Barbara Rubin's 29-minute Christmas on Earth is the filmic record of an orgy staged in a New York City apartment in 1963. This double projection of overlapping images of nude men and women clowning around and making love is one of the first sexually explicit works produced by the American postwar avant-garde. Today Christmas on Earth generates a small but passionate discourse in avant-garde film circles. (1) Many consider it to be an essential document of queer and feminist cinema, (2) though others dismiss it as the worthless effort of a naive amateur. (3) It is still largely unknown to art history. Christmas on Earth in fact deserves to be located within a larger esthetic discourse on contemporary art forms such as Happenings, expanded cinema and installation. Rubin "was one of the first people to get multimedia interest going around New York," Andy Warhol said. (4) Further, Rubin's filmmaking practices were a type of performance and sexual agitprop that foreshadowed the emergence of critical body art at the end of the 1960s. An investigation into the little-known history of Barbara Rubin and her singular work Christmas on Earth deepens our understanding of a period when artists pushed self-determined and guiltless sexuality into the public sphere to catalyze social revolution.
Until now, little has been published about her life and work. (5) Her whirlwind of activity in the United States and Europe between 1963 and 1968 is scantily documented and is leavened with well-varnished adoration, myth, secrecy and antipathy. Much of what is known about Rubin derives from publications by and about her friends and collaborators Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. This article introduces new biographical information from a variety of sources, including interviews by the author, as well as unpublished interviews, memoirs and other ephemera assembled by Mekas for his long-planned issue of Film Culture dedicated to Rubin, and Rubin's letters and scripts located in the Allen Ginsberg Papers at Stanford University. Rubin's oeuvre is tiny: her collection at Anthology Film Archives includes only Christmas on Earth, two 3-minute untitled rolls, and the rarely seen final, 18-minute work, Emouna (the title is Hebrew for faith). The latter film reportedly combines Rubin's 1965 footage of Allen Ginsberg in London, file footage of concentration camps, and new color film shot by students at City College. Rubin crafted a separate reel-to-reel soundtrack of pop music and Ginsberg reading his poem "Kaddish." (6) Rubin's footage of famous mid-'60s visitors to the Factory, such as Donovan and Dylan, is incorporated in Gerard Malanga's Film Notebooks, a 27-minute piece that premiered at the Vienna International Film Festival this October (Malanga gives Rubin co-cinematographer credit). Other works that Rubin shot while in Warhol's circle, called the "Up-Tight" series, are in the Museum of Modern Art's Warhol film collection, but are unrestored and in a cold storage facility, where no one can see them. (7) Additional works may exist but have not so far been located. (8) Rubin's reputation, such as it is, rests on the competing memory of her groundbreaking film and her eccentric persona as a wildly dressed visionary, agitator, organizer and groupie.
Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Queens in 1945, Rubin suffered from weight problems and turned to self-medication with diet pills at an early age. Her parents, not knowing what to do with their daughter's potentially self-destructive energy, sent her to a mental hospital, where she was evaluated for amphetamine addiction and emotional problems. (9) After a short stay, Rubin was released in the spring of 1963 and, through her uncle, a film exhibitor, went to work at the Film-Makers' Cooperative for Jonas Mekas, diaristic filmmaker and a key promoter of the so-called New American Cinema. Housed in Mekas's overcrowded apartment on Park Avenue South, the Co-op attracted Salvador Dali and Robert Frank as well as teenagers who wanted to pick up a camera and make raw, personal movies. Several weeks after her arrival, Rubin broke her self-imposed silence and announced to those around her the advent of the new generation. "She immediately became a part of everything," Mekas said. (10)
Rubin's creativity and aggression brought her in contact with many of the key counter-cultural figures of the 1960s. She became an indispensable right hand to Mekas, helping to set up screenings around the country and in Europe. In a thwarted attempt to show Jack Smith's banned Flaming Creatures at the Third International Experimental Film Exposition in Knokke-Le-Zoute, Belgium, in December 1963, Mekas, Rubin and film critic P. Adams Sitney occupied the projection booth. She sought out the greatest talents of her generation, befriending Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. (11) She traveled to London in June 1965 to help organize the landmark International Poetry Reading with Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall. In the art world, Rubin is perhaps best known for first bringing Warhol to hear the Velvet Underground at Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village in December 1965. A few months later Rubin helped organize "Up-Tight," the first Warhol and Velvet Underground evenings of abrasive music, strobe lights, lewd dancing and film projections (including Rubin's own), at the Film-Makers' Cinematheque in February 1966. The ensemble was later dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and Rubin and her camera joined them on a legendary road trip in March. Because of the omnipresence of photographers, reporters and hangers-on, Rubin's role at Warhol's first Factory was her most documented period. (12) Rubin was one of the few people Warhol would listen to with rapt attention, according to Malanga, his former assistant and collaborator.
