Two Documentaries about Paul Bowles
Let It Come Down, directed by Jennifer Baichwal (1998), Night Music, directed by Owsley Brown (1999)— Documentaries
IN BRIEF, two award-winning films about the enigmatic Paul Bowles (1910–1999) – perhaps the only artist to achieve renown as both a composer and author (The Sheltering Sky) – effectively complement each other. Let It Come Down focuses on his life and writings, while Night Waltz explores his music. Both films contain extensive interviews with Bowles from his final years.
- Review of Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles
- Review of Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles
- Jim’s Film Website / LGBTQ+ Cinema
Review — Let It Come Down
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
1998, Canada — 72 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Documentary
Jennifer Baichwal’s Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles (1998), winner of the International Emmy Award for Best Documentary, explores the life and works of one of the most enigmatic artists of the twentieth century: composer, author, translator, expatriate, and iconoclast Paul Bowles (1910–1999).
Against the backdrop of exotic North Africa, the enigma of Bowles begins to unravel in this imaginatively-made film. Interviews with the reclusive Bowles, who speaks with a mixture of candor and secrecy, about his work and controversial private life, are intercut with the conflicting views of his critics and supporters. Highlights of the film include exclusive footage of the last meeting of Bowles, William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl) in New York in 1995; a scene of Bowles translating Moroccan storyteller Mohammed Mrabet; the first and only film appearance of his wife Jane’s lover Cherifa, who is rumored to have poisoned her to death; a look at Bowles’s work as a composer; and readings of his mysterious and poetic work accompanied by striking, and apt, visuals.
Bowles, who died in 1999 at the age of 88 in Tangier, Morocco – where he had lived for over fifty years – was the quintessential iconoclast. He left the United States for good in the 1940s after building a career as an important modern composer, to immerse himself in the culture of North Africa. A writer’s writer, his associations span the elite cultural circles of the last century. At twenty, he was an intimate of Gertrude Stein and Aaron Copland; at thirty the peer of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal; at forty, literary godfather to Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. His unorthodox marriage to novelist and playwright Jane Bowles – both were gay and had significant relationships with others throughout their 35-year marriage – is legendary. Together they formed the magnet which drew an extraordinary group of writers and artists to the exotic freedoms of Morocco before its independence in 1956. After Jane’s death in 1973, Bowles continued to be the destination for “pilgrimages” of a steady stream of international admirers, fellow artists, and biographers, including filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Owsley Brown (Night Waltz), who captured different aspects of Bowles in his final years.
In Let It Come Down (the title borrowed from his second novel), the notoriously laconic Bowles speaks out on key subjects about his life and work – sometimes with candor, other times not, but always with a passionate but quiet authority. Propped on cushions in his home in Tangier and smoking kif through an elegant black cigarette holder, he reflects on his two careers (as composer and author), the many important artists he has known, his friends, Jane, love, why he left America for Morocco, and much more.
The film is structured around his monologue, shot primarily in 1996, with various voices breaking in to comment, dispute and to try to clarify. Chief among these is William Burroughs, who acts as the primary commentator on Bowles’s version of his life. At one point, Burroughs wryly comments that Bowles’s autobiography, Without Stopping, “should be called Without Telling… because he doesn’t tell anything… Nothing about his sex life. Nothing… That’s very New England.”
As filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal wrote in her essay (included on the DVD) on the film, “He tells you only as much as you need to know and then lets you find the rest.” Her association with Bowles dates back to her early twenties when she ran away to Morocco, drawn by his dark, hypnotic prose. Subsequent visits deepened their friendship, culminating in the interview which is the basis of her film.
Baichwal’s film is also a strikingly impressionistic vision of Morocco, as reflected in Bowles’s writings. She and cinematographer Nick de Pencier capture breathtaking footage of his adopted country, from the twisted medinas of Tangier and Fez to the surreal beauty of the desert, which serve as visceral metaphors for Bowles’s interior world. There is something absolutely right about pairing actor Tom McCamus’s (The Sweet Hereafter) reading of a passage from The Sheltering Sky with an abstract desert landscape at night: The sky a deep cobalt blue, with just a thin stretch of shifting sand beneath.
