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Originally published Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 3:00 PM

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‘Free Radicals’ explores the history of experimental film

In the new documentary “Free Radicals,” the son of an experimental filmmaker traces the history of that medium.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

“Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film,” a documentary by Pip Chodorov. 82 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.

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“In this film I’d like you to meet my friends and see their films,” says director Pip Chodorov, in early voice-over for his documentary, “Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Films.” It’s a disarming moment of breezy informality, setting the stage for a pleasant ramble through little-known cinematic territory.

Chodorov, whose father, Stephan Chodorov, also is featured in the film, is a longtime experimental filmmaker who founded the first gallery dedicated to that art form (The Film Gallery, in Paris). The younger Chodorov is our laid-back guide for this history lesson, beginning with the first abstract films following World War I. Included are the blocky black-and-white shapes of Hans Richter’s early work; the leaping scratches of Len Lye’s “Free Radicals” (made without a camera, by scratching images directly onto film strips); the Magritte-ish floating hats of Richter’s “Ghosts Before Breakfast”; the dreamlike “Meshes of the Afternoon” by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid; a sudden symphony of color by Stan Brakhage, who describes his films as poems; and work by Chodorov himself: home movies recklessly splashed with purples and reds, as if the people within are walking through a watercolor painting.

For the most part, the films speak for themselves, but the filmmakers provide intriguing background. (You may wonder, as I did, why there are no subtitles for French filmmaker Maurice Lemaître, but it’s interesting just letting the French wash over you, wondering what it means — an experience not unlike that of watching an experimental film.) We’re left with an appreciation for those who toil in an art form that exists somewhere between commercial film and visual art, and who use film as the floor on which their imaginations dance. Chodorov ends his brief film with a quick, dazzling montage of images; one of which — a man slowly walking through water, against the current — describes his art more vividly than words ever could.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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