Rubin's involvement with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable was short-lived, however. There is no record of her participation in the group after its April 1966 run at the Dom nightclub on St. Mark's Place. Her next few years were consumed with new projects infused with '60s utopianism. She was most obsessed with her far-fetched 1965 script Christmas on Earth Continued, which called for the participation of all her heroes, including Walt Disney, the Beatles and Jean Genet, in the construction of a Fairy City set in Ireland. She photocopied scores of the 41-page script and distributed them to anyone who took an interest. (13) Another unproduced script, the four-page Sidney Arthur, A Musical Comedy, can be found in the Allen Ginsberg Papers. Written in 1967, it was to be a collaboration with poet Lionel Ziprin and filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Rubin played other roles, as well. She cared for Ginsberg's drug-addled lover Peter Orlovsky and Peter's brother Julius, and looked after the children of Ziprin and music producer Al Aronowitz. She opened a bohemian clothing shop in the East Village with Clarke's daughter. Enraged at the Vietnam War, Rubin became a political activist, getting arrested with Clarke at the Pentagon "siege" in October 1967. Writing to Ginsberg soon after, Rubin noted the beauty and courage she found at the march. (14)
When the optimism of the early and mid-'60s turned cynical and violent, Rubin left New York City, as did many artists. In 1968, she helped the Committee on Poetry, Ginsberg's nonprofit organization, to purchase land and establish a 90-acre farm in Cherry Valley in upstate New York. (15) Rubin hoped that she might marry Ginsberg and settle there. Instead, a spiritual seeker already turned on to Kabbalah, she discovered the nearby Hasidic community in Sharon Springs. Her visits introduced her to the baal tsuvah movement, a new brand of countercultural orthodoxy. Rubin returned to New York and first shared an apartment with her friend Rosebud Pettet, who had to conform to Rubin's new regime of observing shabbat and keeping kosher. For Rubin, memories of her past transgressive activity became untenable. In an April 1969 letter to then Film-Makers' Cooperative director Leslie Trumbull, she stated her plan to burn Christmas on Earth, signing the missive with her new Yiddish name, Bashe Bruche. (16)
By the early 1970s, Rubin was twice married. The first marriage, to Mordechai Levy, was an arranged one and ended in divorce. The second, to Isaac Besancon, a French painter and follower of the mystical teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, was "an amazing relationship," a friend from the time said. (17) Rubin and Besancon first lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a small community of newly observant artists that included filmmaker and collagist Jerry Jofen and his wife, Ellen Gordon. Before having a chance to complete Emouna, Rubin moved with her husband to a religious community in the south of France in 1973. Rubin's collaborator on the film, performer Pamela Mayo, edited the final version of Emouna, which is filed under Mayo's name at Anthology Film Archives. Rubin ceased almost all communication with her New York friends, including Mekas. Little is known about her life in France, where she gained a great deal of weight, had four or five children, and died of a postnatal infection in 1980 at age 35. Rubin's children are reportedly living in Israel and seeking to learn more about their mysterious mother who was friends with so many celebrities.
