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.