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With: Paul Bowles
Written by: Owsley Brown
Directed by: Owsley Brown
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 89
Date: 02/14/2000

Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

This Note's for You

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Literary cultists love Paul Bowles for his short stories and his novel The Sheltering Sky, but few -- myself included -- know about Bowles' music. So, just the title of Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles sounds intriguing. And the movie, the directorial debut of San Franciscan Owsley Brown, lives up to that promise.

It turns out that Bowles never intended to be a writer. He originally studied music with Aaron Copland while in his late teens and composed music for Tennessee Williams' and Orson Welles' stage productions. In fact, his musical history seems to have been far richer and more interesting than his literary history, as some of the stories in Night Waltz confirm.

Even more remarkable is that Brown managed to visit Bowles in his Morocco home and interview him during the last months of his life. Otherwise Night Waltz would have turned into an ordinary talking-head documentary. Brown doesn't even need to interview Bowles, whose home seems to be perpetually full of musicians and musical appreciators with whom he listens to and discusses music. Bowles himself seems to still be musically oriented, tapping out rhythms on tabletops that only he understands.

As if that weren't enough, Brown presents several Bowles compositions in their entirety, instead of simply playing snippets the way most documentaries would. These beautiful musical pieces, ranging from early jazzy numbers to later, more solemn piano solos, are accompanied by astounding visual clips. Some of the clips are lovely old New York City shots by Rudy Burckhardt, and some newer ones are by the San Francisco experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky (who helped Brown shoot and edit Night Waltz). These interludes have the feel less of music videos than of optional accompaniments. You could just as easily close your eyes and listen.

But the project would have failed without the comments of Bowles himself. Very frail during the shooting, Bowles still exhibits traces of that spark that made him unique. You can still see in his eyes the man who arranged an audition with composer Sergei Prokofiev, then decided at the last minute to stand him up and go for a hike instead. Bowles challenges our ideals with statements like "charm is dead," and "why would anyone want to listen to anything that isn't pleasant?" But I get the impression that Bowles is more interested in kicking our behinds than in making meaningful statements.

After about 90 minutes of delightful filmmaking, you may wonder how Night Waltz could get any better. It does. A young Moroccan singer, a friend of Bowles', softly leans over his bed and sings him a beautiful song. Bowles closes his eyes to listen, but drifts off to sleep. The boy finishes his song, kisses him and leaves Bowles alone in the frame, the delicate face of a man who has given so much to us, more than we even knew.

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