While I’d pause reluctantly before declaring partnerships between white, nascent aficionado-auteurs and sassily senescent African-American sub-legends as an essential cinematic tradition, there’s enough untapped Freudian subtext and socio-racial allegory in existing collaborations to trigger Leslie “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey” Fielder’s salivation reflex. The achieved dynamic varies between May-ivory/December-ebony duos, of course, but a few qualities are curiously consistent: delicate, under-dramatized tension balancing reverence with a desire to leave the black performer’s inimitable essence untouched; an overall sense of, if not mutual respect, then reciprocal, self-cancelling exploitation that clamors for authoritative dominance; and a subliminal but often monstrous fear of leaking White Man’s Burden-ism.
Aren’t these filmmakers evangelicals after all, proselytizing the ineffable authenticity of “black music”? It’s nearly comical how the best of marginalia-promoting intentions can become soppily, if not terminally, mired in hegemonic molasses. While on the moodily controlled set of Mystery Train, an exasperated Screamin’ Jay Hawkins likened himself to a lit stick of dynamite whose detonation director Jim Jarmusch continually denied. And it’s not simply that Hawkins’s exaggerated antics would have felt gratingly out of place in Jarmusch’s deadpan, post-pop universe; to bottle lightening that fiercely flamboyant would have daubed the sleepily nihilist Memphis milieu with inaccurate shades of minstrel.
Documentaries, of course, are another matter entirely. Without the safety net of fictional lyricism the risks of condescension and hagiographication increase, particularly when subtly shuttling the conception of one’s content between subject and object. Les Blank agilely sidesteps most of these formal prickers by playing Alan Lomax with visuals; the goal isn’t tribute, which often requires engaging with art and needlessly mucking about in it (cf. Buena Vista Social Club), or even portraiture per se, but a studiously enthusiastic first-person account of what can and should be observed in the field.
At first glance, this appears to be Terry Zwigoff’s compromise as well. A character study of Tennessee string-man and folk-painter Howard William Taft Armstrong, Louie Bluie reeks like a raw, throbbing, true-blue wound of art-life representation. The interviews are so infectiously colloquial and the musical performances so impromptu and ramshackle that one marvels at the unabashed realism of it all: There’s enough bum bass notes and ribald poetry to lap up for days. And yet creeping at the corners are just-barely perceptible intrusions of punctilious artifice; Zwigoff was forced, for example, to invent a facsimile of Armstrong’s apartment in a warehouse after the Detroit housing project denied him production access. And there are a few putatively slick editing techniques that reveal Zwigoff’s inchoate cinematic skills: He cross fades from a blissfully sibilant 78 recording of “State Street Rag” to Armstrong and rhythm guitarist Ted Bogan picking the tune out on the former’s couch with a creaky, stop-start cadence, and in a jarringly different key.
So, Zwigoff may not treat his inspiration as a national park to be preserved without incongruous intervention, but his autodidacticism and (literally) go-for-broke gumption rewardingly mirror that of Armstrong, who played mandolin and fiddle in family bands from near-toddlerhood up to old-time Chicago-based revivals in the ‘70s without achieving anything further than a modest cult audience. Zwigoff’s implied response to accusations of exploitation is an innocent fascination, and identification, with idiosyncratic methods of self-expression, an obsession he explores with casual, albeit sharply defined, strokes.
Avoiding the pettiness of Errol Morris’s early career idiomatic freakshows, Zwigoff somehow manages to fashion his films into thickly veiled personal essays virtually devoid of explicit confession. The nearest thing to an embarrassing predilection we can glean in Louie Bluie comes when we hear Zwigoff requesting, from behind the camera, to hear the outcome of Armstrong’s inadvertent exposing of Bogan’s unlucky romance triangle by way of mis-mailed love letters. Or, perhaps, the fact that both Armstrong and Robert Crumb, the subject of Zwigoff’s next project, have a taste for sketching lascivious, fetishistic scenarios that render oddly interpreted spiritual motifs with shiny, plewd-faced, limp-dicked men and confidently fat-bottomed girls.
