Still from Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964)
It seems improbable – within our era’s endless mining of the shadows of history, that anyone associated with legends could remain obscure. The strange legacy of Ron Rice seems to have accomplished such a feet. Rice was a filmmaker who was at the heart of it all – a central figure in New York’s seminal 1950 and 60’s avant-garde – yet surprisingly, despite the quality of his body of work, and the fact that nearly every one of his close associates has been rescued and elevated to near totemic heights, his name is still known only to the few.
Rice died young, at the tragic age of 29 – something that likely contributed to his legacy drifting from view. Though his filmography is relatively small, he was prolific – five works issued in rapid succession between 1960 and 1964, the last of which is Chamlum, created shortly before he passed away. Though the American avant-garde of the late 50’s and early 60’s is an intertwined web – members skirting from one medium to the next, forming friendships and associations everywhere they went, there were camps. Among the most radical, centered around film. Rice was a member of the cadre of Jack Smith – cited for offering primary influence over Andy Warhol’s first efforts in film. It was also from his circle that many of the initial Factory superstars sprang. Smith was a wild spirit – through films like Flaming Creatures – initially banned under New York’s obscenity laws, unquestionably one the era’s most important and radical voices. What few know, is that the film – one of the most famous products of that scene, drew much of its approach from Ron Rice’s 1960 film The Flower Thief.
Jack Smith’s films are a window into another world – throughout them, beneath their hedonism and wild imagery, is a glimpse into spirit of New York’s wonderful 1960’s avant-garde. If you know who you are looking for, you can almost find them all. Though spanning both the East and West coasts, Ron Rice’s work operates in much the same way – fascinating as portraits, as well as radical gestures in creativity – snapshots into the spirit of collaboration and friendship.
Chamlum was filmed during the downtime, while Jack Smith’s Normal Love was being filmed – making it that much that much more fascinating. It is a doubling – creating through a moment imbued with creativity. It is wonderful, light and playful – in the actions of those within it, as well as through the structures it employs. Though impossible to know how much truth it holds, it is bound to inspire jealousy in most – if only we could be so lucky to live such lives!
Once of the important legacies of the avant-garde cinema from the 1960’s, is the gift of their soundtracks. Because may of these films were the result of collaborations between friends, with so much cross disciplinary pollination within those circles, a number of the most exciting voices of that time were asked to construct their sounds – the results often taking a central role, as the films were regularly without dialog. In most cases, because so few of these composers and musicians were offered the opportunity to record during this period, they contribute an important presence within their larger bodies of work. Tony Conrad composed the soundtrack for Smith’s Flaming Creatures. Angus MacLise composed another for Ira Cohen’s Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda. James Tenney contributed a number of works to the films of Stan Brakhage. John Cale and Terry Riley provided the sounds for Tony Conrad’s Straight and Narrow. The list goes on and on. One equally important case is Angus MacLise’s soundtrack for Ron Rice’s Chumlum – recorded by Tony Conrad (there are some references that site a more direct participation on Conrad’s, but it’s not explicitly credited within the film itself). It is a wild, minimal, clattering rhythmic wonder – blending seamlessly with the film – which features Conrad’s wife Beverly Grant, Jack Smith, Gerard Malanga, and a number of others, while equally standing as a worthy work on its own. Stretching just over a half hour, it’s a rare window into another world – one filled with wonder, spirit and sounds – one which continues to inspire, and raise the bar for us all. I hope you enjoy.
Ron Rice – Chumlum (1964)