To give you a taste of Bowles’s unique power as a writer, here is a key paragraph from his classic 1949 The Sheltering Sky (which appears on many critics’ and readers’ lists of the best novels of the twentieth century), about three expatriates traveling through northern Africa. He once described it as “an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously; in the actual desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit”:
During the middle of the day it was no longer the sun alone that persecuted from above – the entire sky was like a metal dome grown white with heat. The merciless light pushed down from all directions; the sun was the whole sky. They took to traveling only at night, setting out shortly after twilight and halting at the first sign of the rising sun. The sand had been left far behind, and so had the great dead stony plains. Now there was a gray, insectlike vegetation everywhere, a tortured scrub of hard shells and stiff hairy spines that covered the earth like an excrescence of hatred.
Speaking of Bowles’s most famous novel, it is surprisingly entertaining to hear him, in the documentary, rail against the 1990 film version by Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor). Despite the film’s many dramatic problems, I think it is worth seeing for how Bertolucci visualizes what many have called an “unfilmable” text, which focuses on the characters’ inner lives. It should also be noted that some people consider the revival of interest in the composer/author dates from Bertolucci’s film introducing Bowles to a wider audience.
Let It Come Down also uses diverse archival materials, including period footage and stills, to evoke the atmosphere of North Africa in the ’30s and ’40s. There is also a series of photographs of Bowles throughout his life, from his childhood in New York (son of a despotic dentist) to his youth (in his bathing trunks, he looks like a blond-haired Greek god – one can only wonder how many hearts he broke) to his maturity and on into his sphinxlike old age. The film also includes interviews with many of his friends (as mentioned above). Although the film wisely includes a wide range of opinions about Bowles (he is one of the harshest critics of his own work), the most barbed come from author Mohammed Choukri, who believes that Bowles is “incapable of love or friendship.” (Bowles translated Choukri’s For Bread Alone – incredibly, the Moroccan author was illiterate until the age of 20 – and helped promote it into bestsellerdom.) Surprisingly, no one mentions one of my favorite bits of Bowles trivia: His friend Christopher Isherwood named his most famous literary creation, Sally Bowles (from Berlin Stories and its musicalization, Cabaret) after him.
Let It Come Down also contains a fascinating scene of Bowles translating storyteller Mohammed Mrabet from the Dharisian dialect into English. Another highlight is the unprecedented footage of Jane Bowles’s notorious lover Cherifa (Amina Bakalia), who is rumored to have poisoned her to death, and whom some people believe is a witch (yet who bears a striking resemblance to Mother Teresa).
The film also provides a brief overview of Bowles’s work as a composer (which is the sole focus of Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles).
Although this is a beautifully-made and insightful documentary, paradoxically I found that Bowles revealed the most about himself in the extended, unedited sequences included in the Special Features section. This is not so much because his responses to Ms. Baichwal’s questions are any more forthcoming, or less opaque, than in the documentary itself. Rather we get to focus on Bowles’s gestures, and subtle body movements, during extended periods of time without any editorial cuts; and this allows him, perhaps inadvertently, to reveal his discomfort, or playful obfuscation, or sheer joy in shocking us. I kept thinking of the line from Hamlet: “By indirections find directions out.”
Towards the end of the documentary itself, we begin to learn more about Bowles’s gay identity, including his passionate affair – which one friends calls “the great love of his life” – with Ahmed Yacoubi. He was a Moroccan artist who had the endearing habit of playing his flute for 10 minutes to a just-finished painting “to blow life into it.” It is a rare treat to see home movies of a much younger, and joyous, Bowles (from the 1950s) cavorting with Ahmed.
Although it might have been beyond the scope of this tightly-edited documentary, I do wish that it could have identified as gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) the many artists who were, including virtually every prominent figure mentioned in this film. They are of central importance not only to Bowles’s life and art but to modern culture: Gertrude Stein, Aaron Copland, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Virgil Thompson (who referred to Bowles as “a dazzling blond”), André Gide, Christopher Isherwood, Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden, Cecil Beaton, Francis Bacon, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Ned Rorem, not to mention his wife, Jane Sydney Auer Bowles. (You are welcome to visit my LGBTQ Literature Website, which also includes lists of GLBT composers and artists, as well as my selected Paul Bowles Web links.)
