Friday, August 03, 2012

Free Radicals: the Shaggy Avant-Garde

They have contempt for your bourgeoisie aesthetics and crass box office concerns.  They are experimental, non-narrative filmmakers and Pip Chodorov knows them well.  After all, he is one of them.  Yet, he takes a more traditional approach singing his colleagues praises in his documentary survey, Free Radicals: a History of Experimental Films (trailer here), which opens today at the Anthology Film Archives, New York’s home for avant-garde cinema.

As viewers see in the opening segment, even Chodorov’s family home movies were experimental.  His father Stephan was the long time host of one of the few broadcast television showcases for experimental film.  Not surprisingly, the son did not grow up to be a stockbroker.  Those family connections clearly came in handy when Chodorov assembled Radicals.  Indeed, most of his talking head sequences were interviews either he or his father had previously filmed.

Fortunately, this includes movement luminaries, such as Peter Kubelka, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Len Lye, and Mr. Anthology himself, Jonas Mekas.  However, this also means a figure like Maya Deren gets relatively short shrift (and no love for Shirley Clarke).  Still, Chodorov hits most of the bases and shows plenty of representative clips.

Essentially, Chodorov acknowledges the persistently limited audience for the films and filmmakers he champions.  Indeed, experimental film makes jazz look like a booming mass market commodity.  Yet, he never really makes a case on behalf of the experimental ethos.  These films are important because they simply are so.  After all, they are the water he has been swimming in, nearly all his life.

Granted, anyone should be able to appreciate some of the more striking images created by avant-garde filmmakers.  Shrewdly, Chodorov uses the geometric shapes of Hans Richter’s easily accessible Rhythmus 21 as a thin-edge-of-the-wedge introduction to non-narrative filmmaking.  He also trenchantly explains the financial and professional challenges facing such filmmakers, as the only visual artists without institutionalized gallery support.  Nevertheless, Radicals never really tries to win converts to the experimental cause, preferring to address the choir instead.

Radicals is a reasonably informative overview of avant-garde cinema that moves along at a healthy pace.  To Chodorov’s credit, he largely avoids the political diatribes that have contributed to the movement’s marginalization (except of course, Ken Jacobs’ interview segments, which should surprise no one).  Nonetheless, there is an inescapable shallowness to his collection of greatest non-hits and personal reminisces.  (For a more engaging and inclusive look at the genre, keep an eye out for Chuck Workman’s Visionaries.)  A film for the faithful, Free Radicals opens tonight (8/3) at AFA, with a special live performance by Black Lake, who composed the film’s soundtrack, during the 7:00 screening.