The pull quote snagged by most critics from John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus was Justin Bond’s quip "It’s like the ’60s, only with less hope," delivered while surveying the myriad sexual couplings and groupings in his salon’s back room. Bond’s pithy line encapsulated the film’s ideal of community through polymorphous perversity, even if that vision is tempered by an awareness of the initial sexual revolution’s blind spots and a hangover from the 20 years of sexual-identity politicking in its wake. Yet Mitchell’s film is neither jaded nor self-serious and never pimps out its graphic sex scenes for purposes of cynical titillation. Reflecting the loose, workshop methods with which Mitchell and his cast developed the film, sex in Shortbus is for the most part something revelatory, experimental, and at times quite playful. But Mitchell draws the narrative parallels a little too neatly: when else could the film’s sex therapist finally achieve orgasm but at the story’s, uh, climax?
As the centerpiece of the inaugural screening of San Francisco Cinematheque’s four-part "Oppositional and Stigmatized" series of iconoclastic, taboo-confronting cinema, Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth one of the most sexually explicit and formally innovative works of ’60s underground film offers a historic correlative to Mitchell’s degree zero approach to filming real-time sex. Made the same year as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Rubin’s joyously anarchic 1963 record of an orgy held in a New York City apartment is remarkable not simply because Rubin was 19 when she made it but because it porously images and imagines sex in ways Mitchell’s uptight narrative only partially succeeds at pulling off. Christmas presents sex as something messy, spontaneous, and ongoing, not as an existential telos.
Comprising two superimposed projections, one nestled inside the other, the film both abstracts and renders in extreme close-up the bodies and activities of its four male and sole female participants. The projectionist is encouraged to add to the kaleidoscopic effect by continually changing color slides in front of the two reels. The dual-screen presentation, coupled with Rubin’s prescribed soundtrack of live rock ‘n’ roll radio, creates a striking and often humorous image interplay. Penises flit about the outer projection like fat cherubs, while at other times, a vagina becomes the curvilinear landscape within which the inner projection’s extended sequences of man-on-man action take place. There are money shots, yet there is nothing hardcore about Rubin’s film. Instead, it revels in a kind of ecstatic innocence, gleefully and willfully flaunting its disregard for categories such as gay and straight, reportage and assemblage, skin flick and art flick.
Despite the singularity of its vision, Christmas wasn’t created in a vacuum. As Andrew Belasco’s recent illuminating portrait of Rubin and her work in Art in America reveals, the film came out of a mid-’60s New York creative milieu, set on shaking up an aesthetically and sexually uptight America, in which Rubin played an active part. Whether as a filmmaker, organizer, agitator, or all three at once, Rubin was a connective node for many countercultural figures. The creative collaborations and events that arose from her catalytic networking are as much a testament to her involvement with the scene as the small body of cinematic work she left behind.
Rubin’s misdiagnosed depression led to a stint at the Silver Hill rehab clinic in Connecticut, where she supposedly gave Edie Sedgwick bulimia tips. After being bailed out, she hooked up with Jonas Mekas and his Film-Maker’s Cooperative. Rubin became Mekas’s indispensable right hand; he was her mentor and greatest champion. Her list of associates and friends included Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, and the Velvet Underground (whom she took Warhol to see for the first time in 1965). She also participated in Warhol and the Velvets’ traveling multimedia onslaught, the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable," and served as one of the Factory’s many informal staff photographers. By the end of the decade, though, she’d become a devoted student of Jewish mysticism and distanced herself from her younger, rabble-rousing persona. Entrusting the cinematic artifacts of her earlier life to Mekas, Rubin moved to France. Over the years she gradually severed her New York contacts, eventually dying in isolation in 1980. She was only 35.
Given our historic hindsight, Christmas might seem quaint or naive, its dialectic vision of guiltless sexual pleasure clearly the product of an earlier time. While not necessarily hopeful in the sense that Bond characterizes the 1960s in Shortbus, Rubin’s best-known film is very much suffused with a belief in the potential for new cinematic, sexual, and interpersonal possibilities. It is a belief deliciously put into practice by the contingency built into the screening experience. It is a belief not too distant from the aims of Mitchell’s own Lower East Side story. (Matt Sussman)
FORBIDDEN AND TABOO
Sun/18, 7:30 p.m., $6$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, screening room, SF