Docs About Movies 1: “Free Radicals”

Paleo Retiree writes:

Sick and housebound with a cold/flu/something-or-other, I’ve been passing the time with a lot of doc-watching via Netflix Instant. Weird the way that illness makes me lose my appetite for fiction films. Why should that be? Is it as simple as the fact that projecting into fiction (the whole effort of making believe, caring about made-up characters and situations, etc.) takes more energy than watching films about real people and real events? In any event, docs have been suiting my low-energy state just fine.

And what an amazing era in docs we’re living through. Film era-style greatness may be in short supply but there’s such an abundance of perfectly-fine-to-pretty-darned-good docs out there, and on such a range of subjects, that someone with a taste for facts presented in movie form can feel like he’s died and gone to heaven.

For no particular reason I’ve wound up watching not just a bunch of docs, but a bunch of docs about movies. Docs about movies, in fact, have seemed to me to be one of the liveliest of movie genres since the 1990s. But I’m suspicious of my hunch; it corresponds a little too closely to the fact that the ’90s were when I began losing interest in new movies. So I won’t try to make too much of it, although I’d be interested in hearing from visitors if they think it’s true too. Anyway, I’ll riff through these films in separate postings. First up:


Free Radicals

Personal-essay style doc from 2011 about the avant-garde film years, though mostly focusing on the ’50s through the ’70s and mostly covering American artists. The names of the artists really bring back a couple of eras: Stan Brakhage, Hans Richter, Robert Breer, Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Stan Vanderbeek … Though it makes no attempt to be comprehensive, the film still manages to sketch in some of the movement’s outlines, its in-person visits are enjoyably informal, and it provides numerous samples of footage that are fun to watch. Pip Chodorov, the film’s director, is a second-generation filmmaker himself; his dad, who provides guidance and yarns, is Stephan Chodorov. Pip is a light-voiced hippie type, and he brings an insider’s perspective as well as a lot of boyish admiration and enthusiasm to his picture. It’s all presented with a lot of familiar “this is an avant-garde film” quirks — super-8 style scratchiness, multiple exposures, end-of-the-roll color-flashes … Are these mannerisms annoying or nostalgic? At this point they seem harmless to me. They constitute their own peculiar language — why quarrel with it?

The Question Lady loved avant-garde films back in the ’70s; she took them as the ultimate in personal filmmaking. I enjoyed some of the movies at the time but I was mainly into feature films and I disliked the strident claims that were made on behalf of avant-garde work. So revisiting the artists and their work now was a nice experience for me. The artists have all mellowed with time; I have too, of course. They’re mostly in a looking-back-ruefully stage of life. Motivated by passion and heedless of practical concerns, they spent their creative years doing crazy experimental things. They achieved some of the effects they were aiming for, and even if they’re still alive and active they now qualify as survivors, like it or not. They recall — with a lot of melancholy/bittersweet smiles and shrugs — how they dreamed of changing the world, how impossible their material lives were, how difficult it was for them to pay the bills, and how small their audiences were. It’s good to see that the passions that drove them still burn, if a little less frenziedly. For myself, I now watch their work and find myself thinking, “Bless ’em, they were up to crazy shit, and why the hell not?” It’s just a different game they were playing, not a better or a worse one. Plus: More of us should pursue a few of our passions heedless of practical concerns, you know? If maybe not with quite such life-wrecking determination …

My main beef with the movie was that I could have used a few more reflections about the situation today. After all, what with computers, the kinds of things that these people were producing is now not just easily accessible but omnipresent. (This doesn’t hold true for Brakhage, who in a lot of his work was fascinated by the specific physical and optical characteristics of celluloid and emulsion.) The visual world we inhabit today and largely take for granted — our digital media world of whirling graphics, abstract effects, and music videos — is as avant-garde as can be, and was anticipated by the avant-gardists much more than by feature filmmakers. What do they think of that? Do they feel responsible for it? Would it have come about without their pioneering? They really had to kill themselves to create their little works. Do they look at modern computers, which make the same effects relatively easy to achieve, with envy? And what do they make of the fact that so much of our media life these days is avant-garde? Has the revolution many of them were anticipating and rooting for come to pass after all? I’d have loved to hear their reflections and reactions.

All that said, I enjoyed the film thoroughly. Pip Chodorov keeps his picture quick and appreciative, his own style and presence are very likable, and the filmmakers (fwiw: aside from Maya Deren, they’re all guys) are excellent company.

Next I’ll yak about “Big Joy,” a doc about the San Francisco filmmaker and poet James Broughton.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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5 Responses to Docs About Movies 1: “Free Radicals”

  1. agnostic says:

    “After all, what with computers, the kinds of things that these people were producing is now not just easily accessible but omnipresent.”

    Avant-garde is conceptual, and its appeal is magic tricks — “Wow, how did they do that split screen / superimposition effect?” Once you know the conceptual trick, it’s not as cool. And once computers can do it, it’s gimmicky.

    Then you take a look at something visceral like The Parallax View or Blue Velvet. There’s very little in the way of technical tricks, which is not to deny their craftsmanship. But what makes those movies so visually striking is their style, something that is not a series or collection of discrete tricks, but a quality that runs throughout. Off-centered or toppling-over compositions, chiaroscuro lighting, contrast between human-scale actors and gigantic scale architecture or nature, blocking deep perspective by throwing large claustrophobic planes in the way, and so on and so forth.

    Those decisions cannot be articulated like “Here’s how you execute a multiple exposure.” What’s the answer to the question, “How did you envision that?” They came from a gut intuition, or some subconscious layer of the mind. They therefore cannot be duplicated by a computer algorithm.

    Thus, in aiming to tickle the brain, the avant-gardists ensured their eclipse by the ultimate brain-ticklers — computers. Commercial movies that aimed instead at the viewer’s gut do not feel obsolete, but are just as arresting for audiences that see them for the first time today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tend to feel similarly — that it’s a bit of a mug’s game for an artist to concern himself in a very pure way with formal and abstract issues. For one thing, it’s hard for 99% of audiences to get on board. For another: if/when you do achieve something distinctive and/or resonant, commercial forces will rip it off instantly and then do it a lot more slickly than you were ever able to do it. And I do think it’s a legitimate question: Did the sacrifices and efforts of the avant-gardists really make the current world possible? I mean, maybe it was going to happen anyway. If so: then what was the point? Just self-amusement and self-expression? (Which is fine, of course. But that’s not the case that gets made for this work.) All that said, watching the doc made me feel fonder of these guys and this scene than I used to be. And I really, really like the idea that movies (or movie-ish things) that are worth watching don’t have to be huge industrial-scale undertakings, but can be made by individuals, or by small groups of friends. I’d love to live in a world where people are as likely to communicate with and entertain each other via movies/video as they are via the written word. But we have that now with YouTube, don’t we?


  2. Pingback: Docs About Movies 2: “Big Joy” | Uncouth Reflections

  3. Pingback: Docs About Movies 3: “Pablo” | Uncouth Reflections

  4. Pingback: Docs About Movies 4: “Side By Side” | Uncouth Reflections

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