Like Kafka's novels, Christmas on Earth was never destroyed according to its author's one-time wishes. Before leaving for France, Rubin deposited the film with Jonas Mekas. "She put Christmas on Earth in my lap and said, 'do whatever you want with it, it's up to you.'" (18) Mekas removed the film from distribution. It went unseen for 15 years until 1983, when he screened it at Anthology Film Archives in tribute to Rubin's memory. Film critic J. Hoberman's enticing preview in the Village Voice attracted many people too young to have known Rubin but eager to encounter her work. "The silence surrounding Christmas on Earth is at once appropriate and appalling, for the film more than delivers on the promise (and, for a Jewish sister, the poignant yearning) of its wonderful title," Hoberman wrote. (19) Following this screening, Christmas on Earth has been presented at cinema festivals and universities around the world, as well as at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (20) Still, for all the great interest of artists today in film, video installation and the '60s in general, few are aware of the achievements of Barbara Rubin.
Christmas on Earth was inspired by and surpassed the romantic ethos, campy production and sexy look of the early work of Jack Smith and Ron Rice. In June 1963, Rubin borrowed a 16mm Bolex from Mekas. She first planned to make a film about hysteria, which she had witnessed in her stay at the hospital, but instead recorded communal love and sex. (21) One weekend, she corralled five friends into the Ludlow Street crash pad rented by musicians John Cale and Tony Conrad and instigated a night of playful debauchery. "Barbara held us hostage for 24 hours, from early evening to the next day. It was very Cocteau-ish. We were locked in and hermeticized in this apartment, it was a very freewheeling situation," recalled Malanga, one of the performers in the film. (22) A novice with a camera, Rubin filmed the quivering couplings and posturing bodies. As Rubin poetically wrote of her making of Christmas on Earth:
Rubin's editing followed the avant-garde tradition of chance, which indulges in the unpredictable and frees the eye from the order of daily life. According to Rubin, from the same text:
Christmas on Earth's randomness and pleasure is not as jarring as you would expect from her description, however. She must have snipped the original film at fairly long intervals because sequences progress without being cut off abruptly. Nevertheless, Rubin's own flippancy was part of the esthetic strategy of this film. Pettet recalled, "Sometimes Barbara referred to it is a fucking joke." (25) Originally titling her film Cocks and Cunts (26) Rubin eventually opted for a more literary pedigree. Christmas on Earth quotes a phrase from the penultimate poem, "Morning," of Rimbaud's 1873 sensory epic, A Season in Hell. (27)
The key formal innovation of Christmas on Earth is its superimposed projection in unequal sizes, a format that she originated. (28) Like Josef Albers's "Homage to the Square" series, Christmas on Earth sets one field within another. As the optical effects of the nested squares in Albers's paintings, alter experiences of perception, so the two projections in Christmas on Earth produce a kinesthetic frisson. For the 1983 screening, Mekas provided a useful diagram showing how Rubin projected one reel normally and projected the second reel over it, about one third smaller, using a longer focal length lens. (29) Magazine articles from the period and Rubin's own writing confirm that she had determined this format of Christmas on Earth as early as 1966, and it remains the standard screening style for the film today. (30) According to Mekas, Rubin sometimes projected Christmas an Earth with one reel upside down, with the reels in succession without superimposing them, or projected on top of another person's film. She also projected reels from Christmas on Earth on the silver ceiling and walls of Warhol's Factory and during performances of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Rubin's splicing created startling juxtapositions between the images in the overlapping reels, setting them in erotic dialogue. The imagery in the smaller center reel (Reel A, or "Figures") tends to attract the eye more than the larger outer reel (Reel B, or "Images"). While Reel A records the specific real-time sexual encounters of a woman and four men, Reel B is more abstract, composed of two or more sets of superimposed images.
Rubin called for her black-and-white films to be colorized by filters, randomly operated by the projectionists. Depending on the continually shifting colors, this effect frequently allows the viewer to differentiate the imagery in the two reels. At other times, the multiple images meld and contrast in a polysexual stew that blurs interpersonal boundaries. Bodies lose their individual integrity and become shapes, movements and areas of color within the larger spatial field of Rubin's vision.
Christmas on Earth begins with a woman, her body painted mostly black, only her naked breasts and belly exposed. She languidly moves about an interior space draped with tapestries and gauze. At times, we see her veiled, evoking an Orientalist aura. The most surrealistic moments are several close-ups of the woman's gyrating torso, shot so that it looks like a face, especially when color filters tint her white skin. Other times her isolated face and body seem to float in front of the superimposed second reel like a phantom or a primitive mask. The visual beauty of these sequences is striking.
