Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Director Report Card: Terry Zwigoff (1985)
Terry Zwigoff was, for a time, an indie film darling. His misanthropic but deeply funny and insightful films won him a number of followers. In time, those misanthropic qualities would eventually consume him, ending his career prematurely. At least, that's what I think happened. Until then, he made some pretty great comedies, deeply neurotic though they may be. This'll be a short one, you guys, but one that's way overdue.
Terry Zwigoff’s love and interest in American roots and blues music has been apparent all across his career as a filmmaker. It turns out this interest was solidified from the beginning. Zwigoff’s first credit is “Louie Bluie,” a short documentary about overlooked blues musician Howard Armstrong. Though the complete film only runs an hour long, “Louie Bluie” would receive an enthusiastic response from critics, establishing Terry Zwigoff as a promising filmmaker with a distinctive voice all of his own. Unavailable for years, the Criterion Collection would eventually rescue “Louie Bluie” from obscurity, making the film widely available for the first time.
“Louie Bluie” isn’t one of those documentaries with narrators, voice overs, or fancy framing devices. Instead, the film is primarily devoted to its subject telling his stories and playing his music. In the film’s opening minutes, Howard Armstrong explains how he receives his nickname of “Louie Bluie.” From there, he details his history. As a young man, with a talent for playing various string instruments, he played his way through different venues in his Tennessee home town. Louie Bluie would slowly carve out a musical legacy of his own, even if his music rarely reached a wide audience.
Howard Armstrong telling us his history also gives the viewer great insight into the time period he grew up in and the history of the music. “Louie Bluie” does not delve greatly into the racial politics of Armstrong’s childhood. Armstrong seems to take the societal divides of his early life as a given fact. Occasionally, it comes up. Armstrong mentions black and white performers being segregated. He also, in one anecdote, tells about playing for a hostile white audience. He says that, if a black performer played the blues for a white audience, they would’ve been attacked. Otherwise though, Armstrong paints a picture of a culture rich in detail and depth.
Naturally, long stretches of “Louie Bluie” are devoted to musical performances. Watching Armstrong play is electrifying. Howard was in his seventies when “Louie Bluie” was shot but his energy remains plentiful and youthful. While playing the blues with his friends, Armstrong swings the mandolin around, strumming and plucking the strings with an apparent grace and style. A fiddle performance has the musician putting on a show with his bow, impressing the audience with his obvious skill. Throughout his stories, Armstrong explains how he would play for Polish or Italian crowds, singing in their native languages. This talent is shown during a duet with a friend. Another memorable moment is a musical session with “Banjo Ikey” Robinson. “Louie Bluie” makes it clear that its subject was adapt in multiple styles with an electrifying stage presence.
There’s very little structure to “Louie Bluie.” Terry Zwigoff is smart enough to just let the camera roll while Armstrong hangs out with his friends and tells his stories. An early scene has Armstrong sitting in an apartment with some old pals, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and swapping stories about their mutual histories together. He goes on to criticize a friend’s fashion sense. Later in the film, Louie wanders into a shop that sells sun glasses and black light posters. The film concludes with Armstrong and his buddies playing cards and trading tall tales. This gives the viewer a clear understanding of Howard’s flamboyant style. He was a real character and the documentary doesn’t need to do anything more to be compelling then let him talk.
What makes Armstrong an even more fascinating figure is that he wasn’t just a fantastic musician, story teller, and showman. He was also a talented artist, renowned enough to have an exhibition devoted to his paintings and illustrations. Amusingly, he’s dismissive of modern, abstract art, an attitude Zwigoff would carry into his future films. Another entertaining bit has Armstrong attempting to tell a story to a young girl at his art show, who seems ambivalent to his telling. Armstrong’s visual sense was so strong that he turned his signature on a record slip into a work of art, writing his name out as fine calligraphy.
Through his art, Howard provided his thoughts on religion and sex. An extended sequence is devoted to Armstrong showing Icky his Bible of Pornography, a hand-bound volume full of dirty stories, illustrations, and photographs. The book is full of ribald tales, each one linked to a different letter of the alphabet. For example, we hear about a women born with two uterus, birthing a child from each. Or the partner of a philandering wife caught by her husband while he was cooking chitlins. Religion, meanwhile, isn’t something Louie Bluie had much use for. While walking by a church, he launches into a profane tirade about how preachers are the “biggest pimps of all.” Like his music and personality, it’s clear that Armstrong had a strong opinion on just about any subject.
Even this early in his career, it’s apparent that various specific topics fascinated Zwigoff. Aside from the obvious connections to classic blues music, “Louie Bluie” also shows the filmmaker’s interest in outsiders and artists. Despite his obvious skills and talents, Howard Armstrong rarely received the recognition he deserved in his life time. He passed away in 2003, at the ripe age of 94. In 2010, the Criterion Collection would release “Louie Bluie” on DVD, bringing the film and its fascinating subject to a wider audience. Armstrong’s obvious charisma and fascinating stories makes “Louie Bluie” an engrossing, highly entertaining watch, as well as giving us a peak at the origins of American popular music. [Grade: A-]