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Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles
Let It Come Down The Life of Paul Bowles
Actors: Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, Cherifa, Mohammed Choukri, Allen Ginsberg
Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Genres: Documentary
NR     2003     1hr 15min

One of the most enigmatic artists of the 20th century, writer, composer and wanderer Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is profiled by a filmmaker who has been obsessed with his genius since age nineteen. Set against the dramatic lan...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, Cherifa, Mohammed Choukri, Allen Ginsberg
Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Genres: Documentary
Sub-Genres: Biography
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 09/02/2003
Release Year: 2003
Run Time: 1hr 15min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 4
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Informative, imaginative intro to engimatic Paul Bowles
J. Clark | metro New York City | 10/31/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal's Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles (1998), winner of the International Emmy Award for Best Documentary, explores the life and works of one of the most enigmatic artists of the twentieth century: composer, author, translator, expatriate, and iconoclast Paul Bowles (1910-1999).Against the backdrop of exotic North Africa, the enigma of Bowles begins to unravel in this imaginatively-made film. Interviews with the reclusive Bowles, who speaks with a mixture of candor and secrecy, about his work and controversial private life, are intercut with the conflicting views of his critics and supporters. Highlights of the film include exclusive footage of the last meeting of Bowles, William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl) in New York in 1995; a scene of Bowles translating Moroccan storyteller Mohammed Mrabet; the first and only film appearance of his wife Jane's lover Cherifa, who is rumored to have poisoned her to death; a look at Bowles's work as a composer; and readings of his mysterious and poetic work accompanied by striking, and apt, visuals.Bowles was the quintessential iconoclast. He left the United States in the 1940s after building a career as an important modern composer, to immerse himself in the culture of North Africa. A writer's writer, his associations span the elite cultural circles of the last century. At twenty, he was an intimate of Gertrude Stein and Aaron Copland; at thirty the peer of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal; at forty, literary godfather to Beat writers Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. (All of those artists were gay, lesbian, or bi, although the film identifies only a few as such.) His unorthodox marriage to novelist and playwright Jane Bowles - both were gay and had significant relationships with others throughout their 35-year marriage - is legendary. Together they formed the magnet which drew many writers and artists to the exotic freedoms of Morocco before its independence in 1956. After Jane's death in 1973, Bowles continued to be the destination for "pilgrimages" of a steady stream of international admirers, including filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Owsley Brown (his excellent documentary Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles, complements this film), who captured different aspects of Bowles in his final years.Let It Come Down (the title borrowed from his second novel) is structured around Bowles's wide-ranging monologue shot over several days, primarily in 1996, with various voices breaking in to comment, dispute and to try to clarify. Chief among these is his long-time friend William Burroughs, who acts as the primary commentator on Bowles's version of his life. At one point, Burroughs wryly comments that Bowles's autobiography, Without Stopping, "should be called Without Telling... because he doesn't tell anything... Nothing about his sex life. Nothing... That's very New England."As Jennifer Baichwal wrote in her essay on the film (included on the DVD), "He tells you only as much as you need to know and then lets you find the rest." Her association with Bowles dates back to her early twenties when she ran away to Morocco, drawn by his dark, hypnotic prose. Subsequent visits deepened their friendship. Her film is also a strikingly impressionistic vision of Morocco, as reflected in Bowles's writings. She and cinematographer Nick de Pencier capture breathtaking footage of his adopted country, from the twisted medinas of Tangier and Fez to the surreal beauty of the desert, which serve as visceral metaphors for Bowles's interior world. There is something absolutely right about pairing actor Tom McCamus's (The Sweet Hereafter) reading of a passage from Bowles's best-known novel, The Sheltering Sky, with an abstract desert landscape at night: The sky a deep cobalt blue, with just a thin stretch of shifting sand beneath.Towards the end of the film, we begin to learn more about Bowles's gay identity, including his passionate affair - which one friends calls "the great love of his life" - with Ahmed Yacoubi, a Moroccan artist who had the endearing habit of playing his flute for 10 minutes to a just-finished painting "to blow life into it." It is a rare treat to see home movies of a much younger, and joyous, Bowles (from the 1950s) cavorting with Ahmed.In addition to providing the outline of Bowles's life and works and showing us his world, the film shrewdly leaves much unsaid. It lets Bowles's body, face, and intonations reveal - especially in the fascinating unedited sequences included in the DVD's Special Features section - as much about the man as what he says. It never tries to pin Bowles down, which of course is impossible. Intead it allows this enigmatic artist to remain as elusive as his enduring works."
Fine portrait--but skip the gruesome opening!
Gary Swafford | 09/28/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