About five minutes into the film, the scene on Reel A changes to an ensemble of the woman and men dancing, posing and caressing each other. Props such as a top hat, masks and a long tube (it resembles a mailing tube) that is used to gesture with add a carnivalesque character. Here, the woman seems to preside over the group as a sort of goddess figure. Several men, their bodies painted white and adorned with baroque curlicues and vegetative designs recalling Nijinsky's costume in L'apres-midi d'un faune, cluster around her, fondling her as she gestures seductively toward the camera. There is a casualness to the interactions, a soft-core pleasure of friendly petting that positions the female body and female desire at the center of activity. Malanga recalls that he "was trying to put the make on" this woman, confirming the viewer's sense that the sexual interest expressed by the participants was authentic, not simply acted out for the camera. (31)
About halfway though the film, the subject of Reel A jumps abruptly to the tender lovemaking of a male couple. From a vantage alternatively intimate and removed, the camera follows them as they get into a number of different positions. These are by far the most explicit scenes on the reel. The realization that these hard-core views of gay sex were shot by an 18-year-old woman remains startling. Overall, however, the sexual activity in Christmas on Earth seems to fall not into the categories of gay or straight but into a kind of polymorphous perversity. As Rubin said several years after shooting the film, Christmas on Earth is "pure experience in every way. The people in it were beautiful. Nobody censored what they themselves did or anybody else was doing." (32) At the end of Reel A, after several more reversals, the scene returns to the male-female ensemble. As the film ends, the painted and masked performers smile and wave at the camera, assuring the viewer that, despite their carnal activities, they never lost their innocence.
Rubin's sensual camerawork ritualizes pleasure, yet her close scrutiny of anatomy sometimes also verges on the clinical. According to one published report, the Kinsey Institute was interested in her film. (33) The outer Reel B is primarily composed of extreme close-ups of genitals. Dangling, shaking penises, emerging from the top and bottom of the frame, interact, often humorously, with the figures of Reel A. In one instance, a long strand of semen drips from one, perhaps the first "money shot" in avant-garde film. More frequent, however, are the vistas of an open vagina, its surfaces seeming to frame or engulf the figures. These artsy crotch-shots, recalling Courbet's erotic painting Origin of the World (1866), are even more candid than those in Flaming Creatures. The initial reception of Christmas on Earth was largely conditioned by its graphic depiction of female genitalia. Mekas emphasized the imagery in a much-quoted description of Christmas on Earth:
"A woman; a man; the black of the pubic hair; the cunt's moon, mountains and canyons. As the film goes, image after image, the most private territories of the body are laid open for us. The first shock changes into silence then is transposed into amazement. We have seldom seen such down-to-body beauty, so real as only beauty (man) can be: terrible beauty that man, that woman is, are, that Love is." (34)
Critic John Gruen later compared Rubin's images to Georgia O'Keeffe's "flowers" and Edward Weston's "closeup photographs of fruit and vegetables." (35)
Screenings of Christmas on Earth, like concurrent works by Robert Whitman and Stan Vanderbeek, extended film into multimedia theater. Rubin's instructions for presentation, now typed and taped inside the metal canisters holding rental prints of Christmas on Earth, request that her silent film be scored to loud, live radio, tuned to a rock station. Emotion is enhanced or deflated depending on what happens to be on the air, whether it's the sexy beat of the Rolling Stones or the stentorian drone of an announcer. Even the advertisements are absorbed into the events on screen. At a screening I attended in an NYU cinema studies class in October 2003, the students erupted in howls of laughter when the announcer for a local classic rock station described a Long Island oyster shucking contest as an image of a hand pulling at the head of a penis filled the screen. The audience is continually kept in an agitated and titillated state of self-awareness.
As a work of filmic alchemy, Christmas on Earth cannot be copied mechanically, run through an editing deck, or captured as a still. The only way to record it is at a live screening, thus producing a record of a single event, not a copy of the work itself. The originality of each performance is a longstanding concern in dance and theater, but a problem new to the performative cinema of the 1960s. Along with many artists, filmmakers and performers of her generation, like Carolee Schneemann, Robert Morris and the Living Theater, Rubin wished to restore the real to the experience of art.
