Though Paul Bowles is known to most modern audiences, if at all, as the author of the book "The Sheltering Sky," which was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci almost 40 years after its publication, Bowles actually sits at the nexus of several important literary, artistic and musical movements, including surrealism, dadaism and Beat. Not only an important novelist and short story writer, Bowles was also an accomplished composer, and his relationships, both personal and professional, sound like a veritable who's who of 20th century literature, theater and music. A short, Reader's Digest list of some of Bowles' collaborators, lovers and friends includes Gertrude Stein, Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Leonard Bernstein, and William S. Burroughs, among many, many others. With that kind of stellar cast, this documentary, while consistently interesting and well produced, fails to capture what must have been the incredible charisma and genius of Bowles, despite his cooperation with the filmmakers, including several on-screen interviews, something he was loathe to do.
Bowles spent virtually his entire adult life as a self-imposed expatriate in Tangier, Morocco, and there are lovely passing shots of the city and surrounding terrain. What is missing is a sense of why Bowles felt compelled to leave the United States, despite one interviewee's comment that Bowles "abhors reality," which was evidently more on display in the U.S. than overseas. The documentary, filmed in 1993 and previously available on VHS, is probably geared more to those with some previous knowledge and exposure to Bowles, since many biographical details are either skipped or dealt with in passing. Bowles' translations, for instance (he gave us the first English translation of Sartre's "No Exit", a title he bestowed upon the play, as well as English translations of many Moroccan writers) seem almost a sidebar here. There are, however, wonderful interviews with a host of Bowles appreciators, most notably Allen Ginsburg, and, as stated, long segments with Bowles himself.
If the film is lacking something as a self-contained biographical documentary, it at least provides enough information for a good jumping-off point. The Bowles Estate has set up an authorized website at:
The DVD accurately reproduces the somewhat grainy look of the original 1993 source elements. Despite its exotic locale, don't expect widescreen, high def vistas--this is a standard, low budget documentary in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
A perfectly adequate Dolby 2 channel stereo soundtrack is the only audio option.
There are two brief featurettes, one with filmmakers Catherine Warnow and Regina Weinerich, and another with composer Ned Rorem, who was one of Bowles' closest friends and confidantes. Filmed in 2007, they give some perspective on the filming of the documentary itself and also the reevaluation of Bowles' importance as both a literary figure and composer since his death in 1999. There is also a Bowles bibliography, biographies of the filmmakers, and a trailer gallery from First Run Features.
This DVD virtually defines "niche market." If you are a fan of Bowles' writing or music, this is a nice chance to see the man in person while perhaps picking up a stray fact or two about his life. There are probably better avenues for a more complete biography of Bowles, but this documentary provides some interesting first-hand insight into one of the most underappreciated, but increasingly important, voices of 20th century American literature and music.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet