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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Filmmaking > Independent > Shorts > Experimental > Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2012/Kino Lorber DVD)

Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2012/Kino Lorber DVD)


Picture: B     Sound: B     Extras: D     Film: B



It’s an impossible task to tackle the entirety of experimental film in 82 minutes, the runtime of Pip Chodorov’s documentary Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film.  Experimental film has so many guises – art film, avant-garde, the underground, and on and on – and so many personalities – Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Maya Deren, Peter Kubelka, Stan Brakhage, and on and on – that it would require 82 films of 82 minutes a piece to do the subject anything close to justice.


With that said, it’s important to make clear that Free Radicals has no aspiration to be a definitive document on a subsection of film that many mainstream viewers have little to no experience with.  Rather, Chodorov crafts his film as a sort of guidebook to the major landmarks of the avant-garde film.  We spend some time with this filmmaker and that, ruminating on film while taking no more than a cursory glance at another.  For newcomers to film, this approach will do fine, but for anyone familiar with the avant-garde, this can be both exhilarating and maddening.


On the one hand, Chodorov allows his film to be taken over at points by the films he’s documenting.  For example, near the start of Free Radicals, we’re treated to the original Free Radicals, a four-minute extraterrestrial animated film set to tribal drumming, directed by Len Lye in 1958.  This seminal work, created by scratching directly onto the emulsion, is something like a big bang in Chodorov’s film.  Other filmmakers had been tweaking cinema and experimenting with form and function before Free Radicals, but Lye’s willingness to marry abstract expressionism with cinema through utter minimalism was revelatory.  From it came a new form of cinematic possibility, seized upon most notably by Brakhage.


Giving up four minutes of an 82-minute runtime to watching someone else’s film could be interpreted as laziness, even dishonesty.  Not so here.  It’s important for us to see this film in total:  It provides a frame of reference for Chodorov’s excellent biographical sketch of Lye and for other filmmakers’ discussion of Lye’s film’s impact on them, while also allowing the film to work its magic on us.  Lye’s Free Radicals is readily available on YouTube, but seeing it in the context of Chodorov’s film, where it feels as immediate and relevant now as it did more than 50 years ago, is the superior experience.


Chodorov presents a couple other works in this manner, but most others are given a kind of highlight-reel treatment.  That’s understandable, given the constraints of his film.  What’s more frustrating, though, is the imbalance in how much time the documentary spends with one filmmaker versus another.  Chodorov rightly lavishes a great amount of attention on Hans Richter, perhaps the first experimental filmmaker as we understand the term, as well as on Mekas, the person most responsible for allowing avant-garde and underground film to develop in America to the point that it bred what we now term independent cinema.  Yet when we get to Brakhage, one of the undisputed heavyweights of the experimental film, only five minutes is dedicated to his life and work (and a little more than a minute of that is his beautiful film existence is song).  Granted, there are plenty of other places to go for insight into Brakhage (Criterion’s two volumes of his work are undeniably the place to start).  But I can’t help feel that, in the context of this film, a few more minutes about who Brakhage was and why he was important would be helpful to viewers – especially those who have never seen any of Brakhage’s major works (like Dog Star Man).


Ultimately, it feels like the amount of time spent on this filmmaker or that came down to what and who was accessible.  Chodorov uses a fair amount of archival footage, which is fantastic when it comes to hearing from Richter or Stan Vanderbeek.  The rest of the film is made up of contemporary interviews with Mekas, Jacobs, Kubelka, and a few others.  If nothing else, Free Radicals is an important film because it captures these artists’ stories and insights while they can still share them.  But at times it feels like too much of the film is crafted around these personalities – the guidebook given over to a few charismatic tour guides.  That’s only partly a complaint.  You could do much, much worse than having Mekas and Kubelka walking you through the history of experimental film.  Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Chodorov needs to ditch the hero worship and exercise a bit more editorial control.


All that said, though, the whole is more than its parts.  When Free Radicals ends, you walk away with a solid foundation in experimental film. It can be a bit of a soft sell on the genre, but Chodorov is deft in sowing the seeds of curiosity in a vibrant, all-too-often maligned style of filmmaking.  He hits all the important films and highlights the most important artists to give viewers a functional understanding of the contours and structure of the avant-garde cinema – and a hunger to dive deeper into it.



A documentary like Free Radicals isn’t going to stretch the capabilities of your home theater.  In fact, if I were to guess, I’d bet Chodorov expects this film to be seen on basic home setups, laptops, and classroom projectors.


With that in mind, the 16 X 9/1.78 X 1 anamorphic presentation is excellent, jumping between formats (8mm, 16mm, video) and color and black-and-white without compromising quality. The footage shot by Chodorov, as you would expect, looks great, but so does the archival footage and short films that are run in their entirety. Similarly, the sound, while only stereo, manages the various pieces that comprise the film well. There are very few instances of clicks and hissing on old footage, but the levels on some of the archival footage could be higher and there are a few moments in the contemporary footage where background noise is a little louder than it should be.


Those are trivial, though, when compared to the extras on the disc.  There are none.  If anything, some extra interview footage or shorts highlighted in the documentary presented as stand-alone films would have been great.  Even some sort of text-based primer on experimental film would be welcome.  But alas.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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