‘Ron Rice dedicated his life to making movies, even going so far as to sacrifice food, rent, and other basic living needs to bankroll his work. He put his life on the line for cinema — and fate ultimately caught up with him. At the age of 29, in 1964, he died from bronchial pneumonia while shooting footage in Mexico. And yet, with just a handful of rough-hewn and improvisatory films to his name, Rice is a seminal, if little seen, New York underground filmmaker from the 1960s.
‘In a way, Rice’s life and work eerily mirrors Jean Vigo’s. Like the French poetic realist filmmaker (who also died at 29), Rice made only four — including complete and incomplete — works. And like Vigo, these were irreverent, anarchic, and playful movies made outside of the film industry. Rice, however, crafted non-narratives from the scraps of film material that he could gather. He was an impoverished artist making impoverished art.
‘Rice’s first film, The Flower Thief (1960), finds him on the West Coast, specifically San Francisco. Not only is this a freeform film shapeshifting with every scene, but it is also a document of the thriving Beat movement happening in the North Beach neighborhood, featuring appearances by poet Bob Kaufman and Eric Nord, founder of the nightclub hungry i and bingo parlor-turned-hip coffee spot, the Gas House, as well as semi-employee of hangout spot Co-Existence Bagel Shop.
‘Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s “Pull My Daisy” (1959) is considered the ur-Beat film, even though it has a recognizable structure to it. The Flower Thief, on the other hand, is more in the vein of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” You simply don’t know what will happen next. It stars Taylor Mead, that sprightly nymph-like spirit of American underground cinema. Friend of kids, cats, and a teddy, but a thief of flowers, Mead ambles along busy streets, a smoke-filled café, and the ruins of an abandoned powerhouse, which are all scored to purpley-prose Beat poetry, jazz, and classical music.
‘Although The Flower Thief is firmly entrenched in the Beat milieu, with Rice’s use of fast- and slow-motion, it feels like a long-lost film from the silent era. Moreover, Mead, a fan of Chaplin and a friend of Stan Laurel, is akin to a silent comedian, performing with his whole body, his whole presence. He conveys a wondrous innocence with his lackadaisical demeanor and wobbly movements. His smile — which comes off joyful, elated, and ironic — is the smile of a knowing, naughty boy. So, a kind of doubling occurs when Mead stops to greet a gang of school kids seen through a chain-link fence — man-child meets actual children.
‘In Manhattan at the time, artists of various mediums got together, collaborated, and simply hung out. There wasn’t a “stay in your lane” mentality and of art disciplines being atomized. Jack Smith and his crew shot Normal Love (1963) in the day and cooled down at Rice’s flat at night. And it was during these visits that Rice shot the footage that would eventually become Chumlum. This 23-minute montage film uses in-camera superimpositions, saturated colors, the exotic veils and costumes of Smith and company, and the repetitive chords of the cimbalom (played by a pre-Velvet Underground Angus MacLise and engineered by minimalist composer Tony Conrad) to create a film of instant bliss and trance.
‘With The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, Rice returns to the rowdy improvisational approach of The Flower Thief, this time on the East Coast in a cramped apartment and on the streets of Manhattan. Winifred Bryan is the Queen of Sheba, while Mead plays the Atom Man spastically. It’s as if all of Mead’s appendages had a life of their own. Stiff, placing his forearms to his chest while rapidly moving his fingers and hands, he looks like the least intimidating T-Rex known to mankind. Smith makes a manic cameo during which Mead throws saltines (and what looks like glitter) into Smith’s gaping, gobbling bird-like mouth. It’s part and parcel of the Rice charm, the sense that he and his crew are making it up as they go along. Unfortunately, Rice never got to complete The Queen of Sheba, and it wasn’t until 1981 that viewers, the happy few, were finally exposed to his last creation. That year, Mead assembled the footage and scored it to a mishmash of jazz, top 40 pop tunes, and classical music.
‘If Rice’s work is little seen, the artists who were consciously or unconsciously influenced by him are not. The freeform, free-floating Rice raison d’être manifests in the orgiastic spectacles of Smith, the chilly genre riffs of Warhol, the live hang-out sessions of TV Party, the videos of Anton Perich, and the excessive video art of Ryan Trecartin. Rice and his descendants sketch out scenarios as nothing more than a container — and a leaky one at that — holding the constant shuffling and re-shuffling antics that ensue in their mercurial works.’ — Tanner Tafelski
Ron Rice @ The Film-makers Coop
The Anarchic Movies of Ronald Rice
The Shooting-Star Cinema of Ron Rice
Book: ‘The Films of Ron Rice’
ron rice’s chumlum, with its soundtrack by angus maclise and tony conrad
“ASK ME SOME MORE QUESTIONS.”
