The Shooting-Star Cinema of Ron Rice

An essential but forgotten master returns, decades after his untimely death


In December of 1959, Ron Rice was a restless 24-year-old, sitting in an apartment at 35 West 16th Street and pining for the great big world. A half-baked plan to go diamond-hunting in Venezuela had fallen through, as had a somewhat more realistic attempt to go camping in Florida. He wondered about heading to California, or Amsterdam. He wanted to do something — anything — and he wanted it to matter. But he was stuck. “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 City “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 wonder what Rice would have thought if he could have actually seen into the future. In five years, he would be dead, struck down by pneumonia at the age of 29 in Acapulco, Mexico, after living in poverty for some time with his wife, Amy, who would give birth to their son weeks after the funeral. But along the way, he’d also light up the firmament of the American underground cinema; his brief, brilliant, blazing career would leave us with a handful of films both exceptional in beauty and striking in variety. All those pictures are now back onscreen at Anthology Film Archives, which is presenting a full retrospective of Rice’s career, including a week-long run of his feature-length effort The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, left unfinished at the time of the director’s death and occasionally shown in rough-cut versions. The editing was completed in 1981 by his star and collaborator Taylor Mead, and the film will be screening in a new 35mm restoration done by Anthology Film Archives and the Film Foundation with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation.

After sizing his options that winter day in 1959, Rice did make his way to California. It was in San Francisco that he met the poet and actor Mead, after seeing the wild, elfin performer stand up on a table to recite poetry at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, the notorious Beat Generation hangout, coffeehouse, deli, bar, and performance space that did everything but sell bagels. The duo would proceed to collaborate on 1960’s The Flower Thief, the film for which Rice is probably best known today. Heavily influenced by the seminal Jack Kerouac–Robert Frank–Alfred Leslie collaboration Pull My Daisy, The Flower Thief follows the picaresque wanderings of innocent drifter Mead around North Beach, as he gets in a variety of scrapes that blend the surreal with the Chaplinesque. The film’s “incidents” (if we may even call them that) are undercut by Rice’s freewheeling editing and camerawork, as well as Mead’s playfully self-aware performance. (Indeed, the film would serve as something of a calling card for Mead, who would go on to have a brief but notable Off-Broadway career — even winning an Obie in 1964 — and become a Warhol regular.) For a movie made by a man with almost no money or prior filmmaking experience, The Flower Thief has a surprising amount of technique; it’s filled with dolly moves, slow-motion sequences, and extended dissolves. And yet, it contains no moments of high drama or narrative climax that might warrant the use of such devices — so they stand out, as shocks to the system.

But the film is also filled with less conspicuous moments of throwaway visual beauty. Rice has a knack for capturing an unlikely composition, or a surprising bit of texture, that conveys the picture’s central dynamic: one between a man who is free and a society that is not. The Flower Thief is built around such contrasts, even in the technology and materials used to make it. Rice had purchased cheap war surplus machine-gun film stock — small fifty-foot spools of 16mm designed to be used in gun sight aim point (GSAP) cameras mounted on machine guns in airplanes, to record combat strikes. The reversal film, he found, lent the images “a soft quality, like Rembrandt, like chiaroscuro.” Thus, film that was designed to catalog death by machines was repurposed for artistic ends, to shoot a bunch of artists improvising scenes of exquisite chaos.

At one point in The Flower Thief, a group of men go through an imagined crucifixion and then re-create the celebrated photograph of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima — only they’re goofily standing on a pile of plywood, metal rods, and other assorted items inside an abandoned powerhouse. Rice’s imagery seems to take the carefully calibrated mythology of Hollywood and Americana and upend it. The result is at once a mockery of what movies are and an affirmation of what they can be. (The director would regret having rehearsed the Iwo Jima scene; during rehearsal, the makeshift mountain of plywood on which the men stood had collapsed, and he cursed not having captured the moment. But maybe that prior collapse also explains the wonderfully giggly hesitation on all the actors’ faces throughout the scene.)

The Flower Thief was a small phenomenon on the underground circuit, even garnering reviews from the mainstream press — some bewildered, some admiring — when it finally 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 in the Village Voice. Describing Mead’s performance, Mekas reflected, “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 saw The Flower Thief as an essential document of the Beat sensibility on cinema, but even then it played 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 Film Comment in 1962, noting that his locations, including the Bagel Shop, had either been demolished or closed due to local pressure. “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.”

