PB: It’s impossible, of course, to recreate truth in words. It’s not possible. But then...truth can only be expressed in words. (long pause)
J: That’s a bit of a dilemma.
PB: (laughs) Well, that’s all right. If it wants to be a dilemma, I don’t mind.
From 1994 to 1998 I made a film about Paul Bowles called Let It Come Down.
I was preoccupied with the problem of biography. And whether it was that preoccupation which brought me to Paul Bowles or Paul Bowles who created the preoccupation, I still am not sure. The two ideas — Bowles, biography — have become so mixed up in the past years that thinking about one always eventually leads back to the other.
I started reading Bowles as a teenager. I began with The Collected Stories and I still think the stories are the best introduction to his work (rather than the default favourite, The Sheltering Sky). He has a gift for the macabre — it is no coincidence that his mother used to read him Poe — but a macabre which is lean, almost laconic. I remember being drawn to the impartial quality of his prose, his ability to erase himself in it. Bowles writes with such economy of gesture, yet is able to convey an entire interior landscape through one descriptive sentence. We learn more from the facial spasm, the raised voice, the “smell of whiskey that had been drunk and whiskey that had been spilled,” than what pages of trying to plunge inside the character would convey. There is the voyeur’s meticulous observation in Bowles, and nothing given is arbitrary. It is a kind of democracy with the reader — a generosity, a collaborative act. He tells you only as much as you need to know and then lets you find the rest. There is a lovely passage in Gore Vidal’s introduction to the Collected Stories about one of them:
I was surprised to note how the actual stories differ from my memory of them. I recalled a graphic description of a sixteen-year old boy’s seduction of his father on a hot summer night in Jamaica. Over the years, carnal details had built up in my memory like a coral reef. Yet on re-reading “Pages From Cold Point,” nothing (and everything) happens. In his memoirs, Bowles refers, rather casually, to this story as something he wrote aboard ship from New York to Casablanca: “a long story about a hedonist...” It is a good deal more than that.
I first met Bowles in 1984, at the age of twenty. I had run away to Morocco — it was his prose which led me there — to escape university and my family. The country was intoxicating, and I ended up staying a year, living on a farm outside the town of Asilah.
When I arrived in Tangier, I made the pilgrimage to Bowles’ door, awkward and intimidated. The man who ushered me in and then lounged, cat-like, against cushions in a dark corner was gracious, elegant and remote. The room was heavy with carpets and the odour of kif, which Bowles smoked with the help of a long black cigarette holder. The scene sounds exotic, but the fact was that Bowles was not exotic at all. He could more easily have been imagined in a dozen other settings — a London drawing room, a New York club — than North Africa.
Americans rarely achieve the exotic anyway: the culture’s open-faced enthusiasm precludes it. But Bowles was not that. He was opaque and impermeable. He had an appearance which seemed fixed, unaffected by circumstance. Someone described him in the desert, which brings out the dishevelled in everyone, as the quintessential New England gentleman, dressed in a perfectly pressed suit and tie. I knew, from his books, that there was something seething underneath. But it was submerged enough to leave no trace on the surface.
As my Morocco year progressed, I became more embroiled in the intrigues and vicissitudes of village life and only saw Bowles a few more times. He would ask for, and relish, descriptions of my entanglements. The visits ended somewhat abruptly when the writer Mohammed Mrabet, who was often around in those days, made it clear that my boyfriend was not welcome in the apartment. We retreated, and I left the country a few weeks afterwards.
I kept up with Bowles’ work in the intervening years but as his writing trailed off, so did my attention. Then in 1994, ten years after our first meeting, I woke up in the middle of the night after a dream in which someone, who had just been to Tangier, told me that Bowles had died. In the insommnial and oddly sombre hours which followed, I calculated his age — eighty-three — and reflected on the lack of an authentic likeness or record.
I wrote to him then about making a film, he cautiously replied, and thus began a four year odyssey during which I spent more time thinking about another individual than I imagined was possible, slid into horrendous debt (because the film is self-financed), met my husband Nick de Pencier (who is the cinematographer and co-producer) and found myself witnessing the passing of a literary generation. We went to Morocco in 1994 and again in 1996 where I conducted a marathon interview with Bowles over ten days, which forms the basis of the film. In between, we visited Kansas to talk to William Burroughs and went to New York in the fall of 1995 because Bowles travelled there — his first trip to the city in thirty years — for a festival of his music at Lincoln Center. On that trip, we recorded what turned out to be a final meeting. Bowles had invited Burroughs from Kansas to lunch at his hotel and Burroughs unexpectedly brought Allen Ginsberg with him. The lunch was hilarious: three old men reminiscing about trying to quit smoking, complaining about their sandwiches and gossiping about all the drugs (now prescription) their friends were taking.
I took Let It Come Down to Bowles in November 1998, just under a year before he died. He had not seen me since 1996, although I occasionally wrote to him about the film’s progress, or lack of it. All through the editing process, where I spent hundreds of hours with the virtual Bowles and none with the actual, I was afraid that he would die before I could show the film to him. Then, when I was nearly finished, I was afraid of the opposite: that he would still be alive, so I would have to let him see it. Would an adverse reaction make the film unsuccessful to me? Was an adverse reaction inevitable? I had just returned from India, where I was shooting another documentary in which I had, far too casually, made a subject of myself. The experience made me more aware of the perils, in Bowles’ mind, of his exposure.
I had spent a good deal of time in India comparing it to Morocco. Because I was in some complicated way of
When I arrived at his apartment, Rodrigo Rey Rosa was there visiting. Bowles was eighty-seven then, nearly blind from glaucoma and mostly bedridden. He had emphysema, which means that he wasn’t smoking as much kif as he used to. But he was still as sharp as a tack. Despite my initial strenuous protests, Bowles insisted on watching the film that evening. I had intended to give it to him, leave, and have him write to me after he watched it. I was prepared for him to despise it, as he had rejected almost everything else that has been produced about him over the years. I wanted, however, to avoid having him despise it to my face.
In the face of his polite requests, I realized that it was churlish and selfish to continue to demure. So I set him up two inches from the set (which is in his bedroom), adjusted the volume, closed the door and went to sweat it out in the living room. I picked up a volume edited by Daniel Halpern on the writer’s identity. Borges and I was included and I read it, over and over again, for seventy-five minutes. I could hear everything: the film’s soundtrack was punctuated by Bowles’ comments as well as his silences. Sometimes the comments were funny: “Oh, Bill’s here! Nice to see him!” as though Burroughs were there in the room with him. Or: “What’s he (meaning himself, onscreen) doing now?” Sometimes they were sharp: “Who said that? What a windbag!” after a particularly pointed comment from Mohammed Choukri or David Herbert. The silences were always ominous.
As the film drew to a close, I went to hide in the kitchen, wondering if I should escape and put off the moment of reckoning. Rodrigo found me there, sheepish in hesitation. It should not have been a surprise to me that Bowles was able to remove himself from himself enough to be polite in his reaction. But he was more than polite--he was effusive, and that was a relief.
Paul Bowles’ death in 1999 marked the end of my long odyssey. I now regret that I did not return to Tangier before he died for a purely social visit: to be with, rather than record. When I watch it now, which happens rarely, the film has taken on the character of elegy.Jennifer Baichwal, 2001
*this piece was adapted from a longer piece written for the Fall 2000 issue of Brick, A Literary Journal (issue # 65/66)