If you enjoy the works of legendary writer Paul Bowles, you will like this interesting documentary, Let It Come Down. Filmed a few years before Bowles died the filmakers do a superb job of covering the highlights of his life and work. There is a very good overview of his biography, with Bowles answering key questions and sharing numerous anecdotes about many of the important people in his life: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, William Burroughs (along with a marvelous reunion with Burroughs shot during a brief, late life return to New York), Allen Ginsburg, Tennessee Williams, etc. He also speaks movingly of his relationship with his troubled wife Jane Bowles and their complicated relationship while maintaining a modicum of privacy.

A powerful feature to this documentary is how the filmakers ask the right, penetrating questions. You want Bowles quizzed about his expatriatism, his writing, his beliefs, his relationships. The frequently smiling Bowles was always his best and most interesting subject and is tremendously patient and a good sport in his expansive answers while not giving away the kitchen sink. I especially enjoyed hearing him talk about Melville's "Moby Dick," his disappointment with Bernardo Bertulucci's film adaptation of "The Sheltering Sky," and the evolution of his musical career, his views on God and the notions of love.

Overall this is a fine, even powerful documentary. One good-natured criticism is that it is too short. I would have enjoyed at least another half hour. My not so happy observation, and a strong caviat for viewers is the opening shot of what is apparently a goat or ram's head being eviscerated before our eyes during the credits....this is a shocking and revolting sight. And to what end? Perhaps a veiled reference to Bowles' existentialism? I almost didn't watch the film after this wholly disgusting and unnecessary opening.

So, five stars. Deserved. But skip the opening!"
Superficial, Standard Stuff, but the Swan Song of a Generati
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 01/01/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)

""Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles" was the first feature documentary by Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal. It is an amateurish and low-budget production that doesn't begin to approach the quality of Baichwal's later work. But this film was made 1994-1998 and became a sort of elegy to its subjects, especially to American expatriate writer Paul Bowles, who died in 1999. Baichwal was a fan of Bowles' writing in her youth and became personally acquainted with him in the 1980s. Here, she tries to capture some of the motivation behind Bowles' life and work through interviews with Bowles and those who knew him, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and the Hon. David Herbert, all deceased before the film was completed.

"Let It Come Down" takes a scattershot approach to Paul Bowles' life, and the interviews with him are reminiscent of many others that I've read. Bowles talks about his New England childhood, his youthful sojourn in Paris with Gertrude Stein, his career as a composer, his marriage to Jane, his delight in always being the "foreigner" among people unlike himself, international rule in Tangier after the War, and his writing, among other topics. We don't see Bowles' darker side or how selfish and cruel he could be. Like many of his admirers -and I consider myself a fan- Baichwal focuses on the exotic and mythic aspects of his life and character. This is not a probing or complete portrait of the man, but a film for his fans that reinforces the enigmatic expatriate persona that they conferred him.

Paul Bowles was 87 when he was interviewed for this film, and one difficulty in making a documentary about an elderly person is that nearly everyone who knew him in his productive years is dead. "Let It Come Down" interviews about a dozen people who knew Bowles at various stages of his life. One interesting tidbit is Jane Bowles' lover "Cherifa", who appears on film for the first time. Another is a reunion of Bowles, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg filmed in 1995 at New York's Mayfair Hotel, while Bowles was in town for a retrospective of his music. "Let It Come Down" almost entirely lacks context for its subjects and, therefore, is best viewed as a companion piece to the many books by and about Paul Bowles. It's nice to see how sharp the man was at the end of his life.

The DVD (Zeitgeist 2003): There are some Additional Scenes (25 min) that are worthwhile if you're a fan. There are 5 additional interviews with Paul Bowles, 2 additional conversations between Bowles, Burroughs, and Ginsberg in New York, and a brief scene with Burroughs. The scenes are listed in that order, by title, in case you can't figure out what they contain. There is a "Making-Of Essay" (text) by Jennifer Baichwal, in which she talks about her history with Bowles, making the film, and Bowles' reaction to it. There are Filmmaker Bios (text) of Baichwal and husband and cinematographer Nick de Pencier."