Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film: Home Movie, Meet Avant-Garde History

There are two movies struggling against each other in this affectionate, intimate documentary by Pip Chodorov. One is the titular subject: underground and avant-garde filmmakers from the '20s through the '70s, stopping short of video and never mentioning YouTube. The other is Chodorov's youth, allowed to run wild by artist/hippie parents in the '60s and '70s, chronicled by wonderful home movies. Some of this color footage has a marvelously mottled and decayed quality, the image broken into multicolored tiles. The family dog peed on the storage box, Chodorov explains. "I thought it looked cool."

Cool also was his father, Stephen Chodorov, who explains how he once hosted a TV show that showcased the likes of Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka. These artists were apparently also friends of the Chodorov family, and most of the interviews in Free Radicals appear to have been culled from the non-dog-pee boxes in the basement. None are recent, all are friendly, and they form less a timeline than a series of random, nostalgic recollections of the good old American avant-garde. An experimental filmmaker himself (who shows us his darkroom), Pip Chodorov is a deferential student to his elders—maybe too much so. He treats everyone like his favorite uncle, allowing them to kvetch about never making a living but never considering why, until Warhol, experimental film "was surprisingly separate from the art world" (in the words of Michael Snow). And while indulging the ageless, irrepressible Jonas Mekas (who founded Anthology Film Archives in New York), young Chodorov never analyzes why that downtown scene faded in the '80s.

Still the clips here are a treat, including Len Lye's kinetic direct animation Free Radicals (the image scratched directly onto film stock that never passed through a camera). When we see, in 1973, Stan VanDerBeek creating primitive computer animation as a resident artist at MIT, we recognize it as the symbolic birth of Pixar. Again, Chodorov's love for the old ways, and the old medium, blinds him to this connection. (Note: A separate program of avant-garde shorts will be screened at 7 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 24.)

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