The saturated visual field of overlapping moving images in Christmas on Earth is related to Rubin's other experiments with superimposition. Rubin twice exposed the negative of one undated three-minute film, Untitled or 5347. After the first go through, Rubin fed the film back into her camera and shot again, "from the end back to the beginning," Mekas noted, after first developing the roll when Rubin left it with him in 1971. (36) The roll presents a jumble of visual data, including the backseat of a car, streets, water, a tree, an urban park and the close view of a small boy's head, with a youthful Mekas lingering in the background. Rubin squeezed her vision onto every frame, requiring each to contain more information than viewers could easily assimilate.
Rubin was as much a provocateur with a camera as a filmmaker. During the early performances of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, she was a leader of the group who recorded the mayhem on film, and even contributed to it themselves. In March 1966, she traveled with Warhol, the Velvet Underground and others to help stir up students during performances of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable at Rutgers University and the University of Michigan, creating the chaotic situation that Warhol enjoyed. According to John Wilcock,
For some months now Warhol has been accompanied almost everywhere by a frenetic team of film-makers led by 20-year-old Barbara Rubin whose major technique is to jump up and down with her camera more or less in rhythm with the moving objects she happens to be photographing; if her subjects tend to be motionless when she arrives, her provocative gestures and questions soon get them, if not hopping mad, at least hopping. (37)
Rubin's filmic records of these assaults in places like the annual banquet of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry, (38) the Rutgers cafeteria and David Susskind's television show are known as the "Up-Tight" series. Several survive in the Warhol film collection but are unavailable for viewing. Based on the fragmentary accounts of Rubin's activity with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, it's tempting to conclude that, for Rubin, filmmaking was equivalent to direct action. With a camera in hand, she was free to ask the impertinent questions that would emancipate society from its sexual repression. Under the aegis of Warhol's celebrity, Rubin seems to have expressed a sharper, angrier attitude in her engagement with audiences than she did in the dreamy Christmas an Earth.
Although Christmas on Earth seems antithetical to the "boring" film technique of Warhol, it is useful to compare their two styles. The extreme activity of Rubin's camera and the extreme passivity of Warhol's emanate from their shared conviction that experimental film could be used to enter and transform American life, and not be limited to art houses and film societies. Rubin greatly admired the powerful directness of Warhors films. "I think Empire is my favorite ... the most beautiful movie I have ever seen, even though I know exactly what [Warhol] was doing. ... I'm waiting till we project it in the sky." (39) However, while Warhol forced the quick eye of modern life to look long and hard at mundane objects and events, like his marathon eight-hour portrait of the Empire State Building, Rubin deployed the Brechtian strategy of dialectics to jar staid or involuntary responses, forcing the audience to see things anew. Her fullest attempt at this was her two-week multimedia festival "Caterpillar Changes" at the Film-Makers' Cinematheque in February and March 1967, one of the earliest showings of films in a fragmented installation setting. It was her last production in underground cinema until she began Emouna five years later.
At first Rubin rarely showed Christmas on Earth to the general public. Routine enforcement of obscenity laws and censorship constrained the milieu of the work. As the authorities sought to clean up New York in the run-up to the World's Fair of 1963-64, pornographers found they could not easily exhibit erotic films in theaters and used more discreet peep-show booths. Film programmers had to constantly placate wary theater owners and contend with the threat of police raids. According to Pamela Mayo, Rubin, when she was in London in 1965, worried that she would get busted. So Rubin carried her one copy of Christmas on Earth around with her wherever she went, "like her knitting." (40) Later that year, with the rapidly relaxing enforcement of obscenity laws in New York, Christmas on Earth was being distributed through the Film-Makers' Cooperative. Records indicate that in 1968 it was shown at Florida State University and the University of Iowa, among other venues. (41)
As the culture caught up to Rubin, she garnered a surprising amount of attention. Warhol's success with Chelsea Girls--which in November 1966 moved from the grungy Film-Makers' Cinematheque on 41st Street to the uptown Theater Rendezvous on 57th Street to accommodate the crowds--brought mainstream press coverage to underground cinema. Rubin and Christmas on Earth were discussed in long articles published in Newsweek, Time, Mademoiselle and Playboy. In each instance, the authors found a filmmaker and a film that represented the puzzling if not frightening new youth culture. Christmas art Earth "pretends to consider sex as a cosmic metaphor and looks as if it had been shot through a proctoscope," a skeptical reporter wrote in a four-page article in Time on Feb. 17, 1967. (42) Journalists readily admitted their inability to comprehend Rubin, and were rarely sympathetic to her attitudes, statements and films. She did not fit into their conventional male-dominated narratives of underground cinema.
