It began, like so many stories of nostalgia, at Woodstock. David Cort decided to grab his camera and head upstate to document the festival. It was a good idea, though it turned out to be hardly a unique one. Among the other independent cameramen was Parry Teasdale. The two men hit it off and wandered the crowd meeting psychedelic sheep and interviewing medics about the bad ACID. Then, befitting the mood of the late 1960s, Parry and David returned to New York City to gather up their friends and found a video collective.
They called themselves the Videofreex, and their story has now been chronicled in the aptly titled documentary, Here Come the Videofreex. The film, directed by Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin, follows the group from their 1969 beginnings through their gradual dissolution in the mid-1970s. It’s a snapshot of the video boom, a portrait of a very specific time and place that absolutely bursts at the seams with worthy archival material.
All of this was facilitated by the arrival of new video cameras, easy to carry devices that gave the Videofreex the ability to play back the footage immediately. For David, Parry and their colleagues, the first prize device was the CV-2400 Portapak. They took them everywhere and shot everything, whether or not it had political import. Their first big break came when CBS executive Don West hired them to travel the country documenting the youth movement. They got new equipment. They were able to shoot in color. They took their monogrammed bus to communes in California and then to Chicago, where they scored riveting interviews with prominent anarchist Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
Of course, this was all too good to last. CBS executives ended up hating final product, particularly with regard to its political content, and they fired the team without ever airing their work. It’s only thanks to a low-profile heist by the team that Nealon and Raskin are now able to include the best of it in their documentary. A lot of it is quite riveting, and not just the interviews with icons of the Left. At a pro-Vietnam War rally, the Videofreex attempted to interview participants and were met with anger and vitriol. The impression of a socially divided America, often missing from “The Times They Are a-Changin’” montages in documentaries, is felt quite acutely here.
This admirable social and political self-awareness enriches much of the more hopeful moments of the film, as well. Nealon and Raskin emphasize the equal participation of of women in the Videofreex, which was to some extent facilitated by the technology. Because video was so new, men didn’t have any appreciable edge. Everyone was learning together. This community, however short lived, was not wrong to see itself as a model for the future.
Yet it is in the lack of engagement with how the future really turned out that Here Come the Videofreex hits a wall. The collective did eventually disband, but Nealon and Raskin don’t really explore its demise. There is little effort to draw substantive connections between the work of the Videofreex and the later development of the media. A final montage, built from the hip realization that now everyone has a camera, doesn’t dig particularly deep. It feels forced, as if the directors weren’t content to simply showcase their film’s greatest virtue: the joyful, time-capsule quality of its archival footage.
It bears repeating that the Videofreex shot nearly every moment of their lives. Nealon and Raskin show footage of the team editing at home, cooking for each other, screening their work and just getting stoned. The best part of the film comes well after the fight with CBS, when the collective begins to set up a local access TV station in tiny Lanesville, New York. It’s TV for locals and by locals, charming home movies broadcast to a community too mountainous to receive more professional entertainment on their antennas. Here Come the Videofreex is not really a political documentary, in spite of the genuinely fascinating political footage it contains. It is, instead, about something much more humble: the sheer joy of filming, and of being filmed in return.
Here Come the Videofreex opens on March 9th at the IFC Center in New York City, with more cities to follow.