An artist’s sexual orientation, especially when it makes them an “outsider” in their own society, certainly informs their work, possibly as much as such commonly-discussed factors as their race, religion, and politics. On one level (of many), Bowles’s dark vision of life – with his recurring themes of people’s inability to communicate, psychological collapse, and violence – can be seen as a metaphor for his secretive, and self-loathing, identity as a gay man. It was sad to hear him remark, in the film, “I assume that anyone in the world would be ashamed of being considered homosexual…. Scorned… inferior, disgusting, etc. So naturally you wouldn’t want to talk about it. On the other hand, one doesn’t have to lie about it. I never have lied about sex.”
Although I do not want to focus too much on this issue, I would like to mention one of the most interesting comments I have heard about Bowles, and other GLB artists of his generation. If in the relentlessly homophobic climate of postwar America Bowles had explored his own gay nature in The Sheltering Sky – as seen in the shadowy relationship of the two central male characters – that might have ended his budding literary career. And in terms of Bowles’s existential worldview, a friend pointed out a fascinating aspect of that movement’s popularity 40 or 50 years ago. Its key idea – that ‘existence precedes essence’ – implied that you could make, or re-make, your own identity; and that that was tremendously liberating – despite that philosophy’s nihilistic bent – for GLB people in that era. (By the way, Bowles translated the key theatrical work of existentialism, Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit, which introduced the classic line, “Hell is other people.”)
Returning to Bowles’s grating remarks in the film on homosexuality, you can imagine him secretly delighting in how his comments, or lack of them, on his being gay will be used by future generations. To paraphrase Joyce’s famous quotation about Ulysses, Bowles has hidden enough same-sex layers – among many others – in his work to keep the scholars busy for a hundred years.
One of the great strengths of Let It Come Down is that, in addition to providing us with the outline of Bowles’s life and works and showing us his world, it shrewdly leaves much unsaid. It lets Bowles’s body, face, and intonations reveal perhaps as much about the man as what he says. It never tries to pin Bowles down – which of course is impossible. Intead it allows this enigmatic artist to remain as elusive as his enduring works.
Directed and Co-produced by Jennifer Baichwal
Director of Photograpy and Co-producer Nick de Pencier
Additional Cinematography by Jim Allodi
Sound by Denise Holloway
Edited by David Wharnsby
Readings by Tom McCamus
The DVD from Zeitgeist offers excellent image and sound. The supplemental features, described below, are all of exceptional interest, especially the unedited interviews with Bowles on a diverse range of topics.
- Extensive additional interview footage with Bowles discussing modernism & Moby-Dick; love, fear & children; Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas; living in the past; his biographer; and more
- Outtakes of Bowles’s final meeting with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in 1995
- An essay by director Jennifer Baichwal about how she came to make the film
- $29.99 suggested retail
Review – Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles
Directed by Owsley Brown
1999, US — 77 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Documentary
Owsley Brown’s documentary Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles (1998) is a revealing introducton to the wide range of Bowles’s music, from pieces for solo piano to songs to works for chamber orchestra (the composer eschewed large-scale symphonic works). In addition to extensive interviews with Bowles, the film presents several imaginative visualizations of over a dozen of his pieces, using a variety of approaches, which add an additional layer to his unique sound world.
Two years before his death in 1999, Bowles gladly accepted the offer of first-time filmmaker – and longtime admirer – Owsley Brown to create a documentary about his relatively unknown early career as a composer of avant-garde yet “charming” (Bowles’s own word) music. Long after he stopped composing, Bowles kept music as a vital part of his life. It is endearing and moving to see this frail but resilient 87-year-old man constantly tapping out fresh, complex rhythms on his Tangier table top.
Brown and Bowles began working together to present the music in a manner which would allow audiences to experience it for themselves, even as the film offers insights into Bowles the composer and to a lesser extent the man: Bowles is notoriously tight-lipped about his private life.
Although today Bowles is known primarily as the author of the classic novel The Sheltering Sky and such chilling short stories as “The Delicate Prey” and “A Distant Episode” (not to mention his classic translations of Sartre’s play No Exit and several works of Moroccan literature), he began his career as a promising – and many would say accomplished – composer. At one point, he shares what connects his music and writing, namely, rhythm and simplicity. As he says, “Keep everything simple. Pare it down, and throw everything else out…. I prefer the simple but not minimalist… in my music and writing.”
