Though diverting enough, Swiss-American director Daniel Young’s “Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open” offers a not particularly revealing look at the life of the American expat novelist-composer beloved by the Beat generation. Loosely structured around an embarrassingly clueless sickbed interview the helmer conducted with Bowles shortly before he died, the gossipy docu blends biographical info, talking-head speculation about his relationships, archival footage, iconic black-and-white photos and animated collage, but offers no new information for Bowles scholars. Worse, it lacks a strong p.o.v. and winds up inspiring more questions than it answers.
Voiceover narration from Young, supported by commentary from Bowles’ friends, colleagues and admirers, sketches out the facts of Bowles’ life (1910 – 1999). The only child (and a disaffected one at that) of an upper-middle-class family from the New York suburbs, he traveled to Paris as a young man, where Gertrude Stein became his mentor. Stein encouraged his switch from poetry writing to music composition and his travel to North Africa.
Although actively gay, Bowles eventually married Jane Auer, a budding writer and a lesbian. The couple established a base in New York, where they were always short of money. Between creating serious musical works, Bowles earned a meager income by composing incidental music for the theater (including works by his friend Tennessee Williams) and writing reviews of world music and jazz. Gore Vidal tells an amusing story about how the couple enjoyed financial support from Libby Holman, the notorious torch singer and suspected murderess, an admirer of Jane’s.
Bowles moved to Tangier, Morocco, in 1947, and Jane joined him there a year later. They set up separate households with their same-sex lovers on different floors of the same building. In addition to writing his best-known novel “The Sheltering Sky” in Morocco, Bowles also immersed himself in the local culture. To its credit, the film stresses that this immersion involved more than affairs with the local beach boys and experiments with kif and hashish. It shows that Bowles was an important ethnomusicologist, finding, recording and preserving native music from all over the country. He also translated and published the stories told by illiterate Moroccan storytellers, perpetuating their oral tradition.
Italian helmer Bernardo Bertolucci discusses what he sees in Bowles’ writing and how it inspired him to direct “The Sheltering Sky.” Young uses clips from the Bertolucci film as well as from David Cronenberg’s version of William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” in an attempt to illustrate the self-destructive co-dependency of the Bowles’ relationship.
Shot over the film’s 14-year production odyssey, the interviews with Bowles’ associates lacks visual oomph, apart from what the more animated speakers (John Waters, John Giorno, Vidal) provide. As captured by Young’s camera, Vidal, like Bowles, appears old and ill, but his catty reminiscences are fascinating. So, too, is a vintage BBC clip of Burroughs and painter Francis Bacon discussing the Bowles’ relationship, although the short, hard-to-hear artifact doesn’t add much to the topic.
What visual charm the pic offers comes from animated collage segments composed of bits of photographs and other cutouts. The use of Bowles’ rarely heard compositions on the music track are a definite plus.