|Jan/Feb 2008 Reviews & Interviews|
The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press.
Wayne Ewing Films. 2007.
Here is what the documentary The Outsiders of New Orleans: The Loujon Press, is not. It is not political nor flashy nor clever nor steeped in complexity nor beautifully filmed nor driven by a larger than life cult personality or historical figure or political demagogue. It is not a Michael Moore film. It is not an Errol Morris film. It is not a Morgan Spurlock film. It's no When We Were Kings or Hoop Dreams or Into the Void. It's probably even fair to say that it's not much like any of Wayne Ewing's previous six feature-length documentaries, all of which either dealt with politics or the antics of one Hunter S. Thompson. I say probably because I confess I haven't seen Ewing's other works yet, although on the strength of this film and what I've read about the others, I will be making it a point to do so—particularly the trio of documentaries he did on the influence of corporate greed in American politics and the judicial system: If Elected (1972), The Last Campaign (2005), and Benched: The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary (2005). But those films are most certainly the topic of a different discussion than this one. Politics, if it has anything to do at all with Outsiders, is lurking in the background, a perhaps malevolent but unaccredited character who affects what happens in the film but remains backstage.
All that having been said, what Outsiders is, is a quiet, straightforward glimpse into the worlds of bootstrap publishing, mid-twentieth century New Orleans, Bohemian lifestyle, vintage printing techniques, and the people associated with the literary magazine The Outsiders—chief among them Gypsy Lou Webb, who is still alive and making an impression, her husband Jon, and the rogues gallery of literary personages like Charles Bukowski who made up the "scene" around the French Quarter fifty some years ago. The action of the film centers on Gypsy Lou, and the best scenes, which is to say the ones that are the most engaging and thought-provoking, are those where Gypsy Lou re-encounters her old haunts and some of the people who used to haunt with her. I say thought-provoking, and by that I mean that if you're watching this film, you're probably doing so not for the sheer entertainment value (see previous paragraph), but because you have an interest in what this film depicts—be it New Orleans, underground literature, printing presses, Bukowski, or the Webbs themselves. And if you do have an interest in one or more of those topics, you're going to have things to think about. The film is not going to do a whole lot of your thinking for you, because it's much more on the side of presenting source material rather than on building a thesis.
Grist for thesis is there, however, and the rest of this review will present a few of mine.
It strikes me that there are two types of people that make up a creatively charged "scene," be it Greenwich Village for much of the 1900s, or "Grunge" Seattle in the 1990s, or the American Expats of 1920s Paris, or 1960s Haight-Ashbury, etc. You encounter these two types of people in the film. They are on the one hand the people who are actually living the lifestyle and producing the art, and on the other those who are appreciating, collecting, imitating, and analyzing—feeding off, if you will—that same lifestyle and art. What the movie makes the case for is that the Webbs belonged much more to the first camp. Jon Webb was no Henry Miller, but he did have some success as a writer before he went into publishing. Gypsy Lou Webb was no Alexander Drysdale, but she did produce a few paintings and wrote at least one noteworthy song (Punch Miller's "Long Distance Blues"). Their main contribution, of course, was as publishers.
What's interesting to me is that it's as publishers that Jon and Gypsy Lou were the most solidly planted on the creative side of the spectrum. One might think, if one weren't thinking too hard about it, that publishing is something other than creation, and maybe in today's corporate world (and corporate publishing world), one would be more right than wrong. But when Jon and Gypsy Lou stayed up all night setting type by hand, stacking unfinished manuscripts on every available inch of their apartment (even on a board balanced over the bathtub), drinking beer with authors as they hammered out what they liked and didn't like, they extended the creative process to the very production of the books themselves, as opposed to just the writing those books contained.
If it's possible to top what Jon and Gypsy Lou contributed as publishers, they also helped to create what was one of the most vibrant and fertile artistic "scenes" in American cultural history, and they did so just by being the dedicated and colorful people that they were. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified in the documentary than when we are introduced to a painting by Noel Rockmore, a former suitor of Gypsy Lou and one of the painters who also made up that scene. The painting is called "Homage to the French Quarter," and it seeks to capture all the eccentricity and personality that made the French Quarter what it was in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. There is Ruthie, who went everywhere with a duck in tow; Mrs. Lopez, who was known for supplicating herself before one of the local cathedrals and crawling around on her knees to such an extent that church authorities put a stop to it; and Rockmore himself, who claimed to have slept with 800 women.
There is a well-trod irony here. As is often lamented about the neighborhoods that lose their Bohemian atmosphere through gentrification, the very thing that makes these neighborhoods "cool" and desirable is lost when nobody "cool" (read, creative/rebellious) can afford to live there anymore. New Orleans' French Quarter was drowning in a flood of yuppies and high rents long before Hurricane Katrina arrived. In the film, the people who are left from the glory days seem limited to folks like collector Edwin Blair, whose sale of his Beat Poet memorabilia provided a couple hundred grand to help Gypsy Lou after Katrina left her homeless, or JoAnn Clevinger, owner of the local Upperline Restaurant, who bought the Rockmore painting and appears to own every other piece of French Quarter memorabilia there is. These are wonderful people, and the footage of Clevinger and Gypsy Lou meeting at the Upperline Restaurant to see "Homage" and reminisce about the old days is a moving one.
