In December of 1959, Ron Rice was a stressed 24-year-old, sitting in an condominium at 35 West 16th Road and pining for the good huge world. A half-baked plan to go diamond-hunting in Venezuela had fallen by means of, as had a considerably extra sensible try and go tenting in Florida. He questioned about heading to California, or Amsterdam. He needed to do one thing — something — and he needed it to matter. However he was caught. “Another day goes by and I continue to drink the coffee that I don’t like, and live in the city which I hate,” he lamented in his diary, calling New York Metropolis “The Big Monster.” “Oh! to see the long range ‘thing,’ ” he added, “to differentiate between the false effort and the real effort. I must try to see further into the future.”
I’m wondering what Rice would have thought if he might have truly seen into the longer term. In 5 years, he can be lifeless, struck down by pneumonia on the age of 29 in Acapulco, Mexico, after dwelling in poverty for a while together with his spouse Amy, who would give delivery to their son weeks after the funeral. However alongside the best way, he’d additionally mild up the firmament of the American underground cinema; his temporary, sensible, blazing profession would go away us with a handful of movies each distinctive in magnificence and hanging in selection. All these footage at the moment are again onscreen at Anthology Movie Archives, which is presenting a full retrospective of Rice’s profession, together with a week-long run of his feature-length effort The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, left unfinished on the time of the director’s demise and infrequently proven in rough-cut variations. The modifying was accomplished in 1981 by his star and collaborator Taylor Mead, and the movie shall be screening in a brand new 35mm restoration executed by Anthology Movie Archives and the Movie Basis with funding offered by the George Lucas Household Basis.
After sizing his choices that winter day in 1959, Rice did make his option to California. It was in San Francisco that he met the poet and actor Mead, after seeing the wild, elfin performer get up on a desk to recite poetry on the Co-Existence Bagel Store, the infamous Beat Era haunt, coffee-house, deli, bar, and efficiency area that did the whole lot however promote bagels. The duo would proceed to collaborate on 1960’s The Flower Thief, the movie for which Rice might be greatest recognized in the present day. Closely influenced by the seminal Jack Kerouac–Robert Frank–Alfred Leslie collaboration Pull My Daisy, The Flower Thief follows the picaresque wanderings of harmless drifter Mead round North Seashore, as he will get in a spread of scrapes that mix the surreal with the Chaplinesque. The movie’s “incidents” (if we might even name them that) are undercut by Rice’s freewheeling modifying and camerawork, in addition to Mead’s playfully self-aware efficiency. (Certainly, the movie would function one thing of a calling card for Mead, who would go on to have a quick however notable Off-Broadway profession — even profitable an Obie in 1964 — and turn out to be a Warhol common.) For a film made by a person with virtually no cash or prior filmmaking expertise, The Flower Thief has a shocking quantity of method; it’s full of dolly strikes, slow-motion sequences, and prolonged dissolves. And but, it accommodates no moments of excessive drama or narrative climax which may warrant the use of such units — in order that they stand out, as shocks to the system.
Taylor Mead in “The Flower Thief”
However the movie can also be crammed with much less conspicuous moments of throwaway visible magnificence. Rice has a knack for capturing an unlikely composition, or a shocking bit of texture, that conveys the image’s central dynamic: one between a person who’s free and a society that isn’t. The Flower Thief is constructed round such contrasts, even within the know-how and supplies used to make it. Rice had bought low cost warfare surplus machine-gun movie inventory — small 50-foot spools of 16mm designed for use in gun sight goal level (GSAP) cameras mounted on machine weapons in airplanes, to report fight strikes. The reversal movie, he discovered, lent the pictures “a soft quality, like Rembrandt, like chiaroscuro.” Thus, movie that was designed to catalog demise by machines was repurposed for inventive ends, to shoot a bunch of artists improvising scenes of beautiful chaos.
At one level in The Flower Thief, a gaggle of males undergo an imagined crucifixion after which recreate the celebrated photograph of the marines elevating the flag at Iwo Jima — solely they’re goofily standing on a pile of plywood, metallic rods, and different assorted gadgets inside an deserted power-house. Rice’s imagery appears to take the rigorously calibrated mythology of Hollywood and Americana and upend it. The result’s directly a mockery of what films are and an affirmation of what they are often. (The director would remorse having rehearsed the Iwo Jima scene; throughout rehearsal, the makeshift mountain of plywood on which the lads stood had collapsed, and he cursed not having captured the second. However perhaps that prior collapse additionally explains the splendidly giggly hesitation on all of the actors’ faces all through the scene.)
The Flower Thief was a small phenomenon on the underground circuit, even garnering critiques from the mainstream press — some bewildered, some admiring — when it lastly made it to New York in 1962. “One of the most original creations in the recent cinema (or any other art, for that matter),” declared Jonas Mekas within the Village Voice. Describing Mead’s efficiency, Mekas mirrored, “He walks across the garbage cities of the western civilization with his mind pure and beautiful, primeval, unspoiled, sane, a noble idiot, classless, eternal… The absurd, sad beauty of this film, its poetry and humaneness should do something good to us, it should move our corrupt little minds and hearts.”
