Unlikely Stories * Eclectica Magazine * Gambit Weekly * Flickhead * Beatdom Magazine * Prick of the Spindle
Gabriel Ricard reviews the DVD for "Unlikely Stories"
The trouble with New Orleans these days seems to be a matter of word association. You hear the name and just can't help but think of Katrina, floods, rioting, disaster, levees and other words just like them. The chances of instead coming up with the names and places associated with the city's staggeringly rich heritage of literature and music have gotten to a point where even "slim to none" sounds a little on the optimistic side. And it's not like this is a recent development either. Now, it's hurricanes. Before that, it was cheap liquor and drunken college girls taking off their shirts for beads and fifteen minutes of fame in the world of amateur porn. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that. But when, again, you go back to a town and a culture that gave us some of the best writing of the twentieth century and some of the most influential music in American history, you can't help but think that somewhere down the narrow line between a city that has always moved seamlessly from one party of the century to another and a museum with a pulse that never stops beating, things got a little lopsided.
Thankfully though, there are people like documentary filmmaker Wayne Ewing. Even before Katrina, Ewing and others like him have remained committed to making sure the average out-of-towner learns and never forgets that New Orleans is as artistically important as New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and all the others.
Just from looking at his past films, including his essential-viewing documentaries on the iconic Hunter S. Thompson, you get a sense that Ewing has taken it upon himself to make the past as important and vital as the moment at hand. I don't think that's ever been more obvious with Ewing's work than with his latest film, The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press, a look back at Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb and the immensely significant contribution to writing they left in the form of their small printing press. From an apartment in the famed French Quarter, a printing press that released four books, two from Charles Bukowski and two from Henry Miller. Even more importantly, Loujon Press published five literary magazines under the title The Outsider. It was through these magazines that the world at large was introduced to Bukowski, one of the most important writers on the American landscape, and this is one of the main points Ewing goes into when bringing us the story of Jon and Louise. Because although Jon Webb himself was a moderately successful writer, he was seemingly just as content and determined at trying to promote other works he deemed culturally and socially important as he was with getting his own work out into the world. It eventually became his life's work, and because of his lifelong love affair with Louise, it became her life's work as well. And that's where we get to the heart of this very important story.
Louise is very much alive and well, currently in her nineties, and it is most certainly her contributions to The Outsiders of New Orleans that gives the film its greatest strength. Although the film has a very strong narrative structure and moves effortlessly from the beginning of the story to where it is today, Ewing was still smart enough to leave enough room for the best living example of that story to shine as more than just another history lesson. The movie's flow occasionally slows down when we get to her reliving the days of drinking with Bukowski, selling her paintings on the street corner near her apartment, or staying up for nights on end putting out the latest issue of The Outsider or one of the four books they published. But really, while listening to the woman known as Gypsy Lou, the lapse of time doesn't register a whole lot. After watching this remarkable individual who has passed nearly a century of life and retains more energy in her vibrant, absorbing eyes than most twenty-year-olds have in their entire bodies, you're not going to worry about structure and flow too much. If anything, you'll be wishing the whole thing ran longer than fifty-seven minutes. Nothing in the film is more powerful or compelling than those scenes of Lou walking the streets she's known for longer than most of us have been alive. There's a great sadness in her voice when she tells us about the people, places, and times that have faded from all but a few minds. Particularly her husband, whose memorable life and career included a stint in prison and a brief foray into Hollywood screenwriting that yielded a cameo in a gangster movie. It's a far more memorable approach than any smooth editing job or some bloodthirsty rant with a thousand exclamation points at the end of it. There is nothing more effective in this film than the moments when we truly see Gypsy Lou as the last remaining figure of a time when the need for experimentation and adventure in what we read and watched could be found virtually anywhere—a time that may very well be gone forever. These are the moments when we need nothing else but the image that's right there in front of us. Simplicity is a key word for any truly effective documentary, and it's a word Ewing flawlessly utilizes when it matters the most. It's another brilliant call on his part. A good documentary filmmaker knows when to lead us from one thing to the next and when to just sit back and let the person or moment in front of us take over. It might not be obvious at first look, but this is the action of a man whose love and respect for the subject material is enough to know that sometimes the best way to give us the facts and stories is to just let them speak for themselves. It shows Ewing as a master of his craft.
But just because the best parts are from Gypsy Lou's sharp-as-a-tack memory doesn't mean that the rest of the documentary falters or fails to maintain interest. The straightforward reporting on the history of Loujon Press is almost as fascinating as the people who remember it. Viewers who have no previous knowledge of the story or even of the literary history of New Orleans will probably be amazed at how much there is to learn and take in beyond what they've picked up from the Girls Gone Wild DVDs. These parts play a lot like something you might find on PBS. Especially the scenes that take us to The University of Alabama's Book Arts Department for a look at the sort of printing press the Webbs used and for the standard operating procedure opinions and comments from various experts and students in the field. But it's never boring or akin to the kind of thing you slept through in high school. Through interviews, pictures, and old home movies the parts of The Outsiders of New Orleans that surround Gypsy Lou's stories are as vital and necessary to the film as anything else. Ewing must have passed out on a few high school history films himself, because he seems to have a great knack for knowing exactly how to appeal to both the serious scholar and the curious passerby. Both groups are essential to just about any successful documentary. Bringing them together here shouldn't be any trouble in the least.
