Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles (1999)


(director/writer/producer: Owsley Brown 111; cinematographers: Nathaniel Dorsky/David John Golia/Gene Salvatori/Rudy Burckhardt; editor: Nathaniel Dorsky; music: Paul Bowles with visual essays by Mr. Dorsky and Mr. Burckhardt; cast: Paul Bowles,Phillip Ramey (Composer and interviewer), Abdehoudaid Boulaich (Valet), Joseph McPhillips (American Headmaster in Tangiers and neighbor), Karim Jihad Achouatte (Moroccan Singer); Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robin Burke; Owsley Brown 111 Presents; 1999)

“Night Waltz is a brazen nod to a real charmer and a uniquely talented artist who inspired many others by leading an adventurous and charming life.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This lively documentary which won numerous festival awards, including IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards 2000 and the Hamptons International Film Festival 1999 Jury Award Best Documentary Feature Film, was filmed in the months just before the frail 88-year-old Paul Bowles’ death in 1999. It uses interviews with him at his home in Tangier to get at the noted American expatriate writer, best known for his weighty and disturbing 1949 novel “The Sheltering Sky” and for his rep as the bad-boy of the art world. But he was known for much more than even that. In first-time San Francisco filmmaker Owsley Brown’s inspired documentary, Bowles’ little known musical career is explored as both a music critic who worked along with noted composer Virgil Thompson for the N.Y. Herald Tribune and for the many musical scores and songs he composed in his early days for the concert hall, opera, ballet, cinema and theater (he wrote the incidental music for Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie). The homage-like documentary celebrates his lesser known musical career and plays in its entirety seven of his compositions composed before he lived in Tangier and became famous as an author. It might easily be forgotten that Bowles was trained in music (while in his late teens he studied with Aaron Copland) and could have pursued a career in that field if he instead did not opt for writing, a craft he was determined to learn on his own as he felt less weary when writing words. The documentary plays soundtracks of Bowles’ lightweight musical compositions that are artfully accompanied with appropriate visuals, whether in the form of newly created abstractions, or short clips from films, or footage from the newsreels of the 1930s and 1940s of NYC that are in glorious b/w, or of the striking color shots in the neighborhood of his present day Tangier or in the apartment he has lived in since the 1970s, or of the richly colored location shots when on his Mexican honeymoon (while there Bowles reveals, “I invented folk themes that sounded like originals”).

The documentary was aided in great measure by avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky’ contribution as editor and creator of several exciting visual essays that accompany Bowles’ original music. There’s also a wonderful visual shot in the 1930s by Bowles’ contemporary, another avant-garde filmmaker, Rudy Burckhardt, of a group of skinny-dipping boys in the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge while Bowles’ musical score is played. My favorite piece was the animated score from “Music for a Farce.” Bowles first tells his tale about how he created it for Orson Welles and how he crossed the Atlantic and arrived at a great personal expense from Paris to give Orson in NYC the composition he requested for his Mercury Theater, only to be told that the director no longer needed it. He was paid off with a $100 by producer John Houseman for his troubles. Bowles then released the music on his own. The film uses avant-garde filmmaker Jerome Hiler’s ’60s footage for its satirical visual essay entitled Times Square Neon to complement that musical score, as the Gay White Way is lit up at night with numerous neon ads.

The kif smoking and nearly blind, snowy white-haired recluse and openly homosexual Bowles, who was once married to gifted writer Jane in an open marriage, has been living in Morocco since 1947 after a dream convinced him to make such a move. He turned his back forever on his NYC birthplace and from his haunts in Paris, where as a young man he met Gertrude Stein. The talented musical composer left his NYC musical advocate Aaron Copland, who strongly believed in Bowles’ talents but also believed he was lazy. There seems to be no regrets or questions about what if he pursued such a career. Not even the question of what if the 19-year-old in Paris had taken up the offer to study with the great Russian composer Prokofiev and had not willfully gone for a hike on the day of his audition and thereby stood him up. This rebellious act comes after he knew that the famous composer never teaches but was only talked into it by an advocate for Bowles on his urgings. The always enigmatic Paul Bowles had enough confidence to trust his inner feelings in making his life decisions, and mentions that he never once worried about his career moves.

When questioned by an admiring or should I say fawning young composer and neighbor in Tangiers, Phillip Ramey, about his views on his work and other musical questions, Bowles surprisingly confesses to him “I still live in music in my sleep.” Bowles infers that in Tangier music usually comes as a result of a religious accompaniment to a rite, or some festival. It’s not the same idea at all as western music. Apparently, music is much more gebrauchsmusik here

While interviewed Bowles seems always preoccupied tapping out rhythms with his fingers on the tabletop. When asked what’s the essential to music, he unhesitatingly calls rhythm “the basis of music” and further states that all else that comes has only followed; and, in a bemused tone, he adds that “Harmony is a European tradition.”

Bowles also amusingly asks his questioner: “Why would anyone want to listen to music that isn’t pleasant?”

The film sticks to the narrow confines of its musical subject matter, and neither the author’s dark side nor why so much violence is displayed in his stories is ever broached. But there’s one fascinating discussion about Bowles’s early childhood, where he talks without bitterness about how his middle-class parents living in Queens would keep him at home and not permit him to play outside with the other children and that the first time he met a child his age was at school when he was 7. Bowles used the time to gain a comfort level with solitude and to learn to listen to his inner thoughts, something he never lost sight of, as at 4 he was already writing stories about animals and at his now late age he has still never lost his appreciation for solitude.

The film’s most tender scene comes at the end, when a young Moroccan musician sits next to Bowles’ bed and softly sings him to sleep and concludes with a kiss on his forehead.

The idiosyncratic and straightforward Paul Bowles appears to be one of the great personalities of the last century, someone who walked away from his roots and a conventional life and had one hell of a time doing it. He amusingly teases us by saying “charm is dead.” He further says: “Charm, simple attractiveness: the last thing anyone wants to be in America.” Night Waltz is a brazen nod to a real charmer and a uniquely talented artist who inspired many others by leading an adventurous and charming life.

Bowles is correct when he responds that the only reason his musical contribution is now being considered, is because of the fame he achieved as a writer. There’s little doubt that his writings carry more weight. When asked by Ramey if he regretted not writing any major piece of music such as a symphony, he never flinches as he responds in his good natured way “You do the best you can.” He accepts that he was able to achieve with the means at his disposal, and further states: “It involves evolving a style from your limitations.”