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Documentary on Freddy's prompts reflection on a unique Brooklyn place

It was a little like a wake, the first showing Wednesday of the compelling new documentary (Freddy's) on the now-closed Freddy's Bar & Backroom, a chance for some of the regulars and staff to remember a unique Brooklyn place, a product of a particular time and place, Prospect Heights preceding and riding a wave of gentrification.

And like some wakes, it was a mix of remembrance and release and raucousness, with some knowing, hearty laughs punctuating certain scenes, responses that likely wouldn't be elicited from a mostly civilian audience.

"Freddy's was a hub of wonderful people, musicians and lovely weirdos," director Vicente Rodriguez Ortega observes (as cited in Found in Brooklyn). "I only managed to scratch the surface what it was, what it is, what it will be because in many ways it's timeless."

As one regular says, "It's a precious cultural meeting place--and there's alcohol."

Freddy's, an authentic place, lasted less than 15 years.

First impressions

On Wednesday, everyone seemed to like the film a lot, but everyone also had an opinion about how to improve it, to make it accessible for a broader audience in New York and beyond.

The biggest flaw, in my mind, was the decision not to identify (via titles on screen) any of the characters.

Yes, we learn the names of several of the major figures, but the film, based on footage shot during the month of May 2009, seems a little insular. That was the result of an effort by Manager Donald O'Finn to ensure that no one in the still-operating bar would get busted in case of some errant late-night smoking.

Now Freddy's is history (though an attempt to reopen at a new location is ongoing). On Wednesday, O'Finn suggested that a revision of the film might be enhanced with a little more details.

(The film will be screened tonight at 6 pm in Williamsburg, as part of the Brooklyn International Film Festival.)

AY in focus

While significant attention is paid to the role of Freddy's in the Atlantic Yards controversy, the film--because of the timing of the shoot--actually omits some of the more recent elements.

Missing, for example, is footage of the media-friendly installation of (never-to-be-used) chains behind the bar. Nor do we see the packed houses at the closing weekend of April 30 and May 1.

They'd be good to incorporate in an updated version of the film, perhaps in trade for a few minutes of some regulars' musings.

Much music

The soundtrack comes from the plethora of bands that played at Freddy's, in the no-cover Backroom.

Much of the footage is not actually from the Backroom. Several musical performers whose work punctuates the film wind up performing for the camera, often outside.

(That's John Pinamonti at right in the screenshot. "I can't be whoever I want to be in Manhattan, but I can be whoever I want to be in Brooklyn," he says at one point.)

And the film is ultimately much more about the bar--and the bartenders/regulars--than the Backroom.

Several people in the film smoke, but there's a missed opportunity to describe how Freddy's handled Mayor Bloomberg's smoking ban. It created more of an outdoor culture, I'd say, as well as an outlaw one.

Setting the scene

Among the memorable characters we meet is beetle-browed, gravel-voiced Matt Kuhn (left), the bartender, who, along with O'Finn, probably gets the most screen time.

The bar patrons are a range of ages, scruffy, bohemian, some of them great raconteurs, some of them buzzed.

Most are white, less hipsters than hipsterish outsiders. There are a few black bohemians--including bartender Bleu Liverpool, a fire artist. There's some layer of a working-class vibe, but not a big one.

(There's one scene with a goateed, working-class Hispanic guy, Izzy, who describes visits to the bar as "a little therapy." After the showing Wednesday, a regular identified him to me as a longtime neighborhood resident, representative of old-time Dean Street.)

The bearded, leonine O'Finn, a video artist, is filmed imaginatively, with an overlay of some of his quirky videos, repurposing old television.

He's a mix of both matter-of-fact and wry, summing up Freddy's: "It's just sort of a story of people that are a little bit on the outside, or the fringe of things, that they're constantly being displaced. And it's what happens when you don't have a lot of money, being displaced by the people who do have money, because they like what you did with the neighborhood, so they come in and take it away and then they end up destroying it. They take it because they like what you did, and then they destroy what you did, because they don't know what they're doing."

Some history

Former bartender and Dean Street resident David Sheets, a man of authentic gravity, gives the history of the bar, once the clubhouse for workers at the Spalding factory up the block, then a pub and grill called Henderson’s, then a cop bar operated by retiring cop Freddy Chadderton.

"He bought the bar, with this whole cadre of guys from the precinct, and this became their hangout," recounts Sheets (below). "And you've got all these guys who are armed and drinking. This place became notorious for being avoided."