Double Vision: Jean Vigo/Ron Rice
Ron Rice, il volo di Icaro
Ron Rice – MAKING LIGHT OF IT
10/23/13 Films of Ron Rice
Fred Camper on ‘The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man’
Ron Rice @ MUBI
Why New York Underground Film Festival and Ron Rice are similar
Stolen Flowers (for Ron Rice)
Taylor Mead, The Lower East Side Biography Project
Ron Rice’s 5 films
The Flower Thief (1960)
‘The Flower Thief is a 1960 underground film directed by Ron Rice, shot in 1959 in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, using surplus 16mm film. The film features non-professional actors like Taylor Mead and Eric “Big Daddy” Nord, and Beat poets living in North Beach such as Bob Kaufman. Skippy Alvarez, who worked at Vesuvio’s Bar and lived at The Swiss American Hotel, appears in the film. She had just returned from attempting to bail Bob Kaufman out of jail. She spoke about how she wished the North Beach police would leave the Beats alone & quit hassling them.’ — collaged
‘Starring Taylor Mead “In the old Hollywood days movie studios would keep a man on the set who, when all other sources of ideas failed (writers, directors, was called upon to ‘cook up’ something for filming. He was called The Wild Man. THE FLOWER THIEF has been put together in memory of all dead wild men who died unnoticed in the field of stunt.” – R.R.
‘Rice, by deliberately flouting established movie making traditions, reveals himself primarily as a professional rebel rather than the leader of a new movement. But in the highly specialized area of experimental films, he has produced a major work.’ — Eugene Archer, The New York Times.
‘Consisting of a poetic stream of razor-sharp images, the overt content of SENSELESS portrays ecstatic travelers going to pot over the fantasies and pleasures of a trip to Mexico… highly effective cutting subtly interweaves the contrapuntal developement of themes of love and hate, peace and violence, beauty and destruction.’ — David Brooks
‘Chumlum is as close to cinematic mercury as aural-optical alchemy will allow: though hardly a “difficult” film, it’s extraordinarily elusive, almost impossible to keep in your cognitive or visual grasp. As it opens, someone seems to be frying ball-bearings in a velvet pan on the soundtrack: it’s future (and fleeting) Velvet Underground drummer Angus MacLise, assisted by recording engineer/minimalist-instrumentalist Tony Conrad, coaxing hypnotic shimmers from a hammered cimbalom. This roiling, panging sound seems immediately to trick time into vanishing: moments into the movie, we surrender to its synesthetic translucences, sounds within sounds, sight upon sights, no longer remembering when any of this began. The creator and “stars” of Normal Love (Smith, Mario Montez, Beverly Grant) laze around Rice’s loft, swaying, sashaying, but the more we attempt to distinguish what from who in each successive overlay of images interrupted by scrims and veils, the less distinguishable anything becomes. We might as well be thumbing through an oil-soaked stack of some hippie Scheherazade’s etchings: a thousand and one Lower East Side nights melting together in a cosmic slop of languid poses and limp half-dances, a smoke-fragile erotica that climaxes and dissolves the moment it hits your eye. “Toward the middle,” wrote P. Adams Sitney of Chumlum in his epochal Visionary Film, “[Rice] shows Jack Smith in an Arabian costume with a fake mustache, smoking hashish. The film becomes [Smith’s] reverie in which time is stretched or folded over itself.” Good shit, Sit, for indeed Chumlum does manage to capture with unnerving fidelity the murky glories, the sudden temps morts and temps mutant, not to mention the inevitable malaise of a rich but fading high.’ — Chuck Stephens
The Mexican Footage (1964)
‘When Ron Rice died, in Mexico, he left a dozen rolls of exposed film. This sample contains four rolls of beautiful color and black and white, shot in Mexico.’ — Jonas Mekas
The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1982)
‘With Taylor Mead and Winifred Bryan. Photographed and directed by Ron Rice. Edited, from notes and memory, & musical score by Taylor Mead. Other performers: Judith Malina, Julian Beck, Jonas Mekas, Charles Rydell, Ed Sanders, Jack Smith, Jay Hoppe, Danny Dumbrowski, Will Guy, and friends. Titles by Bob Smith. Archival restoration by Anthology Film Archives, 1981/1982.
‘Ron Rice died before he had completed shooting the film. he had, however, put together a ‘fundraising version’ of the film. After his death, Howard Everngam, and old friend of Ron’s, according to his best knowledge of the filmmaker’s intentions, put together a version of the film which was available through the Film-Makers’ Cooperative until now. In 1979-82, using SHEBA materials deposited with Anthology Film Archives, and guiding himself by memory and notes made during the shooting, Taylor Mead prepared the present, definitive version of the film, and the soundtrack. The previous versions of the film–Everngam’s and Ron’s fund-raising versions are being preserved at Anthology for scholarly use.’ — Jonas Mekas.