A similar melancholy pervades The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, which also seems to be portraying a city that is drifting away — in this case, New York in the early 1960s. Sheba has Mead again at its center, though this time his performance is broader and more unsettling, far removed from the gentle innocent of The Flower Thief. Here he plays a junkie who, in the film’s opening moments, washes himself with Vaseline and cooks up a comically giant vat of heroin. Wandering the streets in a state of fidgety flamboyance, he evokes not so much pathos as bewilderment.

I guess he must be the Atom Man. Or maybe we could call him the Modern Man. He stumbles into a dark room filled with pictures of the city at night, and looms over the lit skyscrapers like a monster, or a specter. Later, he drifts through a modern art exhibition re-enacting the angular poses of paintings and sculptures, as if paying homage to the inspirations for the actor’s own strange, off-putting performance. His counterpart is the enormous Queen of Sheba (Winifred Bryan), who contrasts his restlessness with her drunken, sensuous languor. She’s often seen at rest and unclothed, at ease in her naked haze. If he’s a free radical agent of chaos, she is timeless, elemental — an existential fact. However, the two also seem at ease around one another, playfully making out one minute, fighting the next, always with a sense of childlike frivolity.

Yet the undercurrent of melancholy persists. We see the duo wander empty streets, parks, and the waterfront at different points — sometimes together, sometimes alone — and Rice’s expressive camerawork captures the ironic solitude of New York. Seen in that light, the mad, orgiastic party scenes that make up the film’s final third — filled with revelers in masks and outlandish costumes, dancing and flailing wildly, tearing up the modest apartment around them — feel like an act of both communion and wild desperation.

Rice’s masterpiece, Chumlum (1964) — also playing the Anthology retro in a beautiful new restoration — is an altogether different work from The Flower Thief and Queen of Sheba. Shot while the director was working on underground visionary Jack Smith’s Normal Love, the film is built around multiple superimpositions; we see images of limbs, birds, waves, dancers, pearls, rocking hammocks, and silk sheets placed against each other to create a kind of mesmeric dream-state. The Flower Thief and Queen of Sheba, for all their experimental shenanigans, still feel like films that exist in relation to the real world. Their characters’ surreal antics seem to thumb their noses at the society around them, or at least at the idea of a society around them. But Chumlum is a thoroughly internalized, otherworldly work, an immersion into an alternate universe, one both abstract and tactile. You feel like you can reach out and touch those fabrics, grab those pearls and limbs swaying and swinging before the lens. By completely doing away with any semblance of plot or even context, Chumlum manages to be Rice’s most thoroughly absorbing work.

It would have been interesting to see in which direction Rice would have gone. Would he have been co-opted into the world of narrative filmmaking the way some other underground artists eventually were? Would his work have become even more abstract? It’s easy to speculate, but it’s also a fact that while New York at the time was at the center of American underground cinema, city officials and the power elite were not exactly hospitable to such efforts. (Of course, New York would one day benefit immeasurably from this scene, and from all the freewheeling artists and bohemians who turned some of its forsaken neighborhoods into centers of culture, only to be pushed out and priced out.)

But the city, in the early 1960s, did not care for such people. Filmmakers were still subject to byzantine and inconsistent obscenity and licensing laws. Rice himself had received a summons for attempting to hold a benefit screening of his work at the Gramercy Arts Theater. Jonas Mekas would be famously arrested in 1964 for attempting to show Jean Genet’s Chant d’Amour. That same year, Mekas also reported that Rice was briefly committed to Bellevue for attempting to film one of the patients there, a cast member from Normal Love.

These were just some of the reasons Rice eventually 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 found beautiful locations, peace, a renewed sense of creativity. But he also found more poverty, illness, and eventually death. His letters and postcards and telegrams to friends at the time are filled with pleas for money.

It’s a sad tale, one that was all too common among the artists of the time, many of whom sought an existence that reflected the integrity and Dionysian anarchy of their work — a romantic notion, perhaps, but for some, an essential one. Is there redemption in the films themselves? Would that young man of inchoate ambition, who bemoaned his inertia and pondered his wanderlust just a few years earlier, look at the wild, poetic absolutism of his creations and his life and see tragedy, or triumph? Maybe that’s for us to decide.

The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man
‘The Films of Ron Rice’
August 24–30, Anthology Film Archives