Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open: Berlin Review
Writer, composer and cultural figure Paul Bowles lives again in a wide-ranging documentary.
For many filmgoers, the most familiar work of writer and composer Paul Bowles is his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, famously made into a film 40 years later by Bernardo Bertolucci with John Malkovich and Debra Winger. Bertolucci is one of some 20 interviewees, including Bowles himself, in Daniel Young’s lively, long-in-the-making documentary Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open. Yet ,at the end of the day, this thoroughly researched film leaves the mystery surrounding the artist pretty much intact. At a certain point, the lack of a clear POV or guiding thread defuses interest, though Bowles’ readers may find the conflicting voices further proof of the master’s ineffable being.
Bowles is a sick old man lying in his bed in Tangier when Young goes to interview him in 1997, two years before the writer’s death. The answers he gives are modest and self-effacing, and at times seem to deny the importance of the work he is leaving behind. Certainly, they are not very revealing.
Young doses the interview out parsimoniously throughout his retelling of the life. Born into an upper-middle-class New York family, Bowles soon escaped a father his official biographer terms “a monster.” Leaving college, he set off for Paris in 1929 to become an artist and became a protege of Gertrude Stein. Soon he began composing piano pieces. Back in New York in 1937, he hit the music scene and met an impish, red-haired Jewish girl who was to become his wife and best friend, Jane Bowles.
A better interview than Bowles’ is the one Young did with Gore Vidal, also sick and old at the time, but with his razor-sharp mind still bubbling with amusingly acid comments. He remembers Jane and Paul as N.Y. glitterati, bankrolled by the torch singer and tobacco heiress (and possible murderess) Libby Holman, who fell in love with Jane. Paul wrote incidental theater music for Tennessee Williams and helped make jazz and world music serious subjects of study.
Bowles enrolled in the American Communist Party, and Jane wrote her most important, off-the-wall book, Two Serious Ladies, which director John Waters admiringly calls “unhinged lunacy." Though Tennessee Williams liked it, it proved impossible to sell. At this point, Paul left for Morocco. Later, Jane joined him, living in a separate apartment in his building, each surrounded by their own same-sex coterie.
His handsome, muscular “houseboy and boyfriend” Mohammed Mrabet is a laughing old man now who speaks little English. Paul transcribed, translated and published 20 volumes of the traditional stories he told him. At the same time, he was going out to the desert with a tape-recorder and preserving hundreds of hours of Morocco’s traditional music.
William Burroughs came to visit and left. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation came for the strong local kif, problem-free sex and self-expression. They were followed by the hippies, for much the same reasons. Painters Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg came. Jane fell in love with the unlikeliest women, most passionately with the masculine Cherifa, and so on. We learn that Vidal couldn’t stand Jane, what with her obsession with witchcraft and belief that she was being poisoned. Sadly, Paul finally had to send her to an insane asylum in Spain, where she was subjected to shock therapy, much to his regret, and later died.
The details are all fascinating and evocative but, lost in hazy arabesques and Oriental tunes, the film struggles to offer a coherent portrait of its subject.
All is adorned with imaginative animation that breaks up the talking heads.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Documentary)
Production company: HesseGreutert Film
Cast: Paul Bowles, Gore Vidal, John Waters, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ira Cohen
Director: Daniel Young
Producer: Valentin Greutert
Co-producers: This Brunner, Stanley Buchthal, Andres Bruetsch, Simon Hesse
Director of photography: Imre Juhasz
Editor: Kaya Inan
Music: Csaba Kalotas
Sales Agent: Submarine Entertainment