Newsweek art critic Jack Kroll portrayed Rubin as the extremist among the new generation of filmmakers. "Barbara Rubin is already beyond cinema--her spiky hair and dry-cell eyes would scare Marshall McLuhan himself. In Barbara, movies and life seem to have changed places. 'It's backward living,' she says. 'We watch it rather than live it. When I shoot I'm just emanating feeling all over--it's like it's someone else shooting, not me."' (43) Rubin's curious quotation expresses the experience of dislocation, where sensation and technology work together to reverse the flow of meaning. Kroll described one of Rubin's films as "the sheer galloping metabolism of her energy turned into an electrifyingly eloquent salvo of images which her camera has pulled from the street like a jet-propelled vacuum cleaner." (44)
In the upbeat tone of Mademoiselle, Rubin stood for liberalized standards of equality replacing elite values of quality. "Is Barbara Rubin a real film-maker?" journalist Joan Alleman Rubin (no relation) asks, in an article advising eager young women on how they can work in the movies, despite the few opportunities open to them. (45) "The college girls whom MLLE interviewed nearly all say they want to make movies and there are just enough success stories to goad any aspirant." (46) After describing Christmas on Earth ("it can hardly be considered a technical tour de force"), Joan Rubin tries hard not to foreclose the dreams of readers and validates Barbara Rubin, despite acknowledging that her work would be repudiated by the men of Hollywood. She suggests that the revolution in taste brought on by Pop art justifies a fair valuation of Rubin's extravagances: "if what's important is what we ourselves think we are--by this criterion, Barbara is emphatically a filmmaker."
Rubin's longest and staunchest supporter has been Jonas Mekas. His writing was the first to legitimate her work and locate it within the American avant-garde. Describing the filming of Christmas on Earth in a July 25, 1963, Village Voice column, Mekas presents an image of Rubin as a sort of saint touched by grace, enacting a miracle of sexual healing: "bursting and burning with hallucinations, shooting her first movie, with the excitement of a holy nun, feverishly engaged to rip fragments of veiled revelations from her subconscious and the world, the sensory experiences and visions of the sad loveless century, pouring her heart out." (47) Mekas identified her as part of a new generation of women filmmakers. "You'll soon see how little we have seen of the world on screen; that the cinema is endless, beginningless, continuous; that there will be a new beauty coming...." (48) For Mekas, films by young women like Rubin, Storm de Hirsch (a pioneer in feminist cinema) and Naomi Levine (one of the first Warhol superstars turned filmmaker) released beauty from its static remove in idealized images and set it in active, interpersonal motion.
Rubin worked to find commonality between competing factions and to counter historical attitudes limiting the spiritual and sensual potential of beauty. Christmas on Earth's themes of pleasure and utopia resonated in later feminist theory and art, like the photographs and performances of Hannah Wilke, Adrian Piper and Eleanor Antin. Along with sharp political critique, their sexy work frequently leaves the viewer with the awareness that liberation must not substitute one beauty for another. In 1970, feminist writer Shulamith Firestone acknowledged the value of an inclusive vision of beauty, which even incorporates mass culture. "Sex objects are beautiful. An attack on them can be confused with an attack on beauty itself. Feminists need not get so pious in their efforts that they feel they must flatly deny the beauty of the face on the cover of Vogue." (49)
In Christmas on Earth and in her other activities, Rubin developed a flexible film language and exhibition practice that celebrated the most banal, disparate, even jarring sensations along with the most hopeful and erotic. By embracing the unpredictable and atmospheric, Christmas on Earth borrows the energy around it. Rubin in effect continues to collaborate with unknown exhibitors who tune the radio and projectionists who switch the color filters. While other performances and expanded cinema events of 40 years ago are only recorded in memory, scripts and photographs, Christmas on Earth remains permanently in the present. It is a happening that keeps on happening.
