Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film
Directed by Pip Chodorov
Those seeking a thoroughgoing, rigorous historical documentary about the broad subject of avant-garde cinema will have their hopes dashed by Free Radicals, which steals its name from Len Lye's 1979 scratched stock, years-in-the-making animation film. The title is worded carefully—this is not "The" history, but a personable, playful introduction tuned to the specific sensibilities of director Pip Chodorov, himself an experimental filmmaker whose acquaintanceships with some of the living or late titans in the field led to interviews that lend his movie a measure of prestige.
The narrating Chodorov doesn't hesitate to insert himself and his work into the historical timeline, but it's less conceit than a sporting participation with the whimsical, try-anything spirit of his main subjects. His own family's home movies are the first clips we see; their beautiful warping and discoloration are the result of happy accident — his dog urinated on the stock. He thought the effect looked "cool," and this introduction presages the doc's prevalent feeling of good-natured positivity. Chodorov's articulate father Stephan, a legitimate expert on the subject and a writer and producer of documentary television, offers insight into the importance of Stan Vanderbeek, and most of the clips we see of pioneer Hans Richter are from a portrait of the artist Stephan produced in 1973. Pip Chodorov admits the truth that "experimental film is as old as film itself," but he picks as his starting point the work of Richter and fellow German Viking Eggeling, and other European filmmakers who emigrated to America and sought to "destroy" film as an outlet for interbellum malaise and anger.
Chodorov's interview coups include Robert Breer (who died in 2011), Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage, the latter the subject of Chodorov's short “A Visit to Stan Brakhage,” shot in Victoria, British Columbia, just a few months before the artist's death in 2003. Though bedridden, Brakhage is still engineering projects and conceiving visual experiments up until the end. Chodorov sets aside time for full films; he says genially, "let's watch one," before showing Lye's four-minute “Free Radicals.” We also see all of Lye's dazzling “Rainbow Dance” (1936). Commissioned by the British General Post Office and produced using a subtractive three-color process called Gasparcolor, the short is an audiovisual riot that must've dazzled 30s British audiences used to a steady diet of staid black and white.
Chodorov confesses to only "scratching the surface", Lye-like, here, but his movie is both a decent primer and a genial good time. More personal essay than encyclopedia entry, this Free Radicals is no final word, but would a stiff historical record set aside so much time for a nostalgic sit-down beer summit between Jonas Mekas and Peter Kubelka?
Opens August 3 at Anthology Film Archives