Engaging introduction to experimental films

The title is a little grand for its movie: “Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film,” doesn’t live up to its encyclopedic claim, not by half.

But it does provide a cheerful introduction to its subject. Filmmaker Pip Chodorov gives us his own personal history of experimental movies, bolstered by his family history: His father was a documentarist who profiled and interviewed many filmmakers during his career, including a number of the great avant-garde directors of the mid-century.

The movie reaches back farther than that, too. Chodorov cites the short silent-era films of Hans Richter as founding works for experimental movies, and we see an excerpt from one of Richter’s films, which are magical little abstractions with geometric shapes moving around.

At one point Chodorov, who narrates in a disarmingly gee-whiz voice, announces that we should watch one short in its entirety. This is a great idea, and the four-minute film is Len Lye’s “Free Radicals,” from 1958.

A series of white scratches on a black surface that appear uncannily choreographed to a drum soundtrack, Lye’s movie points the way toward future experimental films and also the music video. By watching the whole short film, you get a sense of the power of something sustained like that — and you might even realize that, despite it being avant-garde, you don’t have to worry about what it all means to enjoy it.

Other classic films are excerpted, and we meet figures from the New York scene of the 1960s, including ringleader Jonas Mekas, who helped create a network of like-minded exhibitors for such things around the country.

Chodorov has both vintage interviews with the leading figures from this world (I assume the footage is drawn from this father’s past work) and also newer interviews. One of the latter is a conversation Chodorov had with Stan Brakhage, a large figure in experimental cinema, when Brakhage was ill with cancer.

In a few short moments, Brakhage conveys the nonconformist attitude and sense of poetry that are required of someone who spends his life laboring in the vineyards of non-narrative movies.

Maybe rather than claim this movie as a definitive history — and it’s not — we might simply say that it captures the spirit of moviemakers who insist on going their own non-narrative way. “Free Radicals” does so winningly.

“Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film” (3 stars)

Not really a full or complete account of avant-garde cinema, more like a personal one — filmmaker Pip Chodorov’s father profiled and interviewed a bunch of experimental moviemakers, a resource that is tapped here to good effect. Excerpts from classic non-narrative film fill out this winning look at a nonconformist movement.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Grand Illusion.

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