Pip Chodorov’s “Free Radicals” offers a particularly personal take on the history of experimental cinema — the director grew up knowing several of the genre’s leading lights as family friends. Admittedly far from a definitive survey, this account may irk some with its major omissions and the narration’s gee-whiz feel. But film buffs will enjoy the copious clips included, while some educational outlets and artscasters may find its first-person approach more viewer-friendly than a conventional neutral one would have been.
His mother a painter and father a TV producer who showcased avant-garde artists on a U.S. public-television program in the ’70s, when such things were possible, their homemovies were of the experimental, or at least playful, kind. After a few glimpses at Pip’s own filmic efforts over the decades, he exclaims, “In this film, I’d like you to meet my friends and see their films! Let’s watch one!” introducing Len Lye’s original 1959 scratched-on-filmstock, bongo-scored “Free Radicals.” Our helmer-guide’s high adolescent yelp and choices of phrase may strike some as highly affected for a 46-year-old man. But most will get past that to enjoy the often rare vintage footage on display.
Chodorov sketches experimental cinema’s early decades, noting that much came as a reaction to the unprecedented horrors of WWI. An influx of artists fleeing Europe before, during and after WWII had a great impact on America’s then less-developed filmic avant-garde. Among those immigrant artists was Hans Richter, whose 1920s German abstractions had been banned by the Nazis in their crackdown on “degenerate” modern art, and who became a neighbor of Stephan Chodorov, interviewed in 1973 at age 85. (We also see Richter, Peggy Guggenheim and Marcel Duchamp frolicking on a neighborhood lawn in 1956.)
Wandering idiosyncratically, though smartly edited, the docu basically turns into an appreciation of those filmmakers whom Chodorov Jr. was privileged to know as he grew up and explored his own fascination with the medium. They’re a heady bunch: Ken Jacobs, Robert Breer, Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, among others. Chodorov shot cancer-stricken Brakhage’s final interview, poignantly followed by an excerpt of much of 1987’s ravishing painted-on-film “The Dante Quartet.”
Shown entirely is Lye’s 1936 animation “Rainbow Dance,” a color experiment and one of the rare films here to have gotten mainstream theatrical distribution — fully funded by his then-employer the British Postal Service. An interesting emphasis is on how impossible it was for most leading experimental filmmakers to make any money from their art.
Even as Mekas’ Village Voice column was stirring great interest in film, the galleries and museums that supported other visual arts remained indifferent to this less ideally collectible medium. Jacobs recalls a low point when he was literally reduced to eating garbage to survive. He and other filmmakers eventually rallied by creating their own distribution networks and other institutional frameworks — like Anthology Film Archives.
Pic is very New York-centric, largely ignoring West Coast contributors — or female, gay and other key filmmakers; even Andy Warhol barely merits a mention here. At the end, the helmer confesses, “We’ve only seen a very small part of the story,” pleading his docu is (as the title underlines) just one take. Still, the history “Free Radicals” does encompass is rich in flavorful rediscovery. Archival footage is primarily high grade; a 35mm transfer is planned.