I am grateful to Jonas Mekas, Gerard Malanga, Pamela Mayo, Rosebud Pettet, Brett Aronowitz, Gordon Ball, Ellen Gordon, Amy Taubin, Tom Chomont and Tom Nozkowski for sharing their memories of Rubin with me over the last five years. Additionally, Mekas, M.M. Serra, Andrew Lampert, John Mhiripiri, Steven Watson, Bob Rosenthal, Callie Angell and Federico Windhausen provided documentation, information and helpful leads. Raphael Rubinstein's editing greatly enhanced this article. A much abbreviated version was presented at the NYU Cinema Studies Conference, February 2004. Thanks are due to Linda Nochlin, Robert Storr and Natasha Staller for insightful comments on previous versions of this text.
(1.) The film has been praised and briefly analyzed in David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 316-317, and Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1997, pp. 137-140.
(2.) Sally Banes positions Christmas on Earth among the vanguard of sexual films and performances around 1963, in Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 214-215, 223-224. Juan A. Suarez compares Rubin's "scandalous attitude toward nudity and sexuality" to that of Jack Smith, in Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 184.
(3.) Filmmaker Ken Jacobs, who knew Rubin from the early days of the Film-Makers' Cooperative, called Christmas on Earth "a cold latke" and "dreck" in a 1986 interview. Lindley Hanlon and Tony Pipolo, "Interview with Ken and Flo Jacobs," Millennium Film Journal 16/17/18, Fall 1986-Winter 1987, pp. 52-53.
(4.) Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol '60s, New York, Harper and Row, 1980, p. 143.
(5.) The best source of biographical information is Gordon Ball's memoir, 66 Frames, Minneapolis, Coffeehouse Press, 1999. He is at work on another volume that will contribute more insight. A new essay on Rubin by Ara Osterweil is scheduled to appear in Women's Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks, forthcoming from Duke University Press, 2006, edited by Robin Blaetz.
(6.) As of this writing, I have not yet had the chance to see Emouna; the original, at Anthology Film Archives, is unrestored and too fragile to be projected.
(7.) According to Callie Angel, who is writing the catalogue raisounne of Warhol's films.
(8.) Rubin's 1965 footage of Allen Ginsberg in London, called Allen for Allen, was most likely subsumed into Emouna. Dixon lists a film, The Day the Byrds Flew Into the Factory and I Went Oat (1965). Joyce Wieland recalls shooting a film about dissident Soviet poet Andrei Vosnesenski in 1965 with Rubin and Shirley Clarke. Ball mentions that Rubin's Love Supreme for the Free Spirits was shown at the Cinematheque in 1967.
(9.) According to John Cale, Rubin stayed at the same hospital, Silver Hill in New Canaan, Conn., as Edie Sedgwick and later introduced Sedgwick to Warhol. John Cale, "Chelsea Mourning," The Observer [London], Sept. 13, 2000. When contacted by phone, Silver Hill was unable to confirm this, due to patient confidentiality regulations.
(10.) Interview with author, Sept. 13, 2000.
(11.) Rubin appears, rubbing Dylan's head, in a photograph on the back of his LP Bringing It All Back Home, released March 1965.
(12.) Rubin can be seen in photographs in Nat Finkelstein, Andy Warhol: The Factory Years 1964-67, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989, and Stephen Shore, The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-67, New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1995. Her "Screen Test" by Warhol has been preserved and is in the MOMA collection. It was included in Warhol's conceptual series of screen tests, "Fifty Fantastics and Fifty Personalities" (1964-66).
(13.) Writers Forum, a small press in London, published Christmas on Earth Continued in an edition of 100 in 1968.
(14.) Letter to Allen Ginsberg, Oct. 27, 1967. Allen Ginsberg Papers, Stanford University.
(15.) Michael Schumacher, Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992, p. 654.
(16.) Barbara Rubin file, Film-Makers' Cooperative, New York.
(17.) Interview with Ellen Gordon, June 2004.
