Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider
1995 Directed by Catherine Warnow, Regina Weinreich. Starring Nick Rafter, Shirley Knight, Rob Keith.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 31, 1995
Writers who are not as well known as it seems they ought to be are often termed “writers' writers.” Such is the case with Paul Bowles, whose greatest popularity probably came indirectly, following the release of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film adaptation of Bowles' 1949 novel, The Sheltering Sky. Yet, before Bowles took up prose, he had been a successful music composer for the stage and worked with such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and Orson Welles, and even scored a ballet for Salvador Dali. When he was 18, Bowles left his parents' New York home and headed for Paris to see Gertrude Stein who, after reading his poetry, advised him to take up prose. In the early 1950s, he and his wife Jane (who died in 1973) took up permanent residence in Tangier, where he remains to this day. For a one-hour documentary, Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider packs in a lot of information about this 20th-century artist. For the most part, the movie uses material from a series of interviews the filmmakers conducted with Bowles. Testimonials regarding Bowles' talent are delivered by witnesses such as Allen Ginsberg and Ned Rorem. Archival footage is also used, as well as clips from an experimental short directed by Hans Richter and starring Bowles. Through the interviews, Bowles provides historical information about his life as well as the many artists with whom his life has intersected. (His home in Tangier was a common way station for artists and bohemians abroad.) His relationship with his wife Jane (who was also a writer, a self-acknowledged lesbian, and an alcoholic) is explored in terms of its centrality in his life and his own ambiguous sexuality. Also explored are topics such as Jane's withdrawal from writing just as Paul's writing career began, his devotion to kif (Moroccan marijuana) and its artistic merits, his relationship to Moroccan society, and his preservation work on behalf of the vanishing Moroccan music and storytelling traditions. The movie is as open and forthcoming as I suspect one might ever see about Bowles. Still, someone who revels in his status as “a complete outsider” is never going to be terribly effusive and engaging. For fans of Bowles, the film is a juicy nugget of biographical info; for those unfamiliar with the writer, it might inspire them to check out the source. Also on the bill with Paul Bowles is a half-hour short titled Death in Venice, CA by P. David Ebersole. This multi-award-winning movie transplants the themes of Thomas Mann's novel to the shores of California's Venice Beach. A writer on retreat at his sister-in-law's meets a young man named Sebastian whose proclivity for anonymous gay sex in public restrooms leads to a path of destruction, replete with all sorts of St. Sebastian imagery.