Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film


“Hollywood takes 90 minutes, and I take 52 frames,” says Vienna-born filmmaker Peter Kubelka, discussing a scene of abandonment in his 1957 Adebar, summarizing the effect of extreme distillation in avant-garde filmmaking, where poverty encourages resourcefulness. Kubelka is one of the interviewees in Pip Chodorov’s effervescent documentary Free Radicals, which aspires to no less a feat of compression than surveying, in 80 minutes, 10 decades of the filmmaking practice that has variously been described as experimental, nonnarrative, underground, etc. . . . Whatever the name, it’s cinema practiced outside the dictates of profit motive, a sacrifice that allows it to be fiercely personal. Chodorov follows the first-person tradition accordingly, entering the subject through his own early immersion in these films via his father, television presenter Stephan Chodorov. Among the many pioneers who braved privation so that future music-video directors could grow rich, Chodorov focuses on Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, and Len Lye, whose 1958 work of scratched-directly-on-film animation gives Free Radicals its title, and whose delightful early color 1936 short Rainbow Dance plays in full. Also of particular note is Chodorov the Elder’s footage of collage filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek animating with high technology c. 1972 in the architecture room of MIT while prophesying the coming age of computer graphics, a moment that encapsulates the most charming aspect of this history lesson: an enthusiastic faith in the future.

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