A few weeks before Mardi Gras in 1975, The Eunice News informed readers in the circulation area it called “the heart of Acadiana” that “a new breed of television journalists” had come to town to cover the holiday.
They were from a California-based group called TVTV that had been founded in the early 1970s by Michael Shamberg. Shamberg was part of a loose-knit movement of artists and filmmakers who wrote about the power of videotape and portable cameras with near reverence. Their philosophy was similar to how more recent media idealists have embraced live streaming, digital distribution, and citizen journalism as a way to circulate information without the biases of the mainstream media. In a boisterous book called Guerrilla Television that explicitly called on readers to use video to tell their own stories on their own terms, Shamberg wrote: “Thus, people can control information about themselves rather than surrender that power to outsiders… ABC, CBS and NBC do not swim like fish among the people. They watch from the beach and thus see just the surface of the water.”
These new media early adopters embraced the Sony Portapak and other portable videotape cameras that, as a 1972 issue of the publication Video Tools pointed out, cost about $1,500. That meant anyone “who can afford a new car can afford his own recording, store and playback system” with individual tapes produced for under $15. While a camera as costly as a Chevrolet was obviously out of reach for many, they were still extraordinarily cheap compared to traditional television equipment—particularly if shared between multiple people—and they were significantly easier to transport and use. “In place of a machine weighing hundreds of pounds and requiring special power lines, all you need now is standard house current which will let you use the twenty-one pound system anywhere, independent of external power,” Shamberg wrote. “And instead of a mystique of technological expertise clouding the operation of the system, all you have to do is look at a tiny TV screen inside the camera which shows exactly what will be recorded, and then press a button.”
Unlike traditional movie film, which had to be developed at costs that could run into the thousands of dollars for a few minutes of footage, videotape could be played back essentially instantaneously, which at the time felt revolutionary. “To see that played back is probably not too different from the first time someone ever looked into a mirror,” said Paul Goldsmith, a member of TVTV.
TVTV gained national attention covering the 1972 presidential nominating conventions. As media historian Deirdre Boyle recounts in her book Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited, the collective produced—with funding from cable companies and some foundation backing—first the documentary The World’s Largest TV Studio about the Democratic convention, then Four More Years, a look at the Republican convention that nominated Richard Nixon for his second term. Similar to the New Journalists then making waves in print, the members of TVTV were willing to editorialize and let themselves become part of the story.
In The Eunice News, members of TVTV offered praise for “the warmth and friendliness” of the community and the “very evolved” Cajun culture. They spoke of a desire to “let people speak for themselves” and suggested an effort to include a broad swath of the community. The “women on the team are anxious to portray the women’s point of view,” The Eunice News reported, seeking invitations to local kitchens. The group also worked with high school students to include the younger generation’s perspective. The documentarians even offered a local tip line that readers could call with information about potential items to include in their planned one-hour program. “In their desire to do the best job possible, they are trying to remain open to ideas while they work here,” according to the article.
The documentary they ultimately produced, The Good Times Are Killing Me, flits between Cajun music performances and Mardi Gras preparations and celebrations. The movie takes its title from a saying associated with accordionist Nathan Abshire, the closest person the documentary has to a central character. There are extensive scenes of his performances, with strikingly close-up footage of his facial features as he plays his instrument. Abshire and his family speak candidly about his childhood, his struggles with alcoholism, and his fears around his son, who had gotten in trouble with the law (which is captured in the documentary). At one point, Abshire begins to cry, concerned about the young man, while he’s comforted by family and friends.
Between scenes of Abshire, the movie captures the Mardi Gras celebration, with the TVTV video cameras zooming in on the wildest parts of the festival and jumping from scene to scene with little context. A man, seemingly drunk, falls from a horse. Chickens are caught by Mardi Gras riders and slaughtered outside. “Get drunk and have fun and dance,” one participant tells the camera. “Get chickens. That’s the meaning of Mardi Gras.” Off camera, one of the filmmakers teases a man who says he doesn’t participate or particularly enjoy getting drunk and into trouble, telling him, “You don’t sound like a Cajun.”
The documentary also captures some of the preparations for Mardi Gras, showing local resident Louis Landreneau as he dons a female nurse’s uniform for a costume. Women in the community are shown at a local beauty parlor, cracking jokes that seem racy for the day.
With no narration and only a few on-screen titles, the film’s subjects do largely speak for themselves. But with hours of footage reduced to less than 60 minutes of screen time, the filmmakers’ choice of what to include still heavily shapes how the community is ultimately portrayed. And when the documentary—commissioned by New York public television station WNET—aired on PBS stations around the country a few months later, it was denounced by newspapers across Acadiana as exploitative. The Lafayette Advertiser declared it a “false, slanderous, completely erroneous distortion of the entire Acadian people and their culture.” A July 1975 resolution in the state legislature called on Congress, President Gerald Ford, and the Federal Communications Commission to investigate how such a production could have been backed by federally-subsidized PBS.