O'Finn remembers being asked to watch guns by various officers, who wanted to make sure they wouldn't be tempted to use their firearms.

One regular says it was "a tremendous stroke of fortune" for Frank Yost, who had just bought the bar, when a whole bunch of people who were regulars at the Fifth Avenue bar O'Connor's got kicked out and moved up to Freddy's.

They mixed not so successfully with the cops.

What did O'Finn do? Sheets tells the story with a chuckle: he painted "their living room pink." O'Finn replaced Van Halen on the jukebox with opera, Tom Waits, Nick Cave.

And it was never supposed to be called Freddy's, but the name stuck before they could rename it. In the beginning, some patrons even had fundraisers for the bar. People were afraid to visit the area.

Kuhn recalls, in his emphatic voice, that "the crew used to be Lee, Alan, Johnny Seatcovers, and Dirk. Out of those four, three are dead now."

Telling the stories

Musician Roger Paz (right), a member of the Spunk Lads and other groups, is a great raconteur (though, as I was told, not a completely reliable one).

He recounts that the bar's pool table "got ruined by wear and tear and vigorous fucking."

And he tells an elaborate story about how his friend, who came in on a summer night with a bikini top under her blouse, removed said blouse and cajoled the rest of the women at the bar to take their tops off--and then to threaten to put them on if the guys didn't take their shirts off.

"For almost two months, every Monday, we had naked Monday," he recalls.

Judging the graffiti

"When you first walk into a bar, you're not given a lot of time," O'Finn explains. "I judge a bar by the bartender, the quality of the music, is it smart, is it stupid, is it pop?... One of the other things I judge a bar on is the graffiti in the bathroom, what are the customers like? The graffiti in the bathroom will tell you right away."

Opera--a much-lauded feature of Freddy's--plays in the background as the camera pans across some graffiti, in another very nice piece of composition. You can see above how "marriage is the death of fun" became "your marriage" and "funk."

Remembering Lee

There are buzzed and silly people in the film--it's a bar--and some self-indulgent stories.

But there's affectionate and respectful--but hardly worshipful--remembrance of Lee Houston, an older black man from a different Prospect Heights, a jazz musician, teacher, and "phenomenal ball-buster."

At right is his ballcap covering a portrait. "Along with any number of people, I miss him tremendously," Sheets says in his flinty way. "Everyone has their histories, everyone has their background and their experiences, and some people are more interesting than others. He was very much one of the interesting ones."

O'Finn recalls how, on Martin Luther King Day, Houston wouldn't talk to any white people but explain, via a note, that "I'm not talking to any white motherfuckers on Martin Luther King day."

Sheets, after recalling the communal gathering in honor of Houston, states plainly: "Lee was Lee. He was quite someone. And I miss him very much."

Running the bar

O'Finn explains that, while "we're very finicky about who we hire, they're also given a lot of leeway." Kuhn says "you can set the tone and the mood, as you see fit."

The pensive Liverpool (right) reflects: " I just don't like it when people use it as a playground for their vices... I don't like seeing hard drunks in there, I don't think they should have a place, really, and.... [she rethinks it] But not, that's not true, I don't mind, I don't care. God, I love Bukowski like any other person, and I do call people in there Bukowski-esque. I think we run under the philosophy of Charles Bukowski, definitely. I mean, he's on the goddamn wall."

Like any other person? (She's a fire artist.) Well, not all the people who'll be going to the Barclays Center.

Some staffers themselves are said to have epic drinkers. A regular tells a story about Kuhn, having had a few too many, throwing fireworks in the intersection, getting arrested by the cops, and, after being handcuffed, released quickly after entertaining the cops at the precinct with his jokes.

"Uncle Donald"

O'Finn, with his television work and "weirdo art" decorating the bar, gets credit for the bar's appearance and for living the "artist's lifestyle" to the hilt, consuming alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes, all "kind of done to extreme."

He explains how he began "getting old campy movies, and editing them so you'd just see the best of the worst parts... I basically look at it as like the dreams a television would have. I like to imagine some television in a dark, dingy old television repair shop, that's sitting on a forgotten shelf... the television for some reason becomes sentient... and all it knows is all this culture that had gone through it."

To video producer Steve deSeve, O'Finn uses film as paint, as raw material. "I view this as a battle between Donald O'Finn and Bruce Ratner," deSeve says, seguing into the final part of the film. "A guy who's so pure... I see you, I take you, I make you into art... versus, like Bruce Ratner, I see you, I take you, I make you into money in my pocket.

