Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles
Jennifer Baichwal, a Canadian, was befriended by writer Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky) when, in her early twenties, she ran away to Morocco to meet him, dizzied by his mesmerizing prose. Her wonderfully intimate documentary, Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, attests to the trust of Bowles, now in his late 80s, for his young filmmaking protege.
Lying comfortably back in his bed, smoking kif through a sleek cigarette holder, Bowles, a rheumy-eyed old buzzard (William Buckley at 95) with a droll wit and a disarming smile, holds forth on a very long and highly eventful life. His charmingly self-deprecating stories range from his stern New England childhood to his Paris meetings with Gertrude Stein, from his legendary marriage (she was lesbian, he was gay) to novelist Jane Bowles to his encounters with an endless stream of famous visitors (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Capote, Cecil Beaton, Tennessee Williams) who made Bowles's Morocco a kind of floating boy sex-and-drugs literary salon.
As a solitary child, Bowles wrote precocious books out of boredom. "My father didn't think it was normal," he explained, but he got Oedipal revenge later with a published short story in which "a wolf grabbed Donald's father by the throat," and ran off with the yanked-off head. Bowles, Sr.'s reaction to his son's sadistic prose? Bowles gleefully recites from memory (more than sixty years later) his dad's furious note: "My oh my in what gutters you have lain! Have you thought of sitting on the curb for awhile,where the view may be better?"
Of his 1938 marriage to Jane Bowles: "I was fed up with being alone, and she was such fun." He wasn't; Janey's nickname for him was "Gloompot." Bowles: "It must have been been very boring to be alone with me and hear 'Oy vey' all the time." Of his sexuality, Bowles is reticent, faithful to his New England upbringing, and a code of silence about such things. But the documentary supplies ample stories from others about Bowles's Moroccan boyfriends, and about randy times in Tangiers. Composer Ned Rorem: "I don't think it was that different from Provincetown...except that it oozes poverty."
Let It Come Down has one historically essential scene for anyone who swears by underground aesthetics: in 1995, the last meeting of Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, as they sat before the camera at New York's Mayflower hotel. They reminisce about druggy Tangiers days, about how Ginsberg got crabs there, how Bowles is misplaced among "Beat" writers; and Burroughs waxes eloquent about his belief that The Sheltering Sky is virtually a perfect novel.
What 1999 film can boast a scene so transcendant, so infinitely moving, as the true-life formal shaking hands "goodbye" (forever!) of Bowles and Burroughs, both these ancient proud giants bowed over on their canes?