Barring a running time that might be a little on the short side, there isn't much about The Outsiders of New Orleans that should keep you from watching it. For people who already know a little on the film's subject, this should still be a good reminder of why they're into it in the first place. But the real treat is for those just discovering such things as Loujon Press, Charles Bukowski, and the artistic history of New Orleans. The film is almost like a great track from a greatest hits compilation. As soon as you hear it, you're very likely going to want to go out and get a hold of as much material as you possibly can. There's a wealth of information that goes beyond what this documentary can cover. Ewing is well aware of this fact. And I guess it's smart to keep the movie at just under an hour. Too long, and you run the risk of losing the things that matter the most against an exhausting sea of dates and names. Fifty-seven minutes might not kill a whole evening, but as a taste of something that's in a very real danger of becoming another sad victim of public indifference, you couldn't ask for a better film. The story of Loujon Press and of Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb is an important one. It deserves to be told, and it deserves to live on long after the storytellers and the veterans of those stores are gone. If there's any justice in the world of critical filmmaking, Ewing will find the success that he and his film truly deserve.
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"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." - Tom Dooley, Eclectica Magazine.
Read the whole review
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"The film is an entertaining look at the spirit of artists who lived hand-to-mouth and created enduring legacies in literature and the French Quarter's romanticized social character." - Gambit Weekly (New Orleans)
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Reviewed by Ray Young for Flickhead
Clad in black jacket and beret accented by bold costume jewelry, Louise Webb pauses to chat with a group of young women on the street.
"Are you an artist?" one of them asks.
"Was was an artist," Louise replies.
"Once an artist, you're always an artist," she's told.
Strolling the streets and alleyways of New Orleans in Wayne Ewing's The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press, Louise, lucid and lively in her nineties, points to the buildings and rooms where she and her late husband Jon Edgar Webb once lived and worked. This hour-long documentary reflects back to her days as a sidewalk artist selling watercolors in the 1950s and '60s, when the locals gave her the nickname 'Gypsy Lou'. At home, she and Jon ran Loujon Press in their cramped apartment quarters, publishing books by Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, and editing and publishing Outsider, a legendary literary review.
Free from all commercial constraints, Loujon regarded publishing as much of an art as the printed word. Their limited editions were lovingly constructed, bold experiments printed on a wide assortment of exotic papers. Going over one of the Miller volumes, Professor Anna Embree of the University of Alabama points out "All the texture and the coloring and the layeringŠI think it really invites the viewer to want to move forward and see what's hidden behind each page."
Indeed, in a world of cost-cutting and mass production, the elaborate Miller tome is a masterpiece. At the University's Book Arts department, Ewing, director of the excellent Hunter Thompson documentary, Breakfast with Hunter (2003) surveys the craftsmanship that went into all the Loujon books, a painstaking system of typesetting, printing and binding performed on equipment that's virtually obsolete in the digital age. "You have to respect the energy that's inside the book," observes Professor Steve Miller. As the camera glides over the volumes; four books and four editions of Outsider‹that energy, combined with a great deal of passion, becomes the heart of the film.
Other than document a time, place and product, The Outsiders of New Orleans endeavors to capture the spirit guiding the artist's hand. Louise may be his star, but Ewing's film is haunted by Jon and the creativity which drifted through the French Quarter just after World War II. A little-known novelist and detective magazine scribe, Jon learned the mechanics of his craft while editing and printing the prison newspaper during a three-year sentence for robbery. Once released from jail, he envisioned an alternative press specifically designed for the Beats and other literary outsiders. Its first issue published in 1961, Outsider offered poetry by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and lifted Bukowski from obscurity. By the end of the decade, Miller himself approached Loujon to handle his later work.
"It takes work, and it takes a dedication to something other than self," art collector Ben Toledano says of the Webb's fortitude. Throughout the years he and book collector Edwin Blair have remained friends with Louise‹particularly Blair, who recently auctioned some valuable Loujon originals to contribute to her retirement fund. Ewing recognizes the inherent bond between them and their community, the ghosts of an innocent time that's been slowly vaporizing with the passing generations. Grainy home movies of Louise on the streets of New Orleans from the early 1960s are colored by a distance imposed by time, change and evolution.
Ewing's film has been released shortly after the publication of Jeff Weddle's excellent and comprehensive book, Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), and together they've instigated a flurry of Loujon-mania. (Another member of the University of Alabama faculty, Weddle also appears in the movie.) Theirs is a journey into a small, esoteric branch of American literature, with Louise rising from its shadows. An engaging presence and amusing onscreen guide, she appears grateful and humbled by the adulation more than thirty-five years after Loujon published its last book.
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from Beatdom Magazine
The Outsiders of New Orleans is the new documentary by director Wayne Ewing.