"Bumbling Along" and the trailer

Steve Espinola's anti-folk song "Bumbling Along," playing as we see a montage of people and (often silly) performers, serves as both the film's trailer and the bridge to the Atlantic Yards segment.

"As the truthbenders dismember your plans, perhaps you remember that they don't understand," goes the sing-song lyric, followed by Espinola's spoken-word shpritz: "The ones who are trying to destroy my multicultural neighborhood so they could build a basketball stadium and skyscrapers. They are efficient, they are organized and sometimes murderously effective, but they are ethically short-circuited and spiritually adrift... [back to the song] But they don't know what's going on, even they are bumbling along."

AY background

Musician and activist Scott Turner (right) describes the history of the Atlantic Yards project and fight. Freddy's, he explains, serves as a meeting place, a staging area for rallies and walkathons, and a home for benefit concerts ("Frank and Donald have been really open about allowing opposition to come in to use it," he says.)--and as a plaintiff in the lawsuits.

O'Finn explains how the bar operators unsuccessfully tried to buy the building.

One regular, however, laments--and this was in May 2009, when the fate of the project and lawsuits was still unknown--that Freddy's has turned into a sideshow and "the fight's over, we lose, money wins... I mean, it's awesome for people who are bartending, they make a lot of money because people want to see the hip bar in Prospect Heights that's getting knocked down, it's like a skeleton, it's going to die, like everything else, it's New York. They break it down, and they build it up."

The bigger picture

O'Finn talks about the larger battle against eminent domain, that "we might lose the battle, but hopefully we won't lose the war." Turner talks about how "Freddy's is a part of New York City that's really being wiped away by the Bloomberg administration, by people who think like Bloomberg does, which is bigger is better, newer is better, corporate is better."

He and Paz (singing in his fake British accent, as a Spunk Lad) do an acoustic version of a punk ode to Freddy's, two versions--one filmed inside the bar, one outside--flowed into each other.

One musician offers a thoughtful reflection: "What I think of as the folk process of art, where there's a human connection between performer and audience. Sometimes playing with strangers... sometimes playing with friends, but you haven't rehearsed... and that's folk music... it's how culture stays alive... it's fine if you get famous, and play to the adoring masses.. that's a passive thing for people."

In the neighborhood

Sheets, pictured reading a newspaper at the bar is stark and declarative: "I lived almost all my adult life here. I was born and raised in suburbia, where everyone has their own fence and backyard. nobody sits out on front porch and front stoop. Nobody walks around. You get in the car and go to the mall. I didn't want that. When I moved to New York as a very young man--I'm not an investment banker, I'm not an actor, I'm not a musician, I didn't move here with any career goal."

(Remember, Freddy's stopped serving beer from the Brooklyn Brewery after the owners allied themselves with the AY project.)

He speaks over a montage of Freddy's scenes: "I simply wanted to live in an old city neighborhood, in a neighborhood where there was community. And I think people kind of overlook--I mean, think of it, we're not cats, people are intensely--they're very social and very communal, they need that interaction on a lot of levels, but at home and on your block is very much one of those levels. And yeah, that's what this place means to me. And it's another reason why... it so angers me that when folks elsewhere who have a great deal of sway just make the assumption that there's nothing's here. Oh no, there are lots of things here, some of them are invaluable, they're not measurable. They're very important. What does this place mean to me? It's like a community focal point, it's where neighbors cross paths, all the time. And unfortunately people who live in a lot of other places, they don't have that. They might wave occasionally, but that's about it. But here people actually get to know each other, and like each other."

A "public experience"

As the film closes, O'Finn reflects on the "sort of odd funhouse" of the bar. "It's a visual experience, as well as an auditory one. I just think it's a really unique place. It's a piece of art. I always sort of thought of it as like a social art chunk, a little public experiment." He starts to choke up slightly. "I don't know. It's a great place, though."

And the film then fades. On Wednesday, when O'Finn said the awkward phrase "social art chunk," that got a lot of laughs from the audience, so some of the poignancy was lost.

Saying goodbye

The film is dedicated to the staff. The final credits say "Freddy's was extirpated by eminent domain abuse on April 30th, 2010" and, incorrectly, that the site will be a parking lot for the Nets arena. (Actually, it'll be temporary open space and/or an entrance or new tower.)

As the credits roll, we hear the Spunk Lads singing, "This is what/hypocrisy looks like/this is what/democracy looks like."


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