A documentary on what’s usually called “avant-garde” film, Pip Chodorov’s “Free Radicals” opens with a weirdly solarized, emulsion-cracked or perhaps painted-over high-angle shot of a small boy held by his mother. Is it a clip from Stan Brakhage or maybe Robert Breer? Then the filmmaker’s voice is heard: “These were my home movies until my dog peed on them,” he says. “I thought it looked cool.”
Chodorov, a child of the ‘60s, the grandson of a Hollywood screenwriter and son of an NET documentarian, was born to make “Free Radicals”—named for a work by the scratch-or-paint-on-film pioneer Len Lye that it includes in its entirety. Most simply described, Chodorov’s film (up for a week at Anthology Film Archives) is a montage-film cum oral history celebrating the “great generation” of avant-garde filmmakers now in their 70s or older: Brakhage and Breer (both now deceased), Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, and Jonas Mekas.
The filmmaker narrates and inserts bits of his own films into the mix; he also interviews his father and includes footage of his father’s 40-year-old interviews with Lye, abstract film pioneer Hans Richter and the late animator, video pioneer Stan Vanderbeek, as well as material on two French filmmakers, the Lettriste Isidore Isou and his disciple Maurice Lemaître. Films are sampled and sometimes shown in their entirety. In addition to Lye’s “Free Radicals”, Chodorov includes Lye’s delightful “Rainbow Dance” (a mid ‘30s Gasparcolor ad produced for the British postal service), Breer’s jazzy single-frame animation “Recreation”, and Brakhage’s glorious paint explosion, “Existence is Song”. The result is an infectiously warm and enthusiastic meta personal movie—a personal essay on the history of personal film that’s far superior to other recent clip jobs, notably Chuck Workman’s “Visionaries” .
As history, however, “Free Radicals” is canned, sometimes sloppy, and highly selective. Chodorov is certainly entitled to his heroes (notable Breer, whose interview provides much of the background) and his aesthetic (“ideas come from your tools and material”); he makes it clear that his movie is “only a very small part of the story” and that he has “only scratched the surface.” Still anyone familiar with the Great Generation saga will note the absence of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol and the Kuchar brothers, despite Chodorov’s emphasis on “freedom” and “playfulness,” as well as any filmmaker from California. The so-called structural filmmakers (Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, Paul Sharits) are absent as well, although the mode’s doyen Michal Snow is recruited to make the significant, if unelaborated point, that avant-garde film in the ‘60s and ‘70s was “a very specific scene and surprisingly separate from the art world.”
The idea that these movies might exist in a social matrix is barely suggested. Breer and especially Jacobs have things to say about the inherent difficulties in making avant-garde cinema, Mekas is pleased to put a positive spin on things (there were always patrons, film stock was not unaffordable). Chodorov, who has ample experience as a cine-activist (organizing galleries, cooperative labs, and DVD publications, mainly in Paris) is not entirely convinced. The movie ends by acknowledging the amazing persistence that enables filmmakers to go on with “no funding, no audience, no place to show their art.” Showing the movie at Anthology is more-or-less preaching to the choir; I expect that “Free Radicals” will find its social value as a DVD.