BARBARA RUBIN Christmas On Earth
BOO-HOORAY GALLERY | DECEMBER 18, 2012 – JANUARY 15, 2013
There are mythic claims about Barbara Rubin: that she introduced Warhol to the Velvet Underground (she did), that she introduced Dylan to Ginsberg (she didn’t), that she was beacon and keeper of the New York counterculture (maybe). Here are two cold facts: In 1963, Rubin left a mental hospital and came to work at the infant Film-Makers’ Cooperative; that same year, she released the 16mm Christmas On Earth, a sensory feast born of two projectors, a lot of sex, and whatever the viewer had playing on AM radio. One begins to understand the mythology built around what writer and Boo-Hooray owner Johan Kugelberg describes as Rubin’s “sub-sub-sub-underground” reputation when one realizes that the filmmaker was 17 in 1963 and her film was among the most radical ever made.
How does a teenaged girl in an era of social propriety conceive of and execute a visionary orgy film originally entitled Cocks and Cunts? In the first of three retrospectives celebrating Jonas Mekas’s 90th birthday and focusing on his under-acknowledged peers—Jack Smith and Piero Heliczer forthcoming—he and co-curator Kugelberg attempt to answer the question through ephemera and period artifacts, invoking the film’s impossibly hip time and place while leaving Rubin’s personal motivations enshrouded in Bohemian lore.
The show opens with enlarged frames of Rubin from the film stock of her ’65 Warhol Screen Test (in fact shot by Gerard Malanga). Placed next to her image is Arthur Rimbaud’s “Morning” from the extended poem A Season in Hell, in which Rubin found her film’s revised title (When will we … hail the birth of new labor, new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, … Christmas on earth!). Rubin is positioned here as wunderkind, heir, and revolutionary.
Nearly 60 stills from Christmas On Earth follow, snaking around half the gallery space. Removed from the dynamic movement and psychedelia of the film, the stills highlight the strength of Rubin’s images: funny, macabre, impulsive, and raw. A nude woman, Warhol superstar Naomi Levine, stands painted like a cartoon witch doctor—slathered in black save for eyes, nose, and mouth—and reduced to expressive oohing and aahing. Rubin’s camera then shifts to the subject’s painted breasts and stomach, cementing a common, erogenous focus while underlining the body’s unique character—Levine’s torso evoking a face of its own, Rubin’s lava lamp color effects dictating its mood. Most striking, though, is the filmmaker’s iconoclastic layering of images, exemplified by superimposed labia encompassing the performer. The resulting collage frees both genitals and breasts from isolated gaze but not from eroticism, creating an abstracted yet more complete view of human sexuality.
The remaining graphic excerpts mock America’s then-severe obscenity laws, casually exploring ever-greater taboos including penetrative gay and group sex, projected over extreme close-ups of un-manicured private parts and orifices. This visual mashup both confuses and equates the sexes. By the final stills in the series, alternating between sedition and lighthearted fun, the restless performers come together in celebration, hands in the air, joyously free.
Meanwhile, nearby artifacts show the love fest’s little-known influence. Lively photos of hipster gatherings include the hostile ’66 Velvet Underground gig at the Delmonico Hotel’s Psychiatrist’s Convention. This initial “Up-Tight” event led the way for Warhol’s infamous Exploding Plastic Inevitable, in which Christmas On Earth—shot at John Cale’s Ludlow Street apartment—was projected on the band to shocked audiences. Regarding “Up-Tight,” a related letter shows Rubin’s enthusiastic hope that “every week there will be a new one.”
Wider exposure brought both praise and condescension from mainstream press. A 1966 issue of Mademoiselle shares Mekas’s thoughts on Rubin’s finished film (“We have seldom seen such down to earth beauty, so real as only a terrible beauty can be: terrible beauty that man, that woman is, are, that Love is”) before cautioning inspired readers that “fortunately, for girls in particular, there are less hazardous ways of breaking into film than actually making a movie.”
But Rubin was not finished with her work. The other half of Boo-Hooray’s walls are lined with her lengthy plans for two sequels, Christmas on Earth Continued, and Christmas on Earth Continued Again. Seemingly earnest, the plans are nevertheless uniformly absurd. A displayed 1965 film prospectus calls on “Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, John Lennon (and any other people who together will work constructively and beautifully),” along with a cast made up of the biggest pop stars of the ’60s. A plot summary, which involves an attempt by fairies to save Jean Genet—playing himself—from life as a Bowery Bum, is joined by a letter to Walt Disney asking for help “in any way you feel you can best give.” The mad, sprawling scripts are perhaps a testament to the era’s Beat influence and amphetamine-rattled self-indulgence. They are thoroughly engrossing.
A display of the title film concludes the exhibition. However, Mekas’s nearby “note on ways of screening it,” in which he demonstrates through crude diagram Rubin’s method of projecting various sized images with lenses of different focal lengths, deems the digital projection under gallery lights an inferior clone. J. Hoberman’s glowing Village Voice review of the long-dormant film’s ’83 screening—the introduction for many to one of the first works of multimedia art—makes things worse by immediately preceding the digital display.
Luckily, Anthology Film Archives, in conjunction with Boo-Hooray, held a January 9th screening of Christmas On Earth, in 16mm. Hypnotic, vibrant, and shocking, Anthology’s showing, with its opening images of a limp penis jabbing the camera and rapid, penetrative zooms toward a vagina, caused audible stirs in the contemporary audience. Its score, selected by experimental filmmaker Bradley Eros, and eschewing Rubin’s original instruction of a modern “rock station turned on and played loud” in favor of decade-appropriate garage rock nuggets, proved more suitable to the film’s preserved, primal beat. Screened in its glory, Christmas On Earth is a bomb to artistic convention, and the death throe of Hays Code-era censorship. The on-screen spectacle illuminates the path for film installation, goofy and explicit art films like Warhol’s Taylor Mead’s Ass, New Queer Cinema, and, divisively, today’s perpetual hard core pornography. It endures as a visionary, honest, and rollicking document of sex and bodies.
A welcomed, two-part encore followed. In Mekas’s comparatively subdued 2006 film To Barbara Rubin With Love, the filmmaker interrupts footage of an incredible 1966 meeting between Rubin, Tuli Kupferberg, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ed Sanders, Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol, Storm De Hirsch, and himself to explicitly mention via title card that “IT WAS BARBARA WHO GOT US ALL TOGETHER.” This declaration proves reminiscent of the May 1966 questionnaire for the Film-Makers’ Cooperative Catalog, back at Boo-Hooray. Scribbled on the document’s reverse side, Rubin displays her command of the avant-garde in a letter to Mekas. “I love you,” she writes, “but also isn’t it time to discuss our limitlessness?” Breathless as always, she goes on to express concerns over the “era of ‘The’ Andy Warhol” and the “combo of lights, movies, music, and more,” all for which she was forerunner. With an eye on the city’s artists catching up to her, Rubin grew tired of creative pursuits; by ’68, she had left the scene; by ’80, she was gone completely, dying in childbirth at age 35.
Anthology finished the night with a showing of Rubin’s aforementioned Screen Test. In it, she drifts to and from a youthful daydream, waking only to smile politely at the camera. This is the image seen at the start of Boo-Hooray’s exhibition: the mysterious Rubin putting on a face. When the moment is through, she is again bored, bothered, lost in possibility—the artist’s fleeting candor and career rendering the current glimpse at her pioneering mind a vital, if not remarkable, success.
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JOE KLARL is an Associate Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He has written for the Rail on art, books, music, and film, and contributes to Interview Magazine. He currently writes and resides in The Bronx.