Is there a living artist today more fascinating than Paul Bowles? Born in Jamaica, Queens, he left a successful career as a music composer in the '40s and moved to Tangier where he's remained ever since, immersed in its culture and people. He began writing fiction, most famously the legendary The Sheltering Sky, several striking short stories, and his autobiography Without Stopping (1972). Although primarily gay, he married, and his wife, Jane, a lesbian, became as well-known as he for her brilliant writing (Two Serious Ladies, the play In the Summer House) and personal eccentricity. Since 1962, Bowles has returned to the United States only once, in 1995, for two concerts of his music at New York's Lincoln Center.

Jennifer Baichwal's documentary Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles is an absolute labor of love that is largely successful in recounting Bowles' life, as well as the more daunting task of attempting to solve the enigma of this notoriously reclusive, mystifying man. At age 19, Baichwal, obsessed by his writing, biked to Morocco from France, knocked on his door and was graciously received. She ended up staying there for a year. Years later, she reintroduced herself to Bowles with the idea for her film and was met with cooperation by him and various friends to be interviewed. The 85-year-old subject, recumbent and puffing on a kif pipe, is frail but still very alert and, although ever-filled with subterfuge, more forthcoming here than he's ever been. ('I always started to write before smoking, otherwise I'd never write. It clears my mind out'). A real coup for Baichwal was a summit meeting in New York of Bowles and Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, two longtime friends who rendezvous with him for one last time. In fact, Burroughs acts as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on and clarifying Bowles' relentless obfuscation. He says that Bowles' Without Stopping should have been entitled Without Telling and marvels at how, as a young man, he was accepted as a music student by no less than Prokofiev but instead fled to Germany. He calls Bowles' style more in tune with the classical rather than Beat. Ginsberg is, perforce, more gossipy, describing the ever-alluring availability of Moroccan boys, 'like Provincetown in the good old days.' No less an achievement for the filmmaker was an interview she got with the infamous Cherifa, an Arab woman who was Jane's longtime lover and rumored to have poisoned the authoress, who lost her mind, suffered a stroke and died in 1973. Now a grizzled old lady, she scoffs at such notions of black magic on her part, but several of Bowles' friends remain unconvinced.

Bowles himself emerges as the ultimate existentialist, believing in neither the notion of love nor the self. 'People are planets floating around and if they touch, they touch at one tiny point. We're all self-sufficient,' he says. 'Being in love is extremely abnormal, like schizophrenia. A man in love is an obsessed person.... If one lives or dies, it makes no difference. The only meaning of life is inevitable death.' Several friends attest to the fact that he is a man without friends, despite his considerable aid to other writers, from his wife to various Moroccans in need of translation. 'A writer,' he says, 'should keep himself out of what he's writing. If he allows the self in, it weakens his fiction.' Many readers, disturbed by such chilling Bowlesian images of a self-castration in Let It Come Down or the incestuous seduction of a father by a son in Pages from Cold Point, might be relieved to hear this. Baichwall laces her film with eloquent readings from these and other works which, like the accompanying music (all of it composed by Bowles), add resonant ambiance.

A real key to the man lies in his early years, spent as the only child of rigidly repressive, very 'New England' parents who forbade him every pleasure and didn't consider writing a normal activity. ('I wrote a book when I was four because I didn't have anything else to do.') There seem to have been few major figures in 20th-century art, from Copland to Kerouac, whose paths didn't at some point intersect with his, and he is often very lucid at shattering idols ('Gertrude Stein humiliated everyone'). 'Success is vicious,' he states. 'Once you reject something, it doesn't bother you anymore. In life, very little goes right. One has no right to want or expect anything.' A friend agrees, saying, 'Paul was only happy when things were going wrong and miserable when things were going right.'

One gets a vivid picture, too, of the fabled expatriate community in Tangier, whose number included, at various times, Barbara Hutton, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Cecil Beaton and the Hon. David Herbert who, as interviewed here, is the perfect image of etiolated, Brit-eccentric aristocrat. Jane Bowles, that maddening genius who many consider a superior writer to Paul, also emerges in a full portrait via photographs and reminiscences. (Burroughs: 'Even if you read one sentence of hers, it couldn't be anyone but Jane.') Their marriage is finally verbally elucidated by Bowles, who betrays a definite tinge of emotion when he observes, 'She was such fun I felt it would be wonderful to be with her all the time,' but 'Jane drank far too much. For 16 years, she went downhill. She became blind, then paralyzed. There was some war going inside her that made her mad.' Although one might read a sense of desolation into his words--'If I described myself, that would mean that I exist. I don't believe that....All my work is behind me'--what you really come away with from this film is an overpowering respect for a man who rejected the commercialized artistic rat race, created a highly satisfactory, unique life for himself and, without ever intending to, gained the world's admiration.

--David Noh