During the 1930s and ’40s he wrote 200 songs, dozens of pieces for solo piano, a wide range of works for chamber orchestra, the incidential music for two dozen Broadway plays (including the premieres of such classics as Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Summer and Smoke, Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine), ballets (Yankee Clipper, Pastorale, Colloque sentimental), a cantata (Par le dètroit), and operas (Denmark Vesey, to a libretto by the pioneering gay novelist Charles Henri Ford, and his best known stage work, The Wind Remains, to a text by Federico García Lorca). In 1949, on a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he made recordings of Moroccan folk songs, which are now housed in the Library of Congress (one of which is heard at the beginning of this film).
From his youth, Bowles loved to travel, and you can hear the influence in his compositions of music from Europe (especially France; he shared a delight with many French composers in “paring down” a piece to its essentials), Mexico, Central America, Africa, and of course the region with which he is most often identified, Morocco. Part of the appeal of Bowles’s music, as you can hear in this film, is its eclecticism. At times he brings together, in dazzling and very different ways, jazz, honky-tonk, Broadway, Latin American, North African, not to mention Satie, Poulenc, Britten and Stravinsky. Some of his compositions are exuberant (like Music for a Farce, which he composed to accompany a Broadway comedy which Orson Welles had planned to direct – until he decided to do Danton’s Death instead, leaving Bowles with a $100 gratuity but a $2,000 debt for his voyage from Morocco to New York). Others are plaintive, like his achingly beautiful songs. A particular favorite is the haunting “Three,” in which he sets a poem by his friend Tennessee Williams (it is included in the film). Perhaps his best-known vocal work is the cycle Secret Words: A Suite of Six Songs – which sets poems by himself, his wife Jane Auer Bowles, and his early mentor, Gertrude Stein (it is included in the BMG CD, The Music of Paul Bowles).
Night Waltz offers a representative selection of Bowles’s music in all of the forms he employed, both instrumental and vocal. Below is a complete listing of Bowles’s music in the film.
The film is an elegant and moving document of discovery, although – like all of the other books and films about the enigmatic artist – it falls just short of revealing the man in his many, sometimes contradictory, layers. In the interviews, Bowles journeys back to his early years as an occasional collaborator with such other iconic figures as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Orson Welles. We are also treated to a wealth of anecdotes about Bowles, some told by him, others by his friends, admirers, and critics. One of the most memorable, and infamous, anecdoates concerns the time when young Bowles, in Paris, stood up Prokofiev. The Russian master had, for one of the few times in his life, agreed to take on a composition pupil. But Bowles was perhaps overwhelmed by the prospect; he had little formal training in music, and as a child was more interested in the “music” of a spinning top or the creaking of a rusty door hinge than in formal compositions. In any event, he jumped on a train and sped away in the opposite direction.
A strength of the film is that many of the interviews are conducted, with warmth and informality, by a fellow musician and champion of Bowles’s music, Phillip Ramey. An American composer and longtime friend of Bowles, he lives half of each year in Tangier as Bowles’s neighbor, and the other half in New York City. (From 1977 to 1993 he was also the annotator and program editor for the New York Philharmonic.) With his deep knowledge of music (both Bowles’s and everyone else’s), and his obvious rapport with Bowles, he provides a perfect foil. It is a delight to listen to the two critique recorded performances of Bowles’s music, which in some instances he has not heard in 50 years. As he asks at one point, with gleeful shock, “Did I write that? What was I thinking!”
While about half of the film consists of these revealing interviews, the remainder centers on Bowles’s compositions – performed by the outstanding Eos Orchestra and several other gifted performers – punctuated with stunning visual essays by independent filmmakers Rudy Burckhardt and Nathaniel Dorsky.
A highlight of the film is the inclusion of several photographs and short films by the legendary Burckhardt. His three shorts – “Up and Down the Waterfront” (1946), “The Climate of New York” (1948), and “Under the Brooklyn Bridge” (1953) – work perfectly as a visual counterpoint to Bowles’s energetic 1931 piece, Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet. In the DVD’s Special Features, we are also fortunate to have Burckhardt’s whimsical 1936 short fiction film “145 W. 21,” featuring Paul Bowles, Aaron Copland (playing a burglar!), Virgil Thomson, and John Latouche (who wrote selected lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide and the libretto for Douglas Moore’s opera Ballad of Baby Doe – both 1956), and others. Although this film once had an original score by Bowles, unfortunately the music remains lost.
