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Movie Review: 'Let It Come Down: The Life Of Paul Bowles'

Catching up with reclusive writer Paul Bowles

Friday, June 11, 1999

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

"Let It Come Down," a documentary of the iconoclastic writer Paul Bowles, opens with a graphic homoerotic prose quotation, metaphorically illustrated by the slicing up of a goat's head and brains. Stunning rather than charming. Paul Bowles unlocked the literary loony bin and "let in the murderer, the drugs, the incest, the call of the orgy, the end of civilization," says Norman Mailer. "He invited all of us to these themes."

    Movie Review:

'Let It Come Down: The Life Of Paul Bowles'

Rating: R for language and adult sexual discussions

With: William Burroughs, Ned Rorem, Allen Ginsberg

Director: Jennifer Baichwal

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars


Not everybody RSVP's to that invitation. You'd be unlikely to find Bowles on Rick Santorum's guest list in Mt. Lebanon. You'd find him in Morocco, where he has lived in happy, self-imposed exile for 50 years -- the locale of his signature novel, "The Sheltering Sky."

He was first, if not foremost, an accomplished composer of symphonic and theater music -- an intimate of Aaron Copland at 20 and of Truman Capote at 30, when Gore Vidal wrote that "Carson McCullers, Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams are the three most interesting writers in the United States." At 40, he was Beat guru to the likes of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. As a short story writer, in Vidal's opinion, Bowles has "few equals in the second half of the 20th century."

If Bowles was a fascinating writer, so was his wife Jane ("Two Serious Ladies"), a star of New York's Bohemian circle. Together and separately, they were highly admired. They were also highly homosexual and highly unfaithful to each other.

Great American Writers are supposed to live in America and write about The American Experience. Bowles didn't. He and Jane abandoned the United States in the '40s for the exotic liberties of Morocco, soon pulling other artists into their orbit. In their time and place, they were a veritable Henry and June, Scott and Zelda, Frida and Diego -- take your pick.

In the footage at hand, Bowles is 87, at home in Tangier, quietly dispensing revelations about his wicked ways and wiles. Interspersed are the comments and contradictions of his friends, chief among them Burroughs and composer Ned Rorem, a notorious playmate in Tangier at its wildest. The most fab scene in the film is the first meeting of Bowles and Burroughs -- and Bowles' first return to the States -- in 35 years.

It is perversely noteworthy that the ancient octogenarians who appear in the film are almost all chain-smokers (of cigarettes, cannabis or both). Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal captures them well and includes fine footage of Gertrude Stein and her obnoxious dog. "I hate poodles," Bowles observes. "They're revolting animals."

So he's a little on the dour-sour side. Morocco, post-independence, isn't the place it was in colonial days. Bowles misses the endless supply of boys, grass and servants, says one of his critics, back when Tangier was a decadent little paradise. How degenerate was it? Mention is made of a boy who had sex with his own father in order to blackmail him.

The Department of Degeneracy Oversight is gearing up here -- the normal trickle of outraged letters to the editor, soon to be a swollen creek. Don't blame me. Blame an extraordinary composer who became an extraordinary writer and created extraordinary fiction on the principle, as he puts it, "Why bother with what's false when you can do it with what's true?"

In 1990, Bernardo Bertolucci made a pretty sexually explicit film version of "The Sheltering Sky" with John Malkovich. Lenny Maltin capsulized it as a couple's journey to Morocco in search of something to spark their sexual and existential bond. But, he added, it's "a journey you may not want to take." Something similar might be said of "Let It Come Down," a very well-crafted exploration of a subject as far removed from the mainstream as the Monongahela from the Volga.

If inclined, catch it fast -- all ye doddering old hep cats -- today through Tuesday only, at the Melwood.

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