Portapacks, Public Access and Posterity: Here Come the Videofreex

Here Come the Videofreex

Here Come the Videofreex
Directed by Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin
Opens March 9 at IFC Center

Once upon a time, there was the Portapak. A ray-gun camera wired to a tape deck the size of an overnight bag, the portable(-ish) recorder was brought to market by Sony in 1967, transforming any consumer willing to take the plunge into a home-video auteur—or a correspondent in the culture wars. The new documentary Here Come the Videofreex, directed by Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin, examines the interaction of this new technology with a counterculture that was starting to boil over. The filmmakers focus on one collective in particular: the pioneering Videofreex, formed on the heels of Woodstock, where a couple the group’s founders first came into contact with each other while taping some tune-in, drop-out test footage.

The most extraordinary stranger-than-fiction story told by this movie, which strings together interviews with numerous Videofreex (among them David Cort, Bart Friedman, and Nancy Cain), concerns the loft-dwelling cooperative’s involvement with corporate megalith CBS. A young executive named Don West (interviewed here as well) conscripted the group to report on what he thought was a revolution brewing right under the turned-up noses of the evening-news broadcasts. It was with the backing of the biggest of the Big 3 networks, then, that the New York–based Freex drove an RV halfway across the country to sit down with Abbie Hoffman and Fred Hampton on the eve of the Chicago 8 trial. The Hampton interview would be his last: law enforcement shortly thereafter killed the Black Panther during an overnight raid on his home. Unsurprisingly, CBS didn’t go for the hot-button pilot West presented to them, at which point the Freex went freelance—though they soon found there wasn’t much of a market for the radical reportage that was their bread and butter.

But the footage of women’s-lib rallies, student strikes, and other public happenings only happens to be the first archival treasure trove that Nealon and Raskin mine here. Chasing state arts funding, the Freex packed up and moved to the Catskills, where in 1972 they used their equipment to set up a pirate television channel called Lanesville TV. Here, the collective set about realizing public access in its very purest form: one local-cast sketch shown here imagines the tiny hamlet visited by flying saucers; as excerpted, much of the other programming just seems to involve residents calling in to report on the quality of the reception.

Nealon and Raskin’s documentary, which is more interested in providing a forum for primary footage than in delving too far into the ten members’ curious interpersonal dynamics, goes off the air roughly when Lanesville TV does, in the late 1970s, after the station had logged five years of over-the-air good-fellowship. Videofreex makes the expected arguments that these men and women were ahead of their time, harbingers of a world of millions upon millions of YouTube channels. And yet it’s also hard to imagine such a crowd staying on the same wavelength for so long in our atomized day and age.

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