Wayne Ewing became a personal hero of mine when he made a fantastic trilogy of documentaries about the late, great Dr. Hunter S Thompson. When I discovered he was putting together a documentary about the eccentric publishers of Beatniks and Bukowski, I jumped at the chance to take Beatdom from the cold climes of Scotland to the surprisingly warm weather of Denver, Colorado, where The Outsiders of New Orleans: The Loujon Press was premieringÉ
"Where are you from?" the disembodied head called from a window above the heavily gated security door at the front of the Melbourne Hostel in Denver.
"Scotland," I called back.
"Where are you from?"
And thus ended my chase through the streets of angry negroes after dark, in a strange city and entering a strange world of respirator-clad old people with heading problems and a penchant for over-warm rooms... But I guess that's a sidestory. I was staying in a dank little hostel on 22nd and Welton, not exactly the best of places, but far from being the worst. Nonetheless, it was a tough place to find after a forty-hour train ride across the American West, into a dark new city full of angry blacks and Ôwhores with hearts of cheap gold.'
I decided there and then I was not going back out onto the streets that night to traverse the city and find the party that Wayne had suggested I attend. I settled down in my room full of snoring dudes and went to sleep for the night.
The next morning I took advantage of the daylight and explored the city a little, before heading to the university area and the Tivoli, where the 30th Annual Starz Denver Film Festival was being held, an event at which Wayne Ewing has become a regular guest director.
I'm no stranger to university campuses either side of the Atlantic, but I liked this one. The student union was not only home to beer and debauchery, but like so many buildings in Denver, it once was a brewery. Of course, now like so many buildings in any American city there were McDonalds and various other cheap Ôn' nasty eateries inside.
The atmosphere was the healthy film fest blend of young and old, artists and critics, students and masters... A few hardcore types wandered about with grapefruits and Bloody Marys, a tribute to the late Doc, started during the premieres of Ewing's documentaries in years gone by... Popcorn, beer and Coca-Cola sated the masses; the promise of photo exhibitions and movie debuts got the rest worked up...
I grabbed a second row seat in the theatre, next to a decent looking chap in Hunter get-up, kitted out with the apparently traditional drink-and-fruit combo. From the way the organisers and personnel spoke with the crowd, I could tell Ewing's documentaries were a regular and popular festival feature, with a group of familiar fans. This hardly surprised me, having spent time perusing his websites and forums, and seeing the die-hards that hang out and discuss the scenes and ideas throughout Ewing's work.
It's not hard to see why. We know from (and I will continue to dwell on the Hunter S Thompson references for the simple reason that I try and crowbar his name into every aspect of my life...) Breakfast With Hunter et al that Ewing can perfectly present an intimate portrait of an eccentric character and a masterful telling of a fantastic literary legacy, and The Outsiders of New Orleans does the same for the Webbs and their Loujon Press.
Gypsy Lou is no normal woman. She's wonderful and unique, and Ewing allows us to get up close and personal with her, letting her largely narrate the story of her life, that of the Loujon Press, and of the Old New Orleans, telling all in her inimitable style.
It is surely testament to both Ewing's endearing personality and skill as a filmmaker that we come to see Lou on such a personal level, in a time where the documentary film genre is running rampant with contrasting propaganda and bullshit sensationalist facts.
It was a pleasure, too, watching the crowd watching the picture. Gypsy Lou drew laughs at every turn, telling even the tragic tales from her past with her deliciously warped sense of humour, bring her fearlessness, optimism and warmth into the hearts of a crowd that included her niece and a Beat Book seller with an impressive Loujon Collection.
The film ended with a Q&A for Ewing, Curtis Robinson and Edwin Blair. The crowd seemed unanimously to have been engrossed in the film, and while the documentary left little to question, Blair, who had become well acquainted with Lou, was peppered with questions about the wonderful woman, and about his personal generosity in helping her through elderly years made more difficult by Hurricane Katrina.
Upon leaving the Tivoli, I arranged with Wayne to attend the Late Night Lounge and tour the legendary Woody Creek. I took a walk up Larimar, digging Neal Cassady's old stomping ground, and visiting the Capitol and the City and County Building, where Kerouac watched bats circle and Ginsberg contemplated madness...
A few stubborn staffers and some fruitless research resulted in my non-entry to the Late Night Lounge and the decision to ditch Woody Creek for a cross-country train ride.
So Denver was soon history. I'd caught a damn fine movie, continued my American Beatnik tour by walking vaguely in the footsteps of Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, and met in person a great filmmaker of our times. I met some interesting people (an Iranian-US govt official who "fucking hate(s) the USA!") and saw some great sights (breweries as far as the eye can see, friend...) I'd also come within a few hours drive of the home of Hunter S Thompson... But a few hours drive is only that when one has a car... Oh well, Farewell Denver, Farewell Colorado... And it's off into the sunset on another fucking Amtrak...
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Prick of the Spindle
"The Outsiders of New Orleans"
by Cynthia Reeser
"Though New Orleans has indelibly evolved from the bohemian refuge and avant-garde creative cultural center that it was in the 1960s, as the documentary unfurls bit by bit into the impassioned tale of Gypsy Lou, Jon and what it meant to be a part of Loujon Press, the film is a focal and indisputable point of reference for artists who still make sacrifices for art and literature toward the benefit of their artistic communities."
Read the full review here