(18.) Telephone interview, Feb. 17, 2005.
(19.) J. Hoberman, "Teen Angel," reprinted in Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1991, p. 141.
(20.) I first viewed Christmas on Earth at the Whitney in 2000 as part of a Saturday afternoon program titled "Desire" in the series "The Color of Ritual, The Color of Thought: Women Avant-Garde Filmmakers in America 1930-2000." I wrote an article about Barbara Rubin for The Jewish Week, Sept. 22, 2000.
(21.) Joan Alleman Rubin, "Staking Out a New World of Film: Young moviemakers have burst the bounds of Hollywood," Mademoiselle, March 1966, p. 202.
(22.) Malanga, telephone interview, Feb. 11, 2004. I have not been able to track down the others in the film, several of whom are said to be deceased.
(23.) Rubin, "A P.S. to Christmas on Earth," 1966. Collection of Jonas Mekas.
(25.) Pettet, telephone interview, May 14, 2004.
(26.) Ball, p. 135.
(27.) "When shall we go, beyond the mountains and the seashores, and hail the birth of the new labor, the new wisdom, the flight of despots and devils, the end of superstition, and be the first to worship Christmas on earth [Noel sur la terre]! The song of the heavens, the march of nations! Slaves we are, but let us not curse our lives!", in Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell and Illuminations, trans, by Mark Trehorne, London, J.M. Dent, 1998.
(28.) Amy Taubin, "****," Who Is Andy Warhol? ed. Colin MacCabe with Mark Francis and Peter Wollen, London and Pittsburgh, British Film Institute and Andy Warhol Museum, 1997, p. 24.
(29.) Mekas, "Christmas on Earth: a note on ways of screening it," 1983. Collection Jonas Mekas.
(30.) Joan Rubin, p. 202; and Arthur Knight and Hollis Alpert, "The History of Sex in Cinema: A cinematic survey of the underground avant-garde,"Playboy, April 1967, p. 210.
(31.) Malanga, interview.
(32.) Quoted in Joan Rubin, p. 202.
(33.) Ibid. In fact, a copy of her script "Christmas on Earth Continued" is in the collection of the Kinsey Institute Library, Bloomington, Ind.
(34.) Mekas, "Notes on Some New Movies and Happiness," Film Culture 37, Summer 1965, pp. 16-20.
(35.) John Gruen, The New Bohemia: The Combine Generation, New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1967, p. 104.
(36.) Mekas, "A Note on Barbara Rubin's Untitled." Barbara Rubin file, Anthology Film Archives. There is another short undated film, hand colored on clear leader, attributed to Rubin and catalogued at Anthology Film Archives as 5350. Its attribution has been contested by Rosebud Pettet, however, who claimed that Rubin never painted film. If by Rubin, it would add formal diversity to her small known output.
(37.) John Wilcock, "On the Road with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable," The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol, New York, Other Scenes, 1971, n.p.
(38.) Seymour Krim, "Andy Warhol's 'Velvet Underground': Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists," New York Herald Tribune, Jan. 14, 1966. For recent scholarship on Rubin's role in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, see Braden W. Joseph, "'My Mind Split Open': Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable," Grey Room 8, Summer 2002, pp. 80-107.
(39.) Quoted in Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal. The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971, New York, Macmillan Company, 1972, p. 269.
(40.) Mayo, interviews with author, 2000 and 2003.
(41.) The film is listed in the Co-op's third catalogue.
(42.) Anonymous, "Art of Light and Lunacy: The New Underground Films," Time, Feb. 17,1967, p. 99.
(43.) Jack Kroll, with Frances Heller, "Up From Underground," Newsweek, Feb. 13, 1967, p. 119.
(45.) All quotes this paragraph, unless otherwise indicated, in Joan Rubin, p. 202.
(46.) Ibid, p. 172.
(47.) Reprinted in Mekas, Movie Journal, p. 89.
(48.) Ibid., p. 90.
(49.) Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, New York, William Morrow and Company, 1993, p. 147. Originally published in 1970.
Daniel Belasco is a critic and art historian whose field of study is women artists of the 1940s, '50s and '60s. He lives in Brooklyn.
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