Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground
Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground

Barbara Rubin and The Exploding NY Underground a documentary film by award-winning filmmaker Chuck Smith, shines the spotlight on Barbara Rubin, one of the creative women in NYC’s influential avant garde scene in the 1960’s. The film which won the Metropolitan Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC will open theatrically at the IFC Center in NYC on May 24, and at Laemmle Theaters in LA and Roxie in SF on June 14. Other cities will follow.

In the 1960’s, Dylan, Ginsberg, Warhol and other mostly male icons inspired an entire generation of musicians, poets, filmmakers and artists, but who inspired them? Through the story of Barbara Rubin’s life, the film redefines and restores the role that a few creative women played in NYC’s influential avant garde. From her beginnings working with Jonas Mekas and the Filmmaker’s Cooperative to her tragic death at the age of 35, Barbara Rubin was a creative catalyst for some of the 1960’s most influential happenings and ideas.

Made when she was just 18 years old, Barbara Rubin’s erotic masterpiece  Christmas On Earth (1963-65) shocked New York’s experimental film scene and inspired NYC’s thriving underground. As Mekas writes of the film: “We have seldom seen such down-to-body beauty, so real as only beauty can be; terrible beauty that man, that woman is, and that love is…This 18 year-old girl, she must have no shame, to look at and show the body so nakedly. Only angels have no shame…Barbara Rubin is an angel.”

A mythical “Zelig” of the sixties, Rubin introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan to the Kabbalah.  After connecting Warhol with the Velvet Underground she helped create the legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows which introduced the idea of multi-media to an entire generation. Lou Reed called Rubin “fabulous” and “the glue that held us all together”, but in the countless books and movies that document Warhol, Ginsberg, Dylan and the swinging sixties, Barbara and other influential women have become merely footnotes.

Though she was forever swinging a camera around, Rubin’s film legacy is surprisingly limited. After her groundbreaking Christmas on Earth, Rubin wrote several screenplays and had ideas for numerous other film projects, but the inherent sexism of the times and the radical nature of her first film inhibited her ability to complete any other major films. Still, some of the documentary footage Barbara shot for Mekas and Warhol survives and she also pops up in numerous experimental films by her friends. 

But beyond shaping the spirit of the sixties, Barbara was seeking the deeper meaning of life. After retiring to a farm with Allen Ginsberg, she shocked everyone by converting to Hasidic Judaism, then marrying and moving to France to live an anonymous life. Tragically, she died in 1980 after giving birth to her fifth child. Ever since Barbara’s death, the godfather of the American avant-garde cinema, Jonas Mekas (who died at age 96 in January), treasured Barbara’s letters and films and cherished her memory. It was one of Jonas’ last wishes that Barbara’s legacy be rescued, so he let Smith mine his immense archive of footage from the 1960’s to tell Barbara’s story to the world. Using this rare footage and Barbara’s own achingly personal writings, Smith’s film reveals a woman who was ahead of her time in almost everything she did; test the limits of the avant garde, dream of a better world, escape to the country, discover her roots, and, ultimately – in a twist that some of her friends STILL can’t figure out – embrace Orthodox Judaism.

Barbara Rubin and The Exploding NY Underground explores, restores, and explodes the legacy of a true maverick of the 1960’s who reached for the sun and believed that film could change the world. As Mekas wrote when he heard that Barbara had died, “Good-bye Barbara. I owe you a lot. And so do many other people. I cannot imagine the New York 1960’s film and poetry scene without you. You urged us, you pushed us, you challenged us…Your energy was inexhaustible, your belief and faith in us and what we were doing was absolute…Ah Barbara, you left us, like Rimbaud. You disappeared into the sands of some spiritual Africa, never to come back.

“Featuring Jonas Mekas, Amy Taubin, Richard Foreman and J. Hoberman.

With music by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Coltrane, and others. As well as original scoring by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth.

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