AFI Fest 2010
By Don Simpson | November 27, 2010
Director: Pip Chodorov
Writer(s): Lucy Allwood (co-writer), Pip Chodorov (co-writer)
Starring: Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Pip Chodorov
“I’d like you to meet some of my friends and see their films,” announces filmmaker Pip Chodorov at the beginning of this very personal visual essay on some of the leading figures of 20th century experimental cinema. Chodorov starts with a series of clips from his family’s home movies shot in the 1960s, as well as footage of his own projects shot in the 1970s, to explain his perspective of experimental film. Establishing his tone very early on, Chodorov focuses on the free spirited nature of experimental cinema, as well as the inherent desire for experimental filmmakers to create something new, while shattering any and all preconceived notions about art and cinema.
Part “best of” compilation, Free Radicals features a hodgepodge of seminal experimental cinema shown in clips or in their entirety. Chodorov allots ample time for the films to speak for themselves. (The films that are presented in their entirety include: Len Lye’s Free Radicals and Rainbow Dance, Robert Breer’s Recreation, and Stan Brakhage’s “existence is song”.) But, Free Radicals is also a very “traditional” historical documentary with talking head interviews, compiling archival footage and new interviews with Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Breer and Brakhage. (Chodorov’s documentary also features Andy Warhol, Hans Richter, MM Serra, Maya Deren among others.)
Experimental cinema first emerged in Europe in the 1920s when avant-garde movements in the other visual arts were flourishing — Dadaists and Surrealists took a particular liking to cinema. Their work was often too “artsy” for cinemas yet the celluloid medium was not conducive to art galleries, so experimental filmmakers often found themselves in a no-man’s-land between the art world and the film industry. Mekas played a major role in finding experimental filmmakers a figurative home in the United States by helping create the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and Anthology Film Archive.
Admittedly, I am a little disappointed that Free Radicals is such a traditional documentary. Chodorov clearly wants to keep focused on the task at hand — letting the filmmakers and their work speak for themselves — but in dealing with a subject as, well, experimental as this one, I expected Chodorov to take a much more experimental approach to the documentary form. That complaint aside, the interviews contain a lot of worthwhile content (especially Jacob’s tales of dumpster diving for food and watching a Hollywood film with Brakhage while lying on their backs at the base of the screen) and the footage of the actual experimental films is fantastic to experience on the big screen.