By Alan Mattli
Ever since its inception in the early 1920s, the medium of the documentary has fought a constant struggle to define itself, to express itself meaningfully within the constraints of its perceived “mission”. From the glorious, if staged, efforts of Robert Flaherty to the stirring experimentalism of Godfrey Reggio, filmmakers have tried to rattle the cage and break free of the infamous talking heads format. They’ve made absurdist mockumentaries, they’ve conciously eclipsed the line between reality and fiction, they have unearthed stories so incredible that one could be a forgiven to doubt their accuracy. Daniel Young’s latest film, The Cage Door Is Always Open about the American writer, composer, and eccentric extraordinaire Paul Bowles, despite being fairly inconspicuous, explores a different territory altogether.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bowles (1910–1999) has achieved fame, fortune, and iconicity during his lifetime, mainly through the success of his classic novel The Sheltering Sky, which was published in 1949, and his colourful life as a dandy misfit inhabiting a crudely romantic world shaped by subversive Americana, European intelligentsia, and African Islam. But compared to his larger-than-life stature, he seems infinitely small when we first meet him in person, together with writer-director-narrator Young: the year is 1997 and Bowles is sat in a bed, frail, weakened by age and illness. Yet, although every breath appears to require a small struggle, he is alert, contemplating every question, answering them with dignified wit, sly humour and sober self-deprecation. When asked whether he feels that his life’s work has achieved its objective, his answer is as simple as it is crushingly honest: “No”, Bowles says without a trace of sadness.
This then puts in motion Young’s journey to find out more about the writer who has become a modern American myth in his own right. Blending old-fashioned talking heads, rarely-seen archive footage, Terry Gilliam-style animation, and associative movie snipptes, he creates an often rousing collage that seeks to emulate the defining works of Epstein/Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet) and to capture the essence of Bowles’ life, which seems to be a collection of anecdotes, relaid by an illustrious group of contemporaries and admirers. In the words of people like Bernardo Bertolucci, who directed the 1990 film adaptation of The Sheltering Sky, John Waters, the Swiss beat literature translator Florian Vetsch, the poet Ruth Fainlight, and the likeably aristocratic Gore Vidal, Bowles does not lose one shred of his iconicity. Rather, he seems to become the symbol of half a century of American Bohemian art. No matter which part of his life is being discussed, somebody is always able to tie him to a cultural celebrity or a seminal change in attitude.
Thus, Paul Bowles becomes some sort of “hipster godfather”. Not only did he walk Gertrude Stein’s dog, befriend Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote (Fainlight succinctly describes the façade of New York’s 1940s intellectual scene as the constant repetition of “We’re all charming and funny and elegant and brilliant”), and granted amnesty to William S. Burroughs, but he also saw, did, and appreciated everything before anybody else: he was the first serious critic of world music and jazz; according to Young, he single-handedly killed the “square” mentality of postwar America; his permanent emigration to Tangier inspired a generation of beatniks and hippies; his recording efforts form the basis of Moroccans’ knowledge of their own musical heritage; John Waters claims that Bowles’ sisterly wife, the brilliant neurotic Jane (1917–1973, the closeted lesbian to his closeted bisexual), presaged the theatre of the absurd.
Truly, Bowles’ was a writer’s life. But Young’s excursions can be just as frustrating as they are fascinating. By becoming a man who, by implication, played a concert set with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman one night, and had a friendly chat with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg the next, he ceases to be a wholly believable person and starts to look more like a product of a Twainian tall tale. Of course, it can be argued that this is exactly what Young attempts to do, that The Cage Door Is Always Open is the story of a filmmaker who wanted to meet Paul Bowles the man and discovered Paul Bowles the myth; the documentary manifestation of the famous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance quote “If the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, so to speak. However, Young seems to be in two minds about this matter, as his focus constantly shifts back and forth from legend to fact.
It also doesn’t help that Young’s documentarian craftsmanship is marred by several jarring flaws. In spite of Bowles’ elegant separation of work and author – “He is not the book and the book is not he” –, the movie insists on casting a wide array of avatars to represent its subject. While this is understandable, such as in the Andrew Keif character from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (and David Cronenberg’s cinematic treatment of it), and particularly memorable in some cases (Charlie Chaplin serves as a stand-in at one point), it is highly dubious in others, particularly in the running theme of equating Bowles with The Sheltering Sky‘s main character (played by John Malkovich in Bertolucci’s film).
This is coupled with Young’s damningly leading commentary, which, other than, say, Martin Scorsese’s Journeys through American and Italian cinema, lacks elaboration and reasoning. The most jarring of Young’s choices, however, is his borderline insulting portrayal of the writer Ira Cohen, whose dismissal of Gore Vidal’s opinion (“This is shit”) is bookended by him saying “I think I have to go to the bathroom”.
Still, there is no denying that Daniel Young’s cinematic tribute to one of the more august figures of American literature is an intriguing exercise. Other films demystify their subject before carving them into a monument. The Cage Door Is Always Open on the other hand, accomplishes the amazing feat of having its audience leave the thatre irrationally doubting the existence of Paul Bowles, wondering whether this was the director’s intention. It may not be a great film, nor a great documentary, but it certainly makes for animated viewing.