Many noticed The Flower Thief as a vital doc of the Beat sensibility on cinema, however even then it performed like a portrait of a bygone world. “It records a certain scene that was going down in San Francisco. But none of these places exist any longer,” Rice recalled in an interview with Movie Remark in 1962, noting that his places, together with the Bagel Store, had both been demolished or closed because of native strain. “The people who were in the film no longer exist there. If one were to go to San Francisco today, one would not find that feeling or mood.”
An analogous melancholy pervades The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, which additionally appears to be portraying a metropolis that’s drifting away — on this case, New York within the early 1960s. Sheba has Mead once more at its middle, although this time his efficiency is broader and extra unsettling, far faraway from the mild harmless of The Flower Thief. Right here he performs a junkie who, within the movie’s opening moments, washes himself with Vaseline and cooks up a comically big vat of heroin. Wandering the streets in a state of fidgety flamboyance, he evokes not a lot pathos as bewilderment.
“Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man”
I assume he have to be the Atom Man. Or perhaps we might name him the Trendy Man. He stumbles right into a darkish room crammed with footage of the town at night time, and looms over the lit skyscrapers like a monster, or a specter. Later, he drifts via a contemporary artwork exhibition re-enacting the angular poses of work and sculptures, as if paying homage to the inspirations for the actor’s personal unusual, off-putting efficiency. His counterpart is the big Queen of Sheba (Winifred Bryan), who contrasts his restlessness together with her drunken, sensuous languor. She’s typically seen at relaxation and unclothed, comfortable in her bare haze. If he’s a free radical agent of chaos, she is timeless, elemental — an existential reality. Nevertheless, the 2 additionally appear comfy round each other, playfully making out one minute, preventing the subsequent, all the time with a way of childlike frivolity.
But the undercurrent of melancholy persists. We see the duo wander empty streets, parks, and the waterfront at totally different factors — typically collectively, typically alone — and Rice’s expressive camerawork captures the ironic solitude of New York. Seen in that mild, the mad, orgiastic celebration scenes that make up the movie’s last third — full of revelers in masks and outlandish costumes, dancing and flailing wildly, tearing up the modest condominium round them — really feel like an act of each communion and wild desperation.
Rice’s masterpiece, Chumlum (1964) — additionally enjoying the Anthology retro in a fantastic new restoration — is an altogether totally different work from The Flower Thief and Queen of Sheba. Shot whereas the director was engaged on underground visionary Jack Smith’s Regular Love, the movie is constructed round a number of super-impositions; we see pictures of limbs, birds, waves, dancers, pearls, rocking hammocks, and silk sheets positioned towards one another to create a sort of mesmeric dream-state. The Flower Thief and Queen of Sheba, for all their experimental shenanigans, nonetheless really feel like movies that exist in relation to the actual world. Their characters’ surreal antics appear to thumb their noses on the society round them, or no less than on the concept of a society round them. However Chumlum is a completely internalized, otherworldly work, an immersion into an alternate universe, one each summary and tactile. You are feeling like you’ll be able to attain out and contact these materials, seize these pearls and limbs swaying and swinging earlier than the lens. By utterly casting off any semblance of plot and even context, Chumlum manages to be Rice’s most completely absorbing work.
It might have been fascinating to see through which course Rice would have gone. Would he have been co-opted into the world of narrative filmmaking the best way another underground artists ultimately have been? Would his work have turn out to be much more summary? It’s straightforward to take a position, however it’s additionally a incontrovertible fact that whereas New York on the time was on the middle of American underground cinema, metropolis officers and the facility elite weren’t precisely hospitable to such efforts. (In fact, New York would at some point profit immeasurably from this scene, and from all of the freewheeling artists and bohemians who turned some of its forsaken neighborhoods into facilities of tradition, solely to be pushed out and priced out.)
However the metropolis, within the early 1960s, didn’t look after such individuals. Filmmakers have been nonetheless topic to byzantine and inconsistent obscenity and licensing legal guidelines. Rice himself had acquired a summons for trying to carry a profit screening of his work on the Gramercy Arts Theater. Jonas Mekas can be famously arrested in 1964 for trying to point out Jean Genet’s Chant d’Amour. That very same yr, Mekas additionally reported that Rice was briefly dedicated to Bellevue for trying to movie one of the sufferers there, a forged member from Regular Love.
These have been just a few of the explanations Rice ultimately moved to Mexico. “He went there, exiled from New York by impossible working and living conditions, without a penny, searching for peace of mind, disgusted with police persecution of arts in New York,” Mekas would later write. In Mexico Rice discovered lovely places, peace, a renewed sense of creativity. However he additionally discovered extra poverty, sickness, and ultimately demise. His letters and postcards and telegrams to pals on the time are full of pleas for cash.
It’s a tragic story, one which was all too widespread among the many artists of the time, many of whom sought an existence that mirrored the integrity and Dionysian anarchy of their work — a romantic notion, maybe, however for some, an important one. Is there redemption within the movies themselves? Would that younger man of inchoate ambition, who bemoaned his inertia and contemplated his wanderlust just some years earlier, take a look at the wild, poetic absolutism of his creations and his life and see tragedy, or triumph? Perhaps that’s for us to determine.
The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man
‘The Films of Ron Rice’
August 24–30, Anthology Movie Archives
A 1967 poster for a posthumous retrospective of Ron Rice’s work
Anthology Movie Archives
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