An unusually complete look at the self-exiled author of “The Sheltering Sky” and other pre-Beat era classics, this docu effectively depicts a surviving enigma in his Tangier retreat, and has some sharp insights into the act of writing itself. This “Outsider” can expect enthusiastic acceptance by pubcasters , educators and literary audiences worldwide.
Pic was undertaken when co-helmer Regina Weinreich went to teach with writer Paul Bowles in Tangier and realized she and fellow English-lit doctorate Catherine Warnow had gone through graduate school scarcely hearing of his work. With help from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Moroccan government, a decade of letter writing resulted in this series of lively interviews, punctuated by archival clips (including a surrealistic ’50s piece from Hans Richter), atmospheric travel footage and interviews with friends like Allen Ginsberg, Ned Rorem and Millicent Dillon.
There are plenty of other high-toned names dropped as Bowles and others describe his relationships with Gertrude Stein, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs (who put Bowles at the center of “Naked Lunch”) and Jean-Paul Sartre — Bowles titled his translation of “No Exit” after spying a sign in the New York subway.
And, of course, there’s the strained competition with wife Jane, who pursued her lesbian affairs while he struggled with his own vague sexuality.
The filmmakers are less interested in his austere romantic life than his rich musical one. Bowles wrote operas and Broadway musicals in the 1940s, and turned his attention to collecting North African music and stories (and smokables) thereafter; the pic’s soundtrack is replete with examples of his compositions. He also reads from his works, and obliges the camera with plenty of curmudgeonly quips.
The emerging portrait is of an artist keenly tuned to his environment but always painfully alien from it — someone who, by the time filming began in 1988 , felt strange anywhere outside of his own apartment.
Lensing and sound vary from problematic to very good, but this doesn’t interfere with the thoughtful subject. Although Bowles, now 83, remains a quintessential pessimist, the overall tone is of lighthearted introspection, and there are plenty of sardonic laughs from all quarters.