Armstrong, on the other hand, offers up what constitutes a rhythmic oral memoir in swatches interspersed throughout the movie, often pulling out a stuffed sketchbook to illustrate his discursive thoughts and remembrances with completed drawings and watercolors—most of which appear earthily, almost shamanically, handmade, with tribal, cartoonish faces and numinously near-neon landscapes. Even when the film’s value as a musical history lesson is called into question (it is, in essence, a day in the lives of instrumentalists far past their prime and into untrustworthy dotage), Armstrong’s belligerently fresh-pressed, beret-topped personality thrusts it firmly back into indispensability.
His thoughts on modern art (commonplace garbage, in so many words), religion (“A preacher ain’t nuthin’ but a legalized pimp”), and, most relevantly, death (referred to in Armstrong’s notebook as “The Greatest Pimp of All!”) suggest a rare fusion of African transcendentalist hoo-doo and contemporary punk apathy, a philosophy that informs a fixation on whimsically human humiliation. One can’t help but feel the director of outsider manifestos such as Ghost World and Bad Santa nodding in time to the hint of alienation in a bawdy verse about a woodpecker who “pecked until his pecker got sore,” which earned a grade school-age Armstrong a fatherly whipping.
It’s also depressingly apparent, every time that antique teardrop mandolin is madly twirled, that Louie Bluie and his one-foot-in-the-grave companions—Bogan, “Banjo” Robinson, and “Yank” Rachell among them—lost their most accomplished musicianship to the dustbin of history without the convenience of a document-enforcing record contract, and even the grumpy, Crumb-like purism on display sells short the incalculable impact of the black string and jug band styles. Armstrong scoldingly lectures an audience member on early American proto-genres after being asked to play “B.B. King music” (e.g., more modern Delta blues rather than Dick Justice and Cannon Jug Stomper-type tunes); he then goes on to unknowingly expose how the stocky muscle of forced mandolin dyads influenced blues licks from Led Belly to Eric Clapton.
But when Zwigoff closes in on Armstrong’s fiddle to capture a plume of exhausted dust escape from the heated bridge, we’re grateful to have this much—to catch glimpses of how those indescribably jubilant stage shows of the ‘30s and ‘40s must have felt to those fortunate enough to be packed like soul-seeking sardines into tiny African American-run tent-theaters. Zwigoff’s nimble extraction of extant talent here is nearly as inspired as his showmanship: After these 60 minutes with Armstrong, we want to rise to our feet and loudly demand an encore with an entreaty of stomps, claps, and whistles.
I was one of a handful of Terry Zwigoff fans who clucked and rolled my eyes at this puny, one-off, non-high-def release. After all, couldn't this have quite easily been a supplement on the Crumb Blu-ray? (That, however, would have required a Zwigoff-centric rather than Robert Crumb-oriented mission statement for that issue.) Either way, I was taken aback by the sheer warmth of this disc, which occasionally seems hand-drawn in the same triumphantly asymmetrical watercolors and pen markings of Armstrong's best visual pieces. There's a soft wash of aging red throughout, possibly a result of the film's meager budget, but it enhances the striking sable of the performers' skin and the wooden tones of their brittle, prewar instruments. Naturally the sound is just as crucial here, and while there's only so much digital restoration possible with a mono track (again, though, one wonders how it would have fared uncompressed), the warm-up throat clearings, overzealous fret snaps, and percussive mandolin pizzicato fills all come through clearer than on the CD soundtrack. Those stride-influenced bass runs and jazz-tinged, melody-maintaining guitar chords groan with jellyroll timbre.
Of most interest here is the half-hour of unused footage, though in its unedited state, it lacks the conscious musicality of the film's subject-skipping format. There's great footage of extra songs, however—some of them, interestingly, released on the soundtrack in the '80s—and a few bonus interviews with high quality anecdotes for those who simply can't get enough Armstrong. Zwigoff's grumbly, baritone commentary is full of production testimony and descriptions of how the project came together, as well as specific delineations of the film's unique aesthetic (he describes, for example, how showing Armstrong's "ABC's of Pornography" graphic novel was intended to reverse the white-washing of blues culture, claiming that "When Blind Lemon Jefferson talks about the black snake moan, he's not talking about a reptile"). There's also a stills gallery with high-res captures of Armstrong's art that I'll likely be using for desktop icons before the week is out, and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Srawgow.
Criterion has done three demographics a service by releasing Louie Bluie: Zwigoff completists can finally sigh with relief, fans of old-time string bands can leap for joy, and abecedarians can learn that U is for Uterus.