Review: Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2011)
From David N. Butterworth@21:1/5 to All on Sun Nov 13 10:14:01 2016
FREE RADICALS: A HISTORY OF EXPERIMENTAL FILM (2011)
A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2016 David N. Butterworth
*** (out of ****)
More an appetite-whetting introduction than the grandiose "history" to
which it lays claim, Pip Chodorov's playful "Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film" is a flickering foray into a cinematic world created
outside of the mainstream by crossover artists--painters, sculptors,
writers. The films, often short form and occasionally strikingly animated, challenge audiences to reassess cinematic norms. As a form of criticism or political protest, the filmmakers reshape and retool convention, freely and radically.
My first exposure to experimental film (aka structuralist, abstract, vanguard, alternative, non-narrative, avant-garde, underground, or
materialist) was in art college in the early '80s by way of Michael Snow's much-lauded "Wavelength." A simple film in terms of its execution (an attenuated, forty-five-minute zoom from a wide shot of a loft to a close-up
of a photo of waves on the wall), "Wavelength" sold me on the art form and colored much of my filmic thinking thereafter.
"Meshes of the Afternoon" (Maya Deren), "Dog Star Man" (Stan
Brakhage), "Notes on the Circus" (Jonas Mekas), "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" (Ken Jacobs), "Castro Street" (Bruce Baillie), "Jamestown Baloos" (Robert Breer), "A Movie" (Bruce Conner), and (spoiler alert!) "Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc." (George
Landow)--I couldn't get enough of these manic creations. I even managed to inspect a rare (projected!) screening of Snow's four-and-a-half-hour masturbatory opus, "'Rameau's Nephew' by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen"--no mean feat and not one for the faint hearted.
For every influential artist spotlighted in "Free Radicals," however, there are as many again missing from the equation, most notably Hollis Frampton, Kenneth Anger, Paul Sharits, and Jack Smith. The film serves as
a worthy baptism for those unacquainted with the genre but may be less fulfilling for the pre-converted eager for more.
Director Chodorov's father Stephan worked in the television industry, producing an art series that provided his son unprecedented access to many
of the signature experimentalists of their day (1960s New York being mostly
the time and the place). The young Pip would subsequently secure rare interviews with such luminaries as Hans Richter and Peter Kubelka, along
with Mekas, Snow, Breer, and Brakhage (in his last "public" appearance).
"Free Radicals" is a loving if scattershot tribute to a smattering of these unique filmmakers who left--or in Len Lye's case scratched--their indelible mark on celluloid. Several films, such as Lye's colorful "Rainbow Dance" (1936) and his namesake "Free Radicals" from 1958, are included in their entirety.
Given the documentary's scope and relatively short running time (82 minutes), Chodorov could have been more inclusive, excising most of the home-movie footage in which he prominently appears. More formidable narration--I'm imagining a Kevin Spacey type--rather than Pip squeaking "In this film I'd like you to meet my friends and see their films," would have
lent the project more weight.
That said, this chaotic, cathartic mish-mash offers much by way of exposure, a vibrant, rhythmic pastiche of eye-popping visuals laced
throughout with expert witness accounts and wrapped, in my particular case,
in an aching sense of nostalgia.