by Tony Dayoub
Bowing on DVD Tuesday are two documentaries by director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World). One of them is Crumb (1994), the widely seen movie about well known underground artist Robert Crumb and his gonzo family. The other (sporting a cover by Crumb) is Zwigoff's first film, Louie Bluie, a one-hour look at unsung blues musician Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, a real pleasure to watch. I can count on one hand the number of times I've watched a film all the way through then immediately watched it again, and viewing this doc is one of those times.
Is it the old-timey country-blues (one of the rare artistic legacies America can exclusively claim as part of their heritage) being played throughout that does it for me? Is it the charming—and quite politically incorrect—boasting, needling of his friends, and just general anecdotal embellishment of his life which Armstrong routinely engages in? One tale Armstrong tells—about a grammar school recitation he used as an opportunity to regale his schoolmates—is so hilarious you'll want to hear it again.
Louie Bluie subtly comments on the racism which was so woven into the lifestyle of Armstrong's generation it was internalized. Like many of his contemporaries, Armstrong frequently uses the slur "n****r" to refer to even his friends; reinforces stereotypes about blacks in some of his most innocuous references (his repeated description of a pastor as the "chicken-eating preacher"); and completely glosses over some of the dangers involved in playing white establishments, filling stories of such adventures with jokes, usually at the expense of his fellow band members.
Zwigoff's film also has a connection to the rest of his comic art-influenced oeuvre. Armstrong was equally adept as a graphic artist as he was as a musician. Also showcased in Louie Bluie, Armstrong's art (some sample illustrations are pictured above) explodes some of the myths about African American tradition while simultaneously embracing some others. This is most evident in his ABC's of Pornography, a lavishly illustrated encyclopedia of erotica which wallows in some of the controversial myths about black sexuality it also seeks to poke holes in.
Another recent Criterion release, The Secret of the Grain (La graine et le mulet) is a drama in the realist vein, fascinating because of director Abdellatif Kechiche's focus on process and interfamilial relationships. This French and Arabic language film's main character, humble shipbuilder Slimane (Habib Boufares), dreams of opening a floating restaurant with his ex-wife's fish couscous as the menu's star attraction. Kechiche is even more subtle than Zwigoff in depicting the way French racism directed at Arabs has beaten Slimane into self-defeating docility. He rarely raises his voice to put any of his self-centered extended family in their place or speaks up in defense of his new, nurturing surrogate family as all get involved in making his dream a reality. Not one Arab character overtly refers to the struggles they all face in France. As critic Wesley Morris describes in an essay included with the disc, the cast (particularly the most impressive Hafsia Herzi as Slimane's stepdaughter Rym) imbues each of their roles with a mixture of hope and resignation which whispers at the film's edges before slowly coming to a deafening crescendo as the movie nears its conclusion. Ultimately, The Secret of the Grain's finale serves as a sudden and unexpectedly grim counterpoint to Louie Bluie's life affirming, harmonious conclusion.
Louie Bluie arrives on Criterion DVD Tuesday, August 10.
The Secret of the Grain is available now on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray.