Underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin’s 1964 art-porn masterpiece “Christmas on Earth”, made when she was only 18 years old, shattered creative and sexist boundaries and shocked NYC's experimental film scene. Working with Jonas Mekas at the Filmmaker’s Coop, Rubin was instrumental in creating NYC's thriving underground film community and a rare female voice in a world of powerful men. A rebellious Zelig of the Sixties, she introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan to the Kabbalah. 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 becoming a Hasidic Jew. How and why did one of the 1960’s freest spirits submit to a religious life? For years, 94-year-old filmmaker Jonas Mekas has saved all of Barbara’s letters and cherished her memory. Working with Mekas’ footage and rare clips from the Andy Warhol archives, the film takes us inside the world and mind of Barbara Rubin; a woman who truly believed that film could change the world and then vanished into obscurity.
December,1963, Belgium – An 18 year-old girl bursts into the projector booth at a the Knokke International Film Festival, ties up the projectionist, and screens Jack Smith’s scandalous “Flaming Creatures”, a film that was denied the right to be shown and had just been banned in the United States. The police arrive and evict the young woman, but not before the crowds scream in unity and applaud this champion of free expression. The audacious teenager’s name was Barbara Rubin, and she believed with all her heart that film could change the world. A few months later, Rubin did Jack Smith one better, by completing an intensely erotic film that made “Flaming Creatures” look like a Disney film. She called it “Christmas on Earth” after a line from Rimbaud, and while it screened at a few underground events, it was too explicit to show publicly, so Barbara decided to take her camera and creativity into other artistic realms.
With her friend and fellow cultural revolutionary, Allen Ginsberg, she travels to London and helps organize the largest and most influential poetry reading of 1965. Then, back in NYC, she befriends an unknown band called the Velvet Underground, and introduces them to Andy Warhol – an alliance that produced one of the greatest albums of all time. And, when her friend Bobby Dylan has an existential crisis, she’s right there to help him cope and learn about the deeper meaning of life. For Barbara, it was all about making connections and harnessing creativity to challenge the status quo and transform the world.
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’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. 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. She also convinced Allen Ginsberg to buy a farm that would become a haven for Beats and hippies hoping to kick drugs. 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. Using this rare footage and Barbara’s own achingly personal writings, the 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.
To her friends in the underground, her conversion to Orthodoxy was a conundrum – how could someone go from “total freedom” to such a restrictive society? Then, when Barbara died, at just 35 years old after giving birth to her 5th child, her life seemed to be an epic tragedy. But was her life a tragedy, or, did she discover a “truth” that brought her peace beyond the destructive aspects of the 1960’s. Interviews with friends from BOTH sides of Barbara’s life reveal how Barbara’s passion for artistic provocation led to a cultural revolution. Then, the film traces Barbara’s conversion to Orthodoxy and reveals an inner quest for meaning that reflects a universal truth about creative lives and the limits of complete freedom.
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. “Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground” explores, restores, and explodes the legacy of a true maven of the 1960’s who reached for the sun and LOVED, LOVED, LOVED.