p.s. Hey. ** Misanthrope, Hi. I haven’t read ‘Running Wild’ so the question of whether you’re heretical or not is still out there. Yeah, a lot of people like Houellebecq, and that’s the truth. Universal Islands of Adventure is easily as great a park as any of the Disney ones down there. Your mom and David should get married or something. ** David Ehrenstein, I somehow didn’t know that you’re a Ballardian. Interesting. ** Bzzt, Hey there, Quinn! I’m, mm, good enough, I guess. I love ‘TAE’. I like his so-called urban trilogy — ‘Crash’, ‘Concrete Island’, ‘High Rise’. The other books of his I’ve read didn’t excite me so much. But he’s a very interesting guy. His interviews tend to be fascinating. Moving close to Manhattan is, of course, a great idea. It’s such a resource. Well, even though I think people think I’m prolific or something, I’m actually a very laborious, meticulous writer when it comes to fiction, so I’m in your camp. A lot of writers I most love take ages to publish new books: Joy Williams, obviously. We’re lucky if we get a new Robert Gluck book every fifteen years. Etc. The pressure to crank stuff out is just hot air, if you ask me. Obviously, as a non-MFA guy and as a reader of writers who are probably 90% non-MFA writers, I wouldn’t take that rejection hard at all. It’s probably a compliment, frankly. I love Artforum and Bookforum. Artforum was always my ultra-favorite place to write essays and reviews and articles for by far. If I ever write non-fiction again, it’ll be for Artforum, if they’ll have me. And I think Bookforum is the best venue for writing about books and writers, online or off, in the US, hands down. So you moving into that world is great news. Jennifer and David at Artforum are friends and great people, as is Michael Miller at Bookforum. Say hi for me if they’re the people you’re getting to know. Yes, I think my utter-seeming faith in being an artist is why I’ve done what I’ve done. That’s never wavered, I don’t know why, even when external forces suggested it should waver. I’m glad you like the ‘I Wished’ cover, thanks. Yes, I like it. I think you writing about Kier’s work for AF is a sterling idea, yes. He’s great. I don’t remember if you’ve seen ‘Permanent Green Light’, but the main character Roman is something of an artist and makes drawings throughout most of the film, and Kier did those drawings. Yes, Kier has been a DC’s community member for a long, long time. Given the uncertainty of the pandemic stuff, my summer is a question. Ideally, hopefully, I’ll be in SoCal a lot doing pre-production stuff for the film, which will be shot there. And, most ideally, making another trip to Japan at long, long last. The fundraising is in the early stages, but everything looks good at this point. I’ll take that sunny spring and wish you the very same. Take care, man. ** Dominik, Hi!!!! Yeah, the issue’s great, and I think it might be the very best one yet too! It’s true that they just get better and better. I don’t wear a hat, but it would be doffed and sweeping the floor at your feet. Ha ha, wow, that’s a wacky love, thank you. Love in the form of a slave I just found for the next post whose fetish is lying on the ground and having a man park a car with the tire crushing one of his hands and having the driver stay in the car and jack off and laugh at him while he screams, G. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Cool that you listened to that podcast. Is Crimp’s denouncing essay not online? Well, yeah, he and many other gay/AIDS activist types of that period thought that gay artists should subsume aesthetics and personal artistic aims to put their work in service of the gay community at large, and that message-based agit-prop art was the only legitimate art that gays should make. Happy you got your shot without hampering side effects. ** Jack Skelley, Jack! Any date that didn’t get hot and bothered by ‘Dead Ringers’ was clearly not the right gal for you, you crazy guy. I haven’t seen ‘A History of Violence’ and have long intended to. I’m on it. My kingdom for a Fun Zone! Love, me. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff, thanks. Uh, hm, off the top of my head that Ballard quote makes a certain amount of sense, but bending something to one’s own style’s will also sounds legitimate. All I know about the cover change for ‘I Wished’ is that Soho’s Editorial loved it but the marketing department ‘pushed back’ and so they changed it. Cool about the email/Skype! ** John Newton, Hi, John. I don’t think I’m a stressed or anxious person at all day to day, actually, but apparently I secretly am? Melatonin seems to be one of those substances that works for some and not for others. For me, it definitely works. I’m glad you liked ‘Horror Hospital Unplugged’. I’m very proud of it, but it’s rarely talked about. I’m totally good with Prep. I don’t take it myself, but I know a lot of people who do and have no problems whatsoever and consider it a godsend. French novels are my bread and butter. I don’t think I would even be a writer maybe if it wasn’t for French novels. Reading them when young is what made me who I am. I’ve read and like all of those French novels you mention. May your week similarly proceed with wonders galore attached. ** Brian, A Wednesday that makes your wildest dreams seem like waiting for a red light to turn green, Brian. ‘TAE’ is pretty fantastic. Add my yay and nooo to your respective yesterday occurrences. Christ, yeah, I wouldn’t know what to write about ‘Opening Night’. Urgh. It’s St. Patricks Day? I forgot. Did you guys chug-a-lug lagers and sing songs at the tops of your lungs or whatever celebrating Irish people do? Yes, the Pinault is on board for our event, signed off on the budget, etc., so that’s great. Otherwise, just some writing/fiddling and film stuff and blah blah. The filming of ‘Jerk’ starts today, so that might start eating my time, I’m not sure. I’ll be looking for sparkles. You too, yes? Green ones? ** Okay. I focus the blog’s attention du jour on another seminal filmmaker whose work is yet again severely under known due to the movie’s world self-destructive tendency to act like faux-daring and masturbatory stylishness constitute actual daring and vision. So I do my blog’s little part to counteract that, in the case of Ron Rice today. Check his stuff out. See you tomorrow.