“The fallout from the documentary in Mamou and Basile was palpable,” said Barry Jean Ancelet, a Cajun folklorist and University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor emeritus who used the film as a “cautionary tale” in his classes. “I mean, there was a sadness.” How did a group of idealistic documentary filmmakers that sought to immerse themselves and take input from the community end up alienating so many in the place they aimed to cover?
Goldsmith, who spent time in Louisiana while growing up, joined TVTV and pitched the idea of making what would become The Good Times Are Killing Me after working as a cinematographer for a French film shot in Cajun country. “We’d gone there and done a film documentary, and they were very inexperienced,” he said of the European filmmakers. “They didn’t know what they were doing, but they introduced me to the people and the area, and I thought it deserved a better film.”
Goldsmith and others from the group rented out fishing cabins in the area and sought to cover the music, culture, and Mardi Gras celebrations in towns like Eunice, Basile, and Mamou. The women in the crew, Wendy Appel and Suzanne Tedesco, visited the beauty parlor, taping there as women came in to get their hair done and socialize.
“If the men went to the bars, women went to beauty parlors,” said Goldsmith of the community. National critics remarked favorably at the time at the novelty of covering women’s candid discussions in a beauty parlor, something Goldsmith attributes to the opportunities the new medium of videotape gave to women artists. “It wasn’t like the women were facing old guys, old white guys, who said, ‘Honey, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, you know, sit back and learn from me or something,’” he said. “That didn’t exist.”
That’s perhaps an exaggeration: Boyle’s book recounts early video movement meetups where women were encouraged to serve tea and snacks, then surrender their seats to their male colleagues if space ran tight. “The contributions of women were usually overshadowed by the preening declarations of their outspoken male peers,” she wrote. “Alternative video was no different in its sexual politics than most Leftist organizations of the era, and the women’s movement was a reaction to just such paternalism.”
The beauty parlor footage would also prove to be one of the most controversial aspects of the documentary. Women in the establishment are captured speaking in a mix of (oddly unsubtitled) French and English, telling raunchy jokes, seemingly unfazed by the presence of the relatively unobtrusive video camera and microphone. One joke focused on a housewife reassuring a deliveryman that she’s had her aggressive dog fixed, with the punchline, “I wasn’t afraid he was going to [bleep] me, I was afraid he was going to bite me.” Another joke involved douching.
Ancelet, who spoke to some of the women featured in the footage, said they were led to believe it wouldn’t be included in the finished movie and were mortified to find it aired on national television. “So that was this blatant misrepresentation and… at one point, one of the women who was talking about some problematic things says, ‘I hope my husband doesn’t see this,’” he said. “Her husband did see it, and it caused a terrible problem. And what do the filmmakers care? They don’t give a damn. They’re gone.”
Other scenes, too, captured what seemed to be genuine moments, but often with little context and an emphasis on the lurid: drunk parade-goers, young people outlining the game meats they eat, and chickens being slaughtered by spinning around their bodies until their necks break. The documentary makers seem to deliberately provide little in the way of explanation, with no narration, perhaps in the interest of immersion. But that gives viewers little help to understand and contextualize what’s happening on screen.
“You know, there were lots of people in that community who could have given pithy interviews about what the nature and meaning and strategies of Mardi Gras are,” Ancelet said. “And they didn’t include any of that. They didn’t set it up—they didn’t provide any context.”
In particular, Landreneau is shown donning his gender-bending outfit—not a particularly unusual sight for Mardi Gras—with the help of his mother, but no explanation is given that it’s for Carnival. The documentarians left it to viewers, who would have been mostly unfamiliar with a holiday seldom filmed until that point, to figure out it was a Mardi Gras costume. Landreneau used to speak to Ancelet’s classes about the portrayal, which left him angry for decades to come.
“Looking back, I’m sorry that we did as much about the cross-dressing kid who wants to be the nurse,” said Goldsmith. “You know, that just seemed sort of amazing that it was so brazen in the culture and we thought that was really interesting. But in a way that’s a minor story and I wished we’d focused more on the music and stuff.”
Some musicians portrayed in the documentary, including Abshire, similarly felt taken advantage of and embarrassed, Ancelet said. Goldsmith still recalls his subject fondly, however: “Nathan Abshire was just an extraordinary character… He transmits his warmth and his vitality, which is what you want out of a performer, whether they’re an actor or whatever. There are people who are great musicians… you hear the music, but you don’t get much from the person. Nathan was just a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful character.”
