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Thursday, June 19, 2014

DVD Review: Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open

Like probably most of you, I was turned onto Paul Bowles when I read The Sheltering Sky in my late teens. It had a serious effect on me, as it did on others. Indeed, the first lines of narration in the new documentary film, Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open, are: “You never know when a book will change your life. In 1997 I read The Sheltering Sky.” The filmmaker goes on to say that he contacted Paul Bowles and set up an interview with him after that, which ended up being one of the last interviews Paul Bowles gave.

The film begins with footage from that interview, with Paul Bowles talking about why he wrote. When asked if he thinks he said what he set out to, Bowles answers, “No, but slowly it came not to matter.” From that moment, I was completely hooked on this film. You could take what he said in a positive or negative light, but the fact that Bowles is in bed in the footage adds to the sort of heartache of what he’s saying.

The filmmaker returns to that interview with Paul Bowles throughout the film, and in some respects it acts as the documentary’s center. At one point Bowles talks about how he thought he’d be a composer. And he did write music, something I wasn’t aware of. Some pieces that he composed for piano are played at various points in the film. For a little while he made a living by composing incidental music for theatre. He also wrote music reviews to earn money.

The film includes interviews with several writers including Gore Vidal, John Hopkins, and Edmund White. There is some weird camera work during the interviews, where the camera approaches a subject from one odd angle or another, and these shots work in conjunction with the more traditionally framed static shots during interviews.

Paul Bowles’ relationship with his wife, Jane, is intriguing, and the documentary gives us several perspectives on it, including those of Gore Vidal and Ruth Fainlight. I did not know that Jane Bowles was also a writer, and I am now excited to read her novel Two Serious Ladies, which was written and published before Paul Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky. I also found the stuff about Jane being poisoned fascinating, and wanted more information and clarification on that.

Of course, the documentary focuses on The Sheltering Sky, and its popularity. Bowles, in his interview, talks about the reviews and also the money he made from that novel. “I went out and bought a Jaguar convertible,” he says. The film adaptation is also discussed, and the documentary includes an interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci. There is also some information on William S. Burroughs, and a bit about how Paul and Jane are portrayed in the film version of The Naked Lunch.

The documentary gives a little background on Tangier, where Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky. Another thing I didn’t know about Paul Bowles is that he recorded traditional Moroccan music there, helping to preserve the culture. And the documentary treats us to a couple snippets from those recordings.

Near the end, we return to the main interview with Paul Bowles, and he talks about the importance of laughter. “If you take tragedy too seriously, it swamps you. But if you take it with a shrug and a giggle, you’ll enjoy life more, I think.” Absolutely.

Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open was directed by Daniel Young, and was released on DVD on June 17, 2014 through First Run Features. The DVD contains no special features.

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