A lot of things were still new in 1969. Rock festivals and consumer video, to name two. At the storied Woodstock Music and Art Festival in Bethel, New York, a few young souls were combining the two, using their new-fangled cameras to record what even then felt like a historic event. (Breakfast in bed for 300,000, anyone?)
Their innovative energy drew the attention of a CBS network executive who thought he'd discovered sometthing new and great – which he had, and he and the group that became the Videofreex worked on developing a proposal for CBS for months. It must have felt like an amazing break to the young artists, diligently training their lenses on Truth. It got Don West fired in disgrace.
Undaunted, the Freex kept the cameras rolling for ten more years, moving to Lanesville and starting an indie TV station there. Now, a Catskills couple, Jenny Raskin and Jon Nealon, are mining those incredibly rich archives to make “Here Come the Videofreex.”
Watershed Post: So the whole Videofreex thing was born at Woodstock, like that famous baby?
Jon Nealon: Yep, born at Woodstock. And in a lot of ways the story we hope to tell follows the trajectory of the counterculture from there. I hope the tapes will illuminate what really happened. I find the whole story inspiring and interesting and funny. It comes out of a time before everything got so monetized. What they were doing had nothing to do with money or fame – it was about art and love. It resonates, it inspires me. Too often in mass media and pop culture, the essence gets trivialized and the trivial gets emphasized – I hope our film will show how far they were from that. They made a lot of tapes, of a lot of things – what they did and how they did it was fascinating.
WP: And a man named Don West tried to get them onto CBS and lost his job.
JN: He wanted to create a revolutionary looking program that better reflected what was really going on in the street. There was quite a gap between what was on TV and what was on the street. He met the Freex in autumn of '69 and what they had was certainly different. Portable video that you could shoot and play right back was just coming out. Today, we're immune to that moment, but at the time it was pretty wild.
And the Freex had a very loose, exploratory approach. A couple hippies walking around with video cameras are naturally going to get something very different than an official NBC truck...By the end of Don West's efforts to bring them on at NBC, quite a few NBC people had turned into Videofreex, and everybody got canned. But to the Freex, that was just the beginning. They'd become a collective. They stayed together and shot the early women's movement, the Black Panthers, some crazy art happening where an artist shut down an entire block in Soho and people were having sex on the street, throwing blood out of windows.
WP: So, can we blame reality TV on them?
JN: I don't think so! There was nothing snarky about anything they did. Especially the Lanesville tapes – there's a huge tone of love and respect. There's humor, there's irony, but not a moment of disrespect between these unassuming locals and the Videofreex. And there was, again, no celebrity or money involved, just pure joy and an interesting feedback loop with the people of Lanesville – many of whom are still there and remember them.
WP: How did they get to Lanesville anyway?
JN: They'd been doing screenings at a Soho loft and they were actually starting to draw attention – they got a blip in The New Yorker's Talk of the Town section. As things developed, they wanted to live collectively, and it was also easier to get some of the grant funding that was available for arts in the seventies in a county where there weren't a lot of other applications coming in.
WP: So you're digging through the archives...
JN: There are all these tapes in obsolete formats that we've gathered to restore and save; way out stuff. Right now we're working on strategy. Some of the tapes need to be put in a low oven, others need to be frozen...it's chemistry, and we're using the Kickstarter funds toward the restoration.
The tapes have labels – some are descriptive, others are more cryptic. We go to the Freex and say, “What the...?” There are some real gems – Shirley Clarke and Arthur C. Clarke at a party on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel using a hand-held laser – they were unheard of back then but Arthur had one – and playing with pedestrians like you do a cat. There was a tape labeled “Aunt Betty's Birthday Party” that turned out to feature Lena Horne and Cy Coleman. You might expect the label to say something about Lena Horne – but no, it was Nancy's aunt Betty's birthday party. So we have tons of tapes and very little idea...we have to invest the money and time before we know what's on that particular time capsule.
Our Kickstarter drive is over. It was successful and we're very grateful. If anyone would still like to donate, we'd love it, of course. It's tax deductible, and we'll figure out some kind of neat reward for you, promise!