Radical (And Jewish?) Filmmaking

Film looks at the history of experimental cinema.

07/24/2012
Special to the Jewish Week
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For Pip Chodorov, the link between being an experimental filmmaker and a Jew is surprisingly straightforward. He finds his position as the former — caught between an unresponsive art world and a disdainful film industry — comparable to that of the Jew in the diaspora.

Chodorov, whose delightful film “Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film” opens on Aug. 3, harkens back to period before Emancipation, a time of both oppression and, yet, a certain freedom for the Jews of Europe.

“The Jews were able to travel when nobody else could,” he says. “They governed themselves, they were able to be friends with the royal courts; everybody needed them [as middlemen] and they created their own parallel system.”

The same, he asserts, is true of the experimental film world, which was forced by the dual rejections by the visual arts community and Hollywood and its European equivalents, to create its own distribution networks and cooperatively run film labs and exhibition spaces, “an entire parallel economy,” as he puts it.

Tracing the development of that parallel system is one of the tasks Chodorov takes up quite ably in “Free Radicals,” drawing on the recollections of key players like Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs and Robert Breer, as well as behind-the-scenes workers who make the everyday running of organizations like Filmmakers’ Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives possible.

Chodorov, who moved to Paris 25 years ago, has been involved in many such endeavors, from co-ops like Light Cone to the wonderfully named filmmaker-run processing plant “L’abominable,” and Re:Voir, an invaluable source for tapes, disks and books on the world of film avant-garde.

He almost literally grew up in the world of movies and their creators. His paternal grandfather, Edward Chodorov, and grand-uncle Jerome, were highly successful playwrights who were wooed to Hollywood in the early ’30s, only to be blacklisted in 1947. (Both would return to Broadway, but Edward eventually chose to continue in film, working in Europe with the likes of Sam Spiegel and David Lean.) Pip’s father Steven was the producer and host of a celebrated arts magazine program for television, “Camera Three,” which ran on CBS from 1958 to 1979. He began working on his father’s show in 1964 and stayed on beyond the end, when the show went to PBS for a final year. And one of the central elements in “Camera Three” was the frequent presence of experimental filmmakers and their work.

“He was certainly interested in film,” the youngest Chodorov says of his father. “He would be the first to tell me to hold the camera still! But he didn’t go to Anthology or the Collective for Living Cinema or Fluxus events. A lot of filmmakers came to him.”

Regardless, Pip grew up in a Connecticut house in which movies were almost constantly being viewed — all kinds of movies.

“There was no distinction made, it was all ‘just film,’ whether it was a fiction film, a documentary or an abstract film,” he recalls.

The house, Chodorov says, was uniquely well suited to the task.

“We had a porch with a glass door leading to a long living room, so we had a sort of natural projection booth,” he says with a chuckle. “I learned to thread the projector when I was four. I was scratching on film [as a way of creating images without a camera] when I was 6 or 7. Then I started shooting stuff in 8mm and Super 8.”

Much of his background finds its way into “Free Radicals” by design.

“I wanted the film to represent this dimension of making art through film seen through the point of view of me as a fictional narrator,” Chodorov explains. “The facts are all there. I know all the history, and I’ve read all the books. My goal was to get people to see some of these films on a big movie screen, in 35mm.”

Although there were Americans working in some sort of experimental film almost from the birth of the medium, the real blossoming of an “underground” film community in the United States took place during the Depression, thanks to the influx of a large number of artists, including filmmakers, who were running from the Nazis.

Hans Richter, one of the filmmakers prominently featured in “Free Radicals,” was a Dadaist whose films ranged from pure abstraction to witty vivifications of inanimate objects. He had been beaten up by SA men [the Nazi paramilitary wing] and arrested for showing his films. As he says in the documentary, “The Nazis saw any kind of experimental film as dangerous.” As Chodorov observes over a clip of bowler hats dancing from head to head among a group of seated men, “If objects can rebel, then people can rebel.” Oskar Fischinger and the Czech-Jewish filmmaker Alexander Hammid were among the many others who fled the rising tide of Fascism and anti-Semitism and helped build an experimental film community in New York City.

“There’s another link to Jewish culture as well, although it’s quite subtle,” Chodorov says. “Maurice LeMaitre [born Moshe Bismuth] and Isidor Isou [born Goldstein] and Ken Jacobs are all Jewish filmmakers, and a friend of mine has written an article in which she links them because they each work with found footage, manipulating it, commenting on it. She likens the process to the Talmud, creating a palimpsest of images as the rabbinic sages did with texts.” (Not coincidentally, LeMaitre’s filmography includes a short titled “Ganeden.”)

Chodorov has his own strong Jewish linkage as well. The Chodorov side of the family included a line of famous rabbis, and his maternal grandfather was “a reluctant rabbi, I think,” who, unable to get a secular education in Poland, went to the famous yeshiva in Slobodka. When he came to the United States early in the 20th century, he settled down in North Carolina where he was running a chocolate factory until the local Jews begged him to be their spiritual leader.

“He was happily running his business,” his grandson says, “but they said to him, ‘You went to the Slobodka yeshiva, you can’t just abandon us,’ and he gave in and became a rabbi, too.”

Pip Chodorov, on the other hand, never doubted his own path.

“Experimental film is just the poetry side of fiction film,” he says. “It is attractive to me for the same reason poetry is attractive. And the people are fantastic. They’re the most funny, courageous people I know.”

“Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film,” by Pip Chodorov, runs Aug. 3-9 at Anthology Film Archives (Second Avenue and Second Street). For information, call (212) 505-5181 or go to www.anthologyfilmarchives.org.

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