Free Radicals (2010)
Directed by Pip Chodorov
Written by Lucy Allwood and Pip Chodorov
Cinematography by Pip Chodorov and Nicolas Rideau
Starring Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, and Pip Chodorov
Despite ostensibly sharing the same medium as Hollywood movies, experimental film is in many ways more in tune with the visual art world, making the question of its categorization an inquiry into the nature of film as a medium. It seems almost inevitable that the genre would be denied substantial funding both from modern art museums and galleries, and also (least surprisingly) film studios. Many of the subjects of the documentary seem to doubt that experimental film is even a useful term, since it encompasses such a wide variety of methods and styles. I found myself wondering whether the pieces featuring scratched film and drawn geometric shapes could even be considered “film”, since that word is so often used to refer to narrative cinema rather than the basic and essential medium itself. I’m also accustomed to assuming that “films” are shot with some kind of camera, although I’ve certainly been exposed to other methods such as the ones displayed here, in which that is not the case.
I enjoy both animation and abstract art, but my favorite experimental films are usually the ones that are anchored by a “performance”, such as those by Maya Deren. I liked that the documentary included clips of Meshes in the Afternoon alongside the more abstruse non-representational pieces, providing both a broad overview and a succinct history. I had forgotten, somehow, that “experimental” film originated at the birth of film itself, and was suddenly reminded of the old debate in Russia over which style of filmmaking would eventually win out. It seems obvious in hindsight that narrative film would overwhelm Soviet montage, but one can also understand why “experimental film” – which is, in a sense, more intrinsic to the medium – might seem more exciting than an approach rooted in old literary traditions. The documentary certainly adheres to this point of view, and the director’s intimacy with the medium and with his fellow experimental filmmakers makes the excitement contagious. The fact that the documentary culminates with the continued success of the Anthology Film Archives in New York left me optimistic and eager to see work by the next generation of experimental filmmakers.