys. The documents included in the chapbook tease a never-made film of such extravaganza that it makes Jodorowsky’s Dune sound like a student’s short film.

Jonas Mekas made constant efforts to revive her dear friend’s name (the most remarkable one was that of an exhibition curated by him and Johan Kugelberg back in December 2012), and it feels conforting that he lived long enough to hold this last issue in his hands. Unfortunately, his planned trip to Berlin during Edit Film Culture! was canceled due to health problems.

Besides its screenings and exhibition (which included all the issues of Film Culture ever released), the festival launched a thought-provoking challenge: “…alter, refine, revise, rethink and renegotiate the relationship of film to culture. Edit film culture!”. [4]

Renegotiating seems to be the key-word when talking about the legend of Barbara Rubin in the 21st century. What made her vanish? Some answers are to be found in Osterweil’s excellent essay from Film Culture 80, “Saint Barbara. An Afterword”, the most academic and informative piece of the book. The essay points out that Rubin’s filmography consists of mainly one film – Christmas on Earth. While other films of hers reached a final stage, they remained unavailable to the public. Osterweil also adds Christmas on Earth‘s lack of critical reception and of any conflict with censorship (“After all, who in 1963 would have suspected that such a young woman would be capable of making such an outrageous film?”), and, most importantly, Rubin’s conversion to Hasidism and her early death in 1980. [5]

“Richard, you can’t make a film like that, you’ve sensationalized me…” were the words that ended Richard Foreman’s documentary on Rubin in 1968. “Well Barbara, how could I not sensationalize you?”, Foreman justly asked. [7] Film Culture 80 found a safe space right in-between. While never avoiding the “hot” topics, there is much factual information of all kinds in the editors’ writings and, more to that, a non-pejorative way of approaching Rubin’s conversion to Hasidism as a fact and not as a catastrophe.

 

[1] Film Culture 80: The Legend of Barbara Rubin, Spector Books, Leipzig, 2018, p. 36.
[2]Daniel Belasco, “The Vanished Prodigy”, http://the-medical-dictionary.com/amphetamine_article_6.htm.
[3] Daniel Belasco tracked down some of the available documents and writings at that time (2005) in the second paragraph of his essay, “The Vanished Prodigy”, Ibid.
[4] Edit Film Culture! catalog, p. 4.
[5] Ara Osterweil, “Saint Barbara. An Afterword”, Film Culture 80: The Legend of Barbara Rubin, Spector Books, Leipzig, 2018, pp. 197-208.
[6] Film Culture 80: The Legend of Barbara Rubin, Spector Books, Leipzig, 2018, p. 188.
[7] ML, Chuck Smith, “Christmas on Earth: An Overwhelming Experience of My Life. Richard Foreman on Barbara Rubin”, Film Culture 80: The Legend of Barbara Rubin, Spector Books, Leipzig, 2018, pp. 53-54.