I went into Pip Chodorov’s Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film with reserved judgment. He and I have corresponded a couple times over the years and I belonged for years to his own Frameworks listserv, so I am well aware of his predilections and tastes. I could easily have predicted the end of the rear title crawl where he compels the audience “Shoot Film!” and the inclusion of numerous subtle gibes at the commercial film industry.
What I found while watching the film–which, as I’m sure Mr. Chodorov would want me to point out, was projected from Blu-Ray–was that this is a film of incredibly narrow range. Mr. Chodorov rightly changes his film’s subtitle on the title card to “a story of experimental film.” This accurately presents his understanding that no single film could pretend to be a thorough history of experimental film. Mr. Chodorov, deeply aware of this, does not even try. He makes no pretense to being inclusive. Free Radicals is his film about the avant-garde filmmakers with whom he has a personal connection.
He is deeply attached to New York City, where his father Stephan Chodorov worked for years as a writer for CBS’s renown series Camera Three. Consequently, his story of experimental film always winds up in some way back at the Film-Makers’ Co-Operative and Jonas Mekas. This is a pity because the New York version of history has been told more than enough times already, particularly by Jonas Mekas himself, whose column in the Village Voice and whose own magazine Film Culture established him long ago as the loudspeaker of American experimental film.
Mr. Chodorov’s personal connections are certainly not mine. I am a Seattleite and therefore I hold no illusions that New York is the center of the universe. I am well aware that Sidney Peterson and James Broughton were teaching experimental film at California School of Fine Arts well before Jonas Mekas had even emigrated to the United States. I am aware that Canyon Cinema pre-dates the Film-Maker’s Co-operative. My knowledge of avant-garde film’s “history” in the United States is fairly neutral in terms of geography.
But I am not a typical viewer. This fact made me think that one of the problems of the film is that I was never sure to whom the film was supposed to be directed. The glib answer is that he obviously made it for himself, the way Peter Kubelka makes his films for himself. But surely he didn’t assemble an hour and twenty minutes of film he already owns simply to tickle his fancy. I am sure there is an audience in his mind, but I have no idea what it would be. There is a real lack of thesis in the film. Though it has much to show a viewer, it has nothing to prove and little to discuss.
Virtually all his choices of films and filmmakers are chosen from his own RE:VOIR catalog. That is a strength in one sense: rights are sometimes difficult to negotiate, and also the choice reaffirms his personal approach in the sense that these are clearly films he values enough to preserve and distribute. On another level, however, it may well give the illusion the film is something of an advertisement. I do not think it is, but I am less cynical than many.
One can hardly fault the quality of his selection of interviewees. Certainly the official history, such as it is, states that Stan Brakhage is experimental film’s greatest genius (an opinion I happen not to share), and no one who knows anything at all about experimental film will complain about getting to hear Hans Richter, Maurice Lemaître, Robert Breer, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka or Jonas Mekas. Yet the choices themselves strike me as quite provincial and they slight the European contribution to experimental film–something that surprises me greatly. While the film does mention Viking Eggeling and treats Len Lye and Hans Richter quite well, I should have liked to hear more from Lemaître–or to hear at all from Rose Lowder or a score of other European filmmakers I could name.
This strikes me in the piece as a completely missed opportunity. There are many books on avant-garde and experimental film. Notably most of these books concentrate on American film. The traditions of experimental film around the globe remain to be treated deeply by someone with a non-academic interest in a comparative history of ideas. As Mr. Chodorov is currently a Parisian, this seems to me especially odd. I do not think it is entirely germane to criticize the film that Mr. Chodorov did not make rather than the one he did, but the film he did make is strangely limited.
What I also miss in the film is a sense that this experimental film tradition is at all alive. All of his interview subjects are septuagenarian at the least, if they are alive at all. If this is a story of experimental film, the point of the story seems to be that experimental film is dying if not dead. I should like to believe this is not true, and that this is merely a cliché of historians who wish to believe that everything great about humanity is in the past. There are thousands of experimental filmmakers currently working–even in Mr. Chodorov’s beloved medium of silver-based film. At some point, someone should write them into the story of experimental film, too. Experimental film has always smelled funny, but it is not dead.