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Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief  (1960) (all images courtesy Anthology Film Archives)

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. Starting August 24, Anthology Film Archives will screen his work, including new restorations of The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963/81) and Chumlum (1964) spearheaded by Anthology and the Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation.

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.

The Flower Thief (1960)

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.

Still from Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964)

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.

Still from Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964)

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.

Still from Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963)

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.

Still from Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963)

The Films of Ron Rice will screen at the Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Ave, East Village, Manhattan) August 24–30.

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Tanner Tafelski

Tanner is a freelance film critic based in New York. You can read his writing archived on his blog, The Mongrel Muse, and you can give him a holler @TTafelski.