A notoriously difficult person to interview, Paul Bowles is remarkably forthcoming, candid and, in his own odd way, entertaining in Canuck helmer Jennifer Baichwal’s extraordinary docu on the late writer, “Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles.” Indie effort provides a revealing portrait of Bowles that is must viewing for anyone remotely interested in the scribe or the influential literary expat scene in 1940s and ’50s Morocco. Pic has already garnered positive buzz on the fest circuit and is a natural for specialty arts webs and pubcasters around the globe, particularly given renewed interest following Bowles’ death Nov. 18.The centerpiece of the pic is a lengthy interview with Bowles, who is captured lying in bed in his home in Tangier, smoking kif (marijuana) with an elegant black cigarette holder. Bowles looks a tad fragile in the footage, shot mostly in 1996, but he is clear-headed and always articulate regarding his life, loves and work. He holds forth with his ultra-pessimistic views of human nature, clearly shaped by a difficult childhood in the U.S., and talks in detail about his numerous famous pals, notably Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Beat scribes William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He is more open than usual about his homosexuality, though he remains reticent about details of his personal life. He won’t endear himself to the gay community with his comment that it is normal to be ashamed of being homosexual. He doesn’t hesitate to dismiss Bernardo Bertolucci’s film version of his best-known novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” dryly noting that “it should never have been filmed. The ending is idiotic and the rest is pretty bad.” Baichwal also caught up with a number of her subject’s close friends, among them Tangier socialite David Herbert, Moroccan writer Mohammed Choukri, American composer Phillip Ramey and Joseph McPhillips III, the headmaster of the American School of Tangier. There’s a fair bit of discussion of Bowles’ career as a composer, particularly by Ramey and conductor Jonathan Sheffer; the latter helped organize a festival of Bowles’ music at Lincoln Center in 1995. The high point of the docu is the 1995 reunion in a Manhattan hotel room of Bowles, Burroughs and Ginsberg. It’s a captivating and strangely touching moment when these three old literary legends gently rib one another and amiably reminisce about the good old days. The interview footage is intercut with images from Morocco, both of the crowded inner-city streets of Tangier and the desolate desert, and stock archival images are used to good effect to give hints of life in 1940s North Africa. Canuck thesp Tom McCamus adds to the atmosphere with readings from numerous Bowles works. There is nothing fancy about “Let It Come Down”; it’s the interviews with Bowles that make it a standout docu. Helmer spent time in Tangier and befriended Bowles years before making the film, and her closeness to the writer clearly was instrumental in getting him to open up. What’s striking here is how his dark, mostly grim musings are tempered with his dry, laconic wit. Lensing is mostly low-fi, the largest section consisting of static shots of Bowles propped up in his bed. Docu includes a large number of extracts from Bowles’ musical compositions.
A Mongrel Media release (in Canada) of a Requisite Prods. production. (International sales: Rhombus Intl., Toronto.) Produced by Nick de Pencier, Jennifer Baichwal. Executive producer, Daniel Iron. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal.
Camera (color), Nick de Pencier, Jim Allodi; editor, David Wharnsby; music, Paul Bowles; sound, Denise Holloway. Reviewed at Montreal Festival of New Cinema & New Media, Oct. 18, 1999. Running time: 71 MIN.