Experimental film does have quite a history, but you wouldn’t know that from watching Pip Chodorov’s small-scale, undernourished doc about avant-garde moviemaking from the silent era to the present. Chodorov’s the right guy to sing this movement’s praises; in the ’60s and ’70s, the director’s father—documentarian Stephan Chodorov—interviewed numerous pioneers from Hans Richter and Len Lye to Robert Breer and Peter Kubelka, many of whom became family friends and helped to shape the younger man’s artistic aspirations.
Free Radicals often feels like a reunion video—a mix of both recent and archival footage—in which these elder statesmen of the underground hold court with boundless joviality (Jonas Mekas) or world-weary cynicism (Ken Jacobs) about their métier. They’re the dotty old uncles to Chodorov fils’s awestruck whippersnapper. The director’s admiration is infectious up to a point, and he is to be commended for letting several of the movies discussed play out in full (the Len Lye short that gives the doc its name is a road-to-Damascus text for avant-garde neophytes if ever there was one). Yet the haphazardness of the film’s structure mutes the power of the subjects’ recollections. There are simply too many obvious condensations and omissions in the course of the meager 82-minute running time (the late, great Stan Brakhage is a mere footnote in this history), to the point that the movement’s overall importance is diminished rather than fortified.
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