I’ve always found it amazing that Terry Zwigoff’s esoteric brand of filmmaking managed to crack the mainstream. While films like Bad Santa and Ghost World might not be blockbusters, they’re definitely a bit more palatable to general audiences than his quirky documentary roots. In my opinion, Crumb remains his best work but Louie Bluie is surely a close second, marking a strong feature film debut.
The film is an hour-long portrait of country blues and string band musician Howard “Louis Bluie” Armstrong. Not unlike Zwigoff’s follow-up feature Crumb, this film divides its screen time by giving the viewer a bit of a history lesson on country blues music while still maintaing a solid in-the-moment character profile of Armstrong’s modern lifestyle. Much of the film is spent reminiscing about the good ol’ days as Armstrong reconnects with old friends for some on-camera jam sessions. At times the film seems as though its leaning towards some sort of comment on the less-than-glamorous lifestyles led by these once-were-heroes musicians, suggesting they’ve been swallowed up and made irrelevant by modern living. They spend much of the film hanging out in a sparse, white walled living room eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and plucking away at their instruments. In the end, Zwigoff never really commits to perspective. Instead, the lives of these men are celebrated — along with the history behind the music they created — and we learn that there are still enough nooks and crannies within society (there’s a great scene of Armstrong participating in a jam session inside an old barn) for them to exist comfortably and still indulge in the things they love about life: music and art.
One surprising aspect of Louie Bluie — to someone who’d never seen the film or heard of the subject — was Armstrong’s interest in art. At the start of the film, he describes himself as a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, juggling his interests in music, art and poetry. The music seems to be his most obvious achievement, but after watching his friends thumb through some of his sketch books, it’s clear that Louie Bluie’s abilities as a visual artist are just as formidable. Oddly enough, the colourful comic-book style drawings are reminiscent of the work of Robert Crumb, planting the thematic seeds for Zwigoff’s future filmography. Probably his most impressive piece of work is a giant book he constructed titled ‘The ABC’s of Pornography’ which contained page upon page of handwritten stories (sometimes using different coloured markers to write each sentence) and curvaceous drawings of beautiful women, confirming the Crumb connection. Like Charles — brother of Robert — Crumb’s books of unintelligible tiny writing, it takes a certain brand of dedication (or obsession) to create a work of such detail. It would be pretty amazing to experience Armstrong’s ‘The ABC’s of Pornography’ first hand. Something tells me his perspectives on women and sex are probably quite interesting and probably hilarious.
Like most of Zwigoff’s work, Louie Bluie contains a cynical overtone in its depiction of the modern American lifestyle. He’s drawn to characters that are of a different time, constantly measuring and comparing the convenience of the digital world against the more comfortable and familiar analog past. This is most evident in the music itself. While some artists might feel the urge to progress, it seems as though the universe in which Zwigoff inhabits insists upon an antiquated authenticity in the output of its musicians. The second they try to modernize their sound or retroactively update their classics, the purists take offence. I suppose this is best summarized by the obsessive record collecting on display throughout most of his films: the ultimate argument for ‘old is better’ (I’m also reminded of the scene in Crumb where Robert turns the colour down on the TV insisting the black and white looks better). There’s a great moment in Louie Bluie when an avid record collector hands over one of his precious 78s for Howard to autograph. The second he gingerly passes the disc along to the musicians, you watch as these guys man-handle this artifact as though they’re completely unaware of its value. I can only imagine the conundrum faced by the owner, watching his most prized record on the verge of being dropped by the very people responsible for the music it contains.
Howard also takes some time to share his feelings on art. In one scene, we follow him into the heart of Chicago as he visits Picasso’s famous untitled steel sculpture in Daley Plaza. “I’d hate to wake up anywhere and see that. A whole lotta money, a big bunch of bullshit went down the drain.” The scene is immediately followed by a gallery exhibition of Armstrong’s own work. Interestingly, Zwigoff focuses on a discussion between Howard and a little girl about his childhood in which he would have to pull hairs out of a cat’s tail to make his brushes and use the running ink off of a wet newspaper for his paint. It’s the ultimate rendition of the classic ‘when I was a kid, I had to walk 30 miles in the snow to get to school’ story. This child should be thankful for the ease with which she can purchase a variety of colours and brushes from her modern, fancy art stores. Interestingly, we don’t hear too much critical or professional commentary on Armstrong’s artwork. While I’d be curious to see how he might react to an art critic analyzing his work, it’s refreshing to view his pieces through the eyes of his friends and himself.
As I watch Louie Bluie I find myself caught up in a sense nostalgia, not unlike the characters in the film. In a time when the documentary film has been relegated to the more cost-effective and broadcaster friendly digital shooting formats, it’s refreshing to watch something that’s shot on film. I suppose the good ol’ days of the 16mm or 35mm documentary are behind us and it’s time to embrace the future of non-fiction filmmaking. While it might be socially and mentally detrimental to remain continually fixed on your affection for the past, it’s certainly fun to revisit the ‘simpler times’ through the eyes of Terry Zwigoff and his cast of eccentric characters. — Jay