Night Waltz also uses a creative array of impressionistic films by Nathaniel Dorsky – rich in color and movement, and sometimes employing sped-up/time-lapse photograpy – to complement the music. These collages reflect the actual places which inspired Bowles’s compositions, from New York City to Paris to Oaxaca, Mexico to Tangier to the Moroccan desert. I enjoyed this aspect of the film very much; but perhaps some people will prefer to hear Bowles’s music – presented in full, rich sound – unadorned. I respectfully suggest that they do what many of us do in the concert hall: Listen with closed eyes, to focus intently on the music. But for those who experience this film with eyes open, there are some gorgeous, evocative images to savor.
For its revealing look at Bowles the composer, and for its inspired filmmaking, Night Waltz won Best Documentary Feature at the 1999 Hamptons International Film Festival and the Truer Than Fiction Award at the 2000 Independent Spirit Awards.
However, I do wish that the film could have at least touched on the importance of sexual orientation to the many gay, lesbian, and bisexual composers and musicians mentioned in this documentary, including Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, Virgil Thomson, Nadia Boulanger, Henry Cowell, Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, his teacher and close friend Aaron Copland, and others. As mentioned in my review of Let It Come Down, sexual orientation is important to an artist’s, or any person’s, perceptions of themself, their society, and their work. Its influence on Bowles comes across not only in his few public remarks on the subject of his being gay (as seen in Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary), but – perhaps more eloquently – in what he does not say. Just knowing that Bowles is gay can give the moving final scene of this documentary an ever deeper resonance. (You are welcome to visit my LGBTQ Literature Website, which also includes lists of LGBTQ composers and artists, as well as my selected Paul Bowles Web links.)
Night Waltz ends with the peaceful, and some might say romantic, image of the master author and composer being soothed by the plaintive singing – and even a gentle kiss – of a strikingly handsome, talented young Moroccan musician, Karim Jihad Achouatte. It is not only a serene close to this film, but an evocative final image of Bowles, shot just a few months before he at last fell silent.
This film is an excellent, and imaginative, introduction to Bowles’s first career. It makes it clear why his music is more popular, and highly regarded, now than ever.
Bowles’s Compositions Heard in Night Waltz
Here are the works by Bowles heard in the film, in the order in which they appear, performed by a variety of performers and ensembles. Full credits appear at the end of the film and in the booklet included with the DVD:
- Suite for Small Orchestra (1932-33) – Pastorale
- Music of Morocco: Qsida Midh (recorded and edited by Bowles in 1959 for the U.S. Library of Congress)
- The Wind Remains (1942) (this is a zarzuella, or operetta, based on a play by Federico García Lorca) – Setting the Stage
- Sonta for Flute and Piano (1932) – Third Movement (selections)
- Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet (1931) – First, Second, & Third Movements
- Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion (1946-49) – Scherzo
- Six Preludes for Piano (1933-45) – Prelude No. 6
- Four Miniatures for Piano (1932-43) – Portrait of Bernard Suares, Portrait of KMC, & Sarabande
- Six Preludes for Piano (1933-45) – Prelude No. 1
- Latin American Pieces for Piano (1937-48) – Orosi
- Pastorela: First Suite (1947) – Pieza Tranquila
- Song “Three” (1947) (words by Tennessee Williams)
- Song “Mes de Mayo” (1944) (words by anonymous poet)
- Music for a Farce (1938) – No. 6—Allegro
- Night Waltz for Two Pianos (1949)
- Pastorela: First Suite (1947) – Pieza Tranquila
- The Wind Remains – The Mask & The Steographer
- Song “Balada Amarilla” (1944)
- Directed and Co-written by Owsley Brown
- Co-written by Andrea Weiss
- Cinematography by Nathaniel Dorsky & David Golia
- Sound by Geoff Maxwell
- Edited by Nathaniel Dorsky
The DVD from Zeitgeist offers excellent image and superb sound. The supplemental features, described below, are all of interest, especially the illuminating interview with Jonathan Sheffer, which you might want to watch even before seeing the documentary itself.
- Video interview with the Eos Orchestra’s Artistic Director Jonathan Sheffer on Bowles’s music
- Bowles and Eos Orchestra Web Resource Guides
- Rudy Burckhardt’s whimsical 1936 short fiction film “145 W. 21,” featuring Paul Bowles and Aaron Copland (playing a burglar!)
- Booklet of “Music Selections by Scene,” listing the credits for all of the music heard in the film
- $29.99 suggested retail
Reviewed October 12, 2003 / Revised October 24, 2020