Thursday, June 6, 2019

What a gal: BARBARA RUBIN AND THE EXPLODING NEW YORK UNDERGROUND explores a special time, place and culture

Barbara Rubin. That's a name TrustMovies hadn't even heard of prior to viewing Chuck Smith's charming and disarming new documentary about this young woman, who, at age 16, thanks to circumstances, smart choices and a little luck, found herself working with Jonas Mekas to help to organize and become a kind of moving force in the experimental film culture that rose to prominence in the 1960s.

It was not only experimental film that Ms Rubin fostered and even created; she brought together titans of poetry, performance art, music and more. Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Lou Reed owe an awful lot to this energetic and talented gal.

BARBARA RUBIN AND THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND explores the early life (and early problems, as well) of the titular young woman briefly and succinctly, letting us see from almost the beginning what an unusual person she was. People who knew her describe her as a "mystic," and before you pooh-pooh this word (as I usually do), you may find (as did I) by the end of this fairly short documentary that you, too, are ready to apply the term to this unusual woman.

Filmmaker Smith (shown above) may not have given us the "all" of Ms Rubin, such a surprising and event-filled life did she lead, but what we see and hear should be enough to make us more than aware of what a singular force she was in the 1960s and, to maybe a lesser extent in the 70s.

How Rubin (shown above and below with Andy Warhol) was mentored by Mekas but soon went out on her own at age 18 to create an experimental film -- Christmas on Earth (originally to have been titled Cocks, Cunts and Christmas on Earth) -- that was both sexually explicit and genuinely experimental and that evidently still remains powerful enough to shock audiences. (The tidbits shown here certainly entice, but I would love to see the entire film.)

Her very close relationship with gay poet Allen Ginsberg (she wanted to bear his children) was pivotal to her life, and yet how (which we see and hear about here) and why (which we never quite understand) she suddenly embraced Orthodox Jewish religion and culture seems genuinely amazing, adding luster to that "mystical" theory. One friend opines that Rubin simply overlaid her love of Buddhism onto Orthodox Judaism. (The doc's Jewish orphanage moment should make a believer out of you, I suspect.)

Whatever Rubin did, she seems to have done it fully and with no qualms nor half measures. From her oddball letter to Walt Disney to her becoming perhaps the first woman to explore and open the Kabbalah to women, Rubin broke that mold for what a woman could do, just as she had done in the experimental film world -- which was a male-only place for the most part (as was the film world in general).

How her life ended (at age 35) seems both shocking and unnecessary. But then, there is so little known about the details of her time as a very fertile wife  -- take that, Mr. Ginsberg! -- in an Orthodox Jewish community in the south of France, who is to say her contribution here was any more or less important than that to the world of experimental film?

The various talking heads we hear from include film critics Amy Taubin and J Hoberman, the late Mr. Mekas himself, and most trenchant and insightful of all, author and assistant professor Ara Osterweil, clearly too young to have known Rubin but definitely deeply affected by the woman & her work.

From Juno Films and running just 78 minutes, after opening a couple of weeks previous at the IFC Center in New York City, the documentary screens at at the Roxy, San Francisco, on Wednesday, June 12, and hits the Los Angeles area on Friday, June 14, at Laemmle's Music Hall and then expands to Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5, and Claremont 5 on June 17. Click here to find any further playdates, cities and theaters that may have been recently added.

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