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‘Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 30, 1994

"Little by little the words took over the notes," explains Paul Bowles, the avant-garde American composer-author best known for his 1949 novel, "The Sheltering Sky." Now 84, the reclusive expatriate who has lived in Tangier, Morocco, since the '50s gives a rare and candid interview in a tantalizing new documentary directed by Regina Weinreich and Catherine Warnow.

"Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider" includes interviews with such Bowles devotees as Allen Ginsberg (who calls him a "caviar writer"), but the film chiefly focuses on what the dapper octogenarian has to say about his early career as a Broadway composer, his art, his ties to Moroccan culture, his drug use and his marriage to lesbian author Jane Bowles.

Surprisingly accessible for a fellow who hasn't had a phone since 1969 -- "or was it '59?" -- Bowles regales the camera with amusing anecdotes about his Bohemian circle of friends: W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Aaron Copland, William Burroughs, Leonard Bernstein and best of all, Gertrude Stein. It was she who told him to move to Tangier -- "If she had said Spain, I'd have gone there." She also called him Freddy and rudely suggested he stop writing poetry.

Bowles took Stein's brutal criticism to heart and went on to write 20 books and 50 short stories. Here, he reads passages from his semi-autobiographical "The Sheltering Sky," much of it written under the influence of kef and marijuana-laced jam.

More of an appetizer than a meal, this hour-long film would have benefited from another 30 minutes of material. There are so many unanswered questions regarding Bowles's fascinating relationship with his late wife. He blames her Moroccan lover's "black magic" for her death, yet others blame Bowles for Jane's artistic decline, which was linked to her alcoholism and other self-destructive habits. Still, as Bowles points out: "Life isn't about other people. It's about one's self against the world. Against everything and everybody."

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