DIRECTED BY: Pip Chodorov
FEATURING: Stan Brakhage, Hans Richter, Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, Peter Kubelka, Robert Breer, Stan Vanderbeek
PLOT: A survey of 90 years of abstract experimental film, from its Dadaist origins to its NYC heyday, with rare interviews and plentiful examples, including a few full-length shorts.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some of the filmmakers profiled here might have a shot at getting a flick or two onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies; this relatively un-weird overview of their lives and works, however, has no chance.
COMMENTS: Covering eighty years of film experiments in eighty minutes of film is a daunting task. Free Radicals can’t provide more than a sample platter of this enormous and ill-defined field, but the spread brings us some exotic flavors and tasty bits worth chewing on. The historical appetizer is Hans Richter’s 1921 “Rhythmus” series, movies which are nothing more than drawings of white rectangles on a black field that advance and recede; they aren’t startling in themselves, but they draw attention to the nature of film as rhythm, the articulation of time through manipulation of light. Later courses include the entire 4-minute hand-scratched Len Lye film that gives the doc its name, “Recreation,” Robert Breer’s “completely nonsensical” experiment in projecting 24-objects-per-second, and Stan Vanderbeek’s comic animated collages (a big influence on Terry Gilliam). Lye’s 1936 color film “Rainbow Dance” is like visual candy; nutrition comes from the interviewees, who muse about art, art history, and the roles of World War I and Fascism in shaping the avant-garde. The final interviews of Richter and Stan Brakhage (who describes his life’s work as trying to reproduce the images that flash through his hypnagogic vision as he falls asleep) are rare treats for refined palettes. Although it seems like a low blow to criticize a heartfelt documentary praising artists who sweat blood to create works that almost no one ever sees, Free Radicals does have its issues. It’s a personal view of the subject rather than an objective overview. The doc begins with footage of the Chodorovs’ home movies: Super 8 footage of a normal looking kid climbing a tree and hugging his mom, except that the celluloid is folded and discolored in random patterns (a result, we are told, of a happy accident—the dog peed on the film). That personal history informs the rest of Free Radicals, and Chodorov’s preferences prevail: at times, he seems to be mainly interviewing his buddies (or his dad’s buddies), sometimes literally over a beer. This subjective approach is honest and helps convey the director’s passion for experimental films, but it also inevitably distorts the field. Chodorov favors the abstract, visual arts, scratch-on-the-film school of experimental filmmaking, and glosses over narrative or conceptual experiments. Maya Deren is glimpsed floating through Meshes of the Afternoon for about a minute, but there’s no real discussion of her importance; the uninitiated might leave Free Radicals thinking a relative unknown like Peter Kubelka was just as influential. Major figures like Jack Smith and Andy Warhol are merely name checked, while other icons are snubbed entirely (did Hollis Frampton sleep with Pip’s girlfriend or something?) To get the most out of it, go into Free Radicals as if you were watching Pip Chodorov screen some of his favorite films from his personal collection, not as a lecture designed to give you a working knowledge of the history of experimental film. If you have the slightest hunger for new sights, you should find something satisfying in this potluck picnic of images.
Pip Chodorov has been making films since he was a child, encouraged by his father, frequent Free Radicals interviewee Stephan Chodorov. Besides making films himself, Stephan worked extensively in television and hosted a series on experimental film. Pip founded a video label to showcase experimental films and has organized film festivals at art galleries, including at the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“You may wonder, as I did, why there are no subtitles for French filmmaker Maurice Lemaître, but it’s interesting just letting the French wash over you, wondering what it means — an experience not unlike that of watching an experimental film.”–Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times (contemporaneous)