National critics at the time expressed admiration for Abshire—and the filmmakers who got him on tape—reported Boyle, but others found his depiction exploitative. “Abshire emerged as a likable, hardy Acadian with the sturdiness and simplicity of his long-ago forebears,” according to the Advertiser editorial. “Yet, the film was condescending in the treatment of this fine musician and displayed a total lack of feeling in exploiting his private troubles and idiosyncrasies.”
Even among Louisianans, condemnation of the documentary wasn’t universal. “The plain truth, unadorned and unexpurgated by wishful censors, is that the part of Cajun life documented for TV last night was filled with pathos, the joy of celebrating, typical vulgarity (unless the bearer pretends to be bilingually deaf), and reality,” wrote an editorial in The Crowley Post-Signal. “To call the documentary debasing and unrepresentative is the mark of haughtiness and convenient forgetfulness.”
But to many local critics, it was typical of a tendency of media from out of the area to stereotype Cajun people as poor, wild, and backward, perhaps as shown by the filmmaker telling a Cajun interview subject he doesn’t sound like a Cajun because he’s not a heavy drinker. The Advertiser wrote of a contemporaneous United Press International story that called football and cockfighting the most important aspects of life in the region’s culture, and a Wall Street Journal article that claimed “Cajun men prefer crawfish to women.”
Not all aspects of Cajun pride impugned by the movie were equally innocent: A title shown early on describes Cajuns, descended from French settlers expelled by the British from Canada, as having intermarried with Black and indigenous people. The Advertiser lamented that it would leave viewers with the impression “whites and blacks freely intermarry.” An Associated Press story at the time also reported that James Domengeaux, then head of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, similarly decried that “false, base and gross slander” and pointed out that intermarriage had only recently become legal.
The documentary also raised questions of how filmmakers, especially armed with novel technology like 1970s videotape, could adequately ensure informed consent from their subjects, who might belatedly realize they’re more comfortable around filmmakers they’ve come to know than they are on a national stage. “I think some of it was maybe innocence and naïveté on the part of the participants and the documentary makers because they enjoyed their time with these people,” said Boyle in an interview. “They felt it was honest and true. But you know, I don’t know if America was ready to see all of that.”
For his part, Goldsmith says he’s without question still glad the group made the documentary, emphasizing the ability of the media to “capture history” on video. The documentary emphasizes how the Cajun culture was, in the filmmakers’ eyes, “in danger of being lost” as younger people in the community adopted new customs.
“And then when that history is gone, if the media hasn’t done it, in a way it kind of doesn’t exist, you know?” said Goldsmith, who has more recently directed several movies about indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere. “And so at least we were there and we did it. You can hear that music, you can see Nathan Abshire, the Balfa brothers. It’s better than if it wasn’t done at all. And you know, that, I think, is inarguable.”
Naturally, another way to preserve those kinds of moments is for people to make their own videos about themselves and their communities, in line with the original idealism of the ‘70s video movement. “I think we’re going to see more remarkable films coming from people who are absolutely in the midst of the world that they’re doing, whether it’s the occasion, Mardi Gras or you know, something else,” said Goldsmith. “But they’re not professional filmmakers necessarily or outsiders or journalists or intellectuals or whatever. There are people right at the heart of the story who can record it with their phone.”
It’s been a strategy embraced by some in Acadiana, Ancelet said. “Movies back a long time ago were expensive and required a lot of financial commitment and a lot of training,” he said. “But some people from here went to school and learned how to make movies and films and documentaries and started launching a few and some of them have been pretty good.”
While video cameras, editing tools, and distribution platforms are now truly widely available, and the era of the broadcast network triopoly on television has long passed, it’s hard not to feel that the challenges of the Vietnam Era—corporate control and state manipulation of information—haven’t just managed to reappear in new forms.
“We have the opposite problem of, yes there’s so much out there on the internet but how are people, how are groups, how are moneyed interests, political interests, able to hire enough programmers or manipulate that information,” said Elizabeth Coffman, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago who has written about that era. “These are the same kinds of moments of political urgency that the early guerrilla video artists faced, only now we have a different set of rules.”
Yet Coffman, a documentary filmmaker herself, said she still finds hope in the activism she sees in her own students and other young people, including some exploring their own generation’s newly democratized tools, whether using online platforms like YouTube and TikTok or physical equipment like projectors that can display activist messages on buildings. What future generations will think of their work remains to be seen.
To view The Good Times Are Killing Me in its entirety, visit mediaburn.org/video/the-good-times-are-killing-me-3.
illustrations Happy Burbeck