It's also a scene infused with subtle tension, because as much as Clevinger and Gypsy Lou are connecting as people who shared the French Quarter experience, they're doing so as members of two different factions. Clevinger owns the painting; Gypsy Lou is in it. As Clevinger says, the painting is "...all about all those people who gave us so much," those people being the artists, "us" being the ones who appreciated them. One gets the sense that while Clevinger was there and walked among "those people," and while Gypsy Lou was one of the "us" who shared in the "so much," they're both conscious of the divide between them.
This divide doesn't reflect negatively on either side, although I would say there is a negative side to both of these two different kinds of people. In fact, the movie provides us with several scenes that illustrate the division between creator and consumer and what might be considered the good and bad sides of both. One scene that comes to mind is when a class of bookmaking students at the University of Alabama discuss the Webbs' landmark edition of Henry Miller's Order and Chaos chez Hans Reichel. Here one might conclude that there are sincere and likable consumers such as Blair and Clevinger, whose appreciation comes from a genuine, human place, and then there are the, shall we say, annoying consumers. When one student says in her best acquired intellectual tone, "I sense that they're engaged in kind of joyful exploration, and so we the readers are caught up in their discovery," it's difficult not to snort aloud at the screen.
In another scene, where Gypsy Lou returns to Pirates' Alley and strikes up a conversation with some young ladies sitting on the sidewalk, we see a similar contrast between two kinds of creators: the Gypsy Lou Webbs of the world, who create and exist without pretension or self-study, and again, the annoying. When Gypsy Lou says she used to be an artist there, the girl corrects her, lecturing, "You're born an artist... you're always an artist." In what I consider one of her most endearing moments in the film, Gypsy Lou asks this girl if she's a tattoo artist—a question that I don't think she means as an insult, and that goes right over the girl's head, but which perfectly illustrates that while this girl might wish to assert her identity as an artist, the proof is not in her assertions but in what she has actually created. One suspects that beyond the conformity to counterculture imitation that her tattoos represent, this girl hasn't created a whole heck of a lot.
The day after I watched this movie the first time, I was in the car listening to NPR and caught a commentary by Andrei Codrescu. In this commentary, Codrescu talks about purity of information as a key to rebellion, with rebellion being something I take as a key to real creativity. When the individual can speak, and that speech can be transmitted to a listener with the least possible dilution by what Codrescu labels "producers," then the greatest amount of rebellion—and therefore perhaps creativity—can occur. He identifies poetry, rock bands, standup comedy, and Internet startups as building blocks in a historical continuum of rebellion, lamenting in the end that even the Internet startup is succumbing to corporate conformity. The Internet startup, of course, being distinguished from blogs and online publications, where individual expression is alive and well. Certainly running Loujon Press or something like it deserves a place in the continuum, somewhere between poetry and rock bands.
I couldn't help but think, while listening to Codrescu, that I was in some sort of weird, synergistic Twilight Zone of ideas. The Webbs and their Outsiders, Bohemianism, poetry, art, the Internet, and a million other things, all swirling through time and space, driven by vestigial winds of Katrina from the gulf region, where the Outsiders was born and Codrescu now lives, to here in the Southwest, where the Webbs several times tried to escape the dampness of New Orleans, and where I, in my odd mixture of wannabe counterculture and conformity existence, was driving to Costco, listening to public radio.
In the end, perhaps in a nod to the pervasive narcissism of our times, my enjoyment of this film was as much about its illumination of my own life as it was about the people and ideas presented within it. If for a creative "scene" to occur, one needs cheap rent, access to and a sense of community with other artists, and freedom from producer interference, it strikes me that the Internet is today's equivalent of the French Quarter. Web publications are a heck of a lot easier to produce and disseminate than Webb publications were, but the gist is the same.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is advised to take action for action's sake, with no thought to the consequences. There's no evidence that the Webbs were ever devotees of Krishna, but they nonetheless lived largely by this credo, and it is very much a credo that aligns with Bohemianism, the hipster lifestyle, and the kind of mindset that would drive people to work as hard as they did for little financial gain. The documentary suggests that when they did try to "cash in" by publishing Miller's works, their efforts were pretty much a bust. For all their extravagant beauty, copies of Order and Chaos didn't sell well, haven't increased in value the way the other Loujon Press books have, and, in an almost Biblical turn, were nearly all destroyed by a flash flood in Tucson, Arizona.
I'm left with many unresolved questions, the answers to which are beyond the scope of this review and perhaps my ability to answer. Among them are, at what point does the publisher/printer/editor cross over from artist to producer, or depending on your perspective, from producer to artist? Is it possible to be both? Is the act of being an artist limited to written works, paintings, etc., or can it be extended to the contribution one makes to a "scene" like that depicted in Rockmore's painting, in the sense that Madonna, for example, is considered not just a recording artist but also a pop culture artist? Were Gypsy Lou and the other residents of the French Quarter artists for the way they formed a social network, a tapestry of outsiders, just as much as they were for the paintings, music, and writing they produced? Will historians and documentarians be talking half a century from now about the creative community that is now thriving on the Internet, or is it just impossible to have a community of people who don't actually imbibe their spirits in the same room together?
If these and similar questions interest you, The Outsiders of New Orleans: The Loujon Press will be worth watching not just for the richness of material it presents, but for the many worlds of inquiry it evokes.
Purchase a copy of The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press.
Listen to Andrei Codrescu's commentary on NPR.
Bone up on Hare Krishna.
Read about creating versus consuming.