Interview: Director Chuck Smith Talks ‘Barbara Rubin And The Exploding NY Underground’

Chuck Smith’s new documentary looks at the life of experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin, a woefully underappreciated 1960’s creative force who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Smith to talk about the influence of Rubin’s work, her legacy, where she would fit into the film industry in 2019, and much more.

Barbara Rubin and The Exploding NY Underground 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.

Q: When did you first come into contact with Barbara Rubin’s work? And what drew you to explore her story in greater detail?

A: A friend who knew I liked stories about obscure but influential artists told me about Barbara and showed me stills from Christmas On Earth. I was immediately fascinated with everything about her – who was this woman who made such a radical film, seemed to know everyone, and looked so cool?

Then, I emailed Jonas Mekas and asked if he’d help me make a documentary about Barbara and he said: “Yes, I’ll do it!” Once I met with Jonas and started reading Barbara’s letters to him and hearing him speak about her, I realised her story was even more interesting than I could imagine.

Q: I love the moment in the documentary when Barbara is described as the ‘Joan of Arc’ of underground cinema. How would you describe or introduce Barbara to audiences who are unaware of her work and influence?

A: I think Barbara’s friend Debra (who was in Christmas On Earth) said it best, when she described her as “fearless”. Barbara knew instinctually that great art or film or poetry is often shocking. And she was never afraid to push boundaries, provoke, or shock people. Her imagination was boundless.

Q: Some of my favourite moments of the film are the moments you spent with Jonas Mekas. Can you tell us about your time with Jonas and how important his archive was to making this film?

A: My time working with Jonas on both my film and the book we did together – Film Culture 80: The Legend Of Barbara Rubin –  was life-changing for me in many ways.

I had a lot of pre-conceived notions about what I wanted the Barbara film to be, and Jonas’ approach to life forced me to throw all my notions away and be more instinctual. He would never answer my questions directly, but in the end gave me much more than I could have hoped for. For instance, when I asked about his relationship with Barbara, he immediately said he wouldn’t discuss their personal relationship, which upset me. But in the end, his deep feelings for Barbara came through in every time we talked or he would read something of hers or about her.

On a personal level, Jonas always said that people need to “trust their angels” which to me meant that I needed to let go a little and follow my heart more. Jonas called Barbara “my angel”, and in many ways, Jonas was my angel – especially when it came to giving me free access to his immense archive of film footage. The way he allowed me to grab clips from all his films and use them freely was very generous, and involved a level of trust that I really appreciated.

Old footage from the 1960’s can be very expensive to license, so being able to use his stuff was essential. One of the happiest moments of my life was when I showed Jonas the rough-cut of the film and he said, “It’s magical.” It’s hard to believe that he’s not around anymore. I know he was 96, and couldn’t live forever, but somehow I thought he might.

Q: How did you approach the visuals and editing of this documentary when you are dealing with such a visionary experimental figure?

A: Yes, Barbara was a true multi-media pioneer, so visually, I tried to take some cues from Barbara’s own films.

Like Barbara, I did a lot of image layering and double screen work with the archival stills and the footage, but I was careful not to overdo it. There’s nothing cooler than looking at 16mm film, so I didn’t want to mess it up too much. As far as editing goes, I’ve done a lot of work, so I was careful not to get too experimental with her story and keep the emotional storyline clear. Dividing the film into chapters that deal with her various relationships with Mekas, Warhol, Dylan, and Ginsberg helped keep everything clear.


Q: Do you feel Barbara doesn’t get enough credit for her influence during this time? Or, is she a victim of how brief her run was?

A: I think all the creative women of the 1960’s deserve more credit than they will get. There’s no doubt the sixties were a period of great cultural and artistic change that we may never see again, but this all took place in a society that still hadn’t accepted women as equal to men. Even in the most avant garde circles, women were still expected to cook and take care of the home and children, and they were not given access to the same avenues of success that men were.

Barbara would never admit that being a woman held her back, but it was just was basic fact of life back then (and maybe still!). As for the briefness or limits of her creative output, I think we still often value quantity over quality. She made one very influential and powerful film (Christmas On Earth), and contributed immensely to the creative output of some of that period’s most successful artists. That’s enough.

Q: What is your favourite story about Barbara?

A: Tough question! There are so many great stories and most of them never made it into the film. Everyone I’ve met who knew her, or even just met her once or twice have at least one good story.

But, here’s one that Jonas Mekas told me which captures her spirit… In January of 1964, Barbara, Jonas, and Roman Polanski were driving around Paris in Polanski’s sports car. As they drove along the half-frozen Seine, Barbara yelled, “Stop the car, I feel like a swim!” Then, she proceeded to jump out of the car and into the ice-cold river. Jonas has a sketch of Barbara that Polanski drew – it’s pretty graphic. Apparently Barbara and Polanski were together for a bit that winter in Paris.


Q: Where do you think Barbara would fit in if she was making films in 2019?

A: I think she would be thrilled to have a smart phone with a camera, and would be using it all the time.

There’s some audio of Barbara talking in 1967 about how she was hoping that someday movie camera would be slimmer than her hand. And, now her wish has come true. And, I’m sure she’d be pushing the limits of what a camera phone can do and she’d be happy that everyone can make movies easily now.

Q: Barbara’s exit from the counterculture scene and her life after seem to have shocked everyone. What most surprised you about Barbara while making this film?

A: I suppose the happiest surprise was learning that even after she became a Hasidic Jew, her energy and spirit survived. Even though we think of that world as being very restrictive for women, I heard that she continued to be outspoken and questioned the rules.

Also, it was nice to learn that the Breslov community that she was part of has a tradition of joyous dancing and singing where she could express herself creatively.

Q: What are your hopes for this film and Barbara’s legacy?

A: I hope the film gets seen by anyone and everyone who is interested in the 1960’s, and I hope that it will help people understand that history isn’t a fixed idea. There’s always new ways to look at history, and by looking at the underground film scene through Barbara’s story we get a fresh understanding of a period that has been analysed to death.

I also hope that the film will resonate and inspire young filmmakers, especially women filmmakers, to take chances and push limits.

Q: What is next for you?

A: I’m hoping to do a film about the photographer/filmmaker Danny Lyon. He has an amazing archive of photos and films, and I think it’ll be refreshing to do a movie about someone who is still alive and can talk about their work. I wish Barbara Rubin was still alive! I still have a lot of questions for her!

For more info about the film.

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