Surface Tension


Owsley Brown’s documentary Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles is a lovely, rather eccentric tribute to the great American writer who died in 1999 at the age of 88. It combines interviews with Bowles, filmed in his Tangier apartment during the last years of his life, with seven abstract pieces—visual interpretations of his musical compositions, each one played in its entirety on the soundtrack.

Brown’s strategy of approaching Bowles through his music rather than his writing makes for a documentary portrait that’s both fresh and a bit perverse. Bowles began studying composition with Aaron Copland when he was in his late teens. Music was his primary focus throughout the ’30s and most of the ’40s. He wrote instrumental pieces and song cycles but was best known at that time for his theater and dance scores, among them the incidental music for Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. After his move to Tangier in 1947, his focus shifted to writing and he never composed music again.

In fragile health at the time Owsley interviewed him, Bowles seems bemused by the attention being lavished on work that, for him, belongs to a distant past. He is probably not wrong in his assessment that the revival of interest in his music has mostly to do with his stature as a writer. Although the music and the writing were produced out of the same modernist aesthetic (which he describes as an attempt to keep things “simple but not minimalist”), the music is lightweight in comparison with his short stories or his novel The Sheltering Sky. “Why would anyone want to listen to music that isn’t pleasant?” he inquires disarmingly.

But pleasant is hardly an adjective one would use to describe Bowles’s fiction, which, even at its most lyrical, is driven by a dark undercurrent of sexual desire and violence and is ever attentive to the abyss between the self and others. The moments in the film that are most interesting don’t deal with the music per se, but cast some light on how Bowles’s musicality, in particular his sophisticated sense of rhythm and melody, shaped his prose. Between sips of tea and puffs of kif (“I’m not allowed nicotine,” he says), Bowles is forever tapping out rhythmic patterns with his fingers. And in the film’s most affecting scene, a young Moroccan musician makes a drum of his own body as he sits next to Bowles’s bed, singing him to sleep.

Night Waltz was edited by the avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, who also shot a great deal of the film, although not the interviews with Bowles. For the “music videos,” Dorsky used his own footage of Paris and Mexico, avant-garde filmmaker Jerome Hiler’s ’60s footage of a neon-lit Times Square by night, and sequences from three black-and-white New York City films by Rudy Burckhardt dating from the ’30s and ’40s. Burckhardt’s short Under the Brooklyn Bridge (boys skinny-dipping in the East River) and his still photographs of New York are particularly effective visual complements to Bowles’s music. Bowles and Burckhardt had been part of the same social circle of artists; they had even been collaborators. (Burckhardt’s first film, a 1936 portrait of a group of American composers that included Copland and Thompson, was scored by Bowles.) Still, combining images with pre-existing music is always a tricky business. And in this case, despite Dorsky’s sensitivity to Bowles’s aesthetic and the beauty of images he chose (the color is ravishing), the visual material tends to obscure what’s most impressive about the music—Bowles’s extremely refined sense of the space between sounds.

The Walter Reade’s ingenious program “On the Road With JLG” alternates screenings of Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic Weekend (1967) with the depressive Soigne Ta Droite (1987), the only tedious film Godard ever made. Both are showing in new 35mm subtitled prints.

Soigne Ta Droite (Keep Up Your Right), which was never released in the U.S., is one of those failures by great artists that are more provocative to think about than to experience. It’s unclear whether Godard’s evident disgust with the project set in during the shooting or when he looked at the material on the editing table and saw how little he had to work with. In any case, the film is infused with a sense of futility, nausea, and creative exhaustion. This is not, philosophically speaking, an invalid basis for a work of art, but it pretty much guarantees that the result will not produce pleasure.

The narrative, such as it is, involves a filmmaker (played in bumbling, silent-comedy style by Godard) who is alternately referred to as “the Prince” or “the Idiot” (after Dostoyevsky’s Myshkin). He has been guaranteed financing for a film, provided that he can deliver it within 24 hours. This film (which is one and the same with the film we’re seeing) follows the adventures of the Idiot/Prince, who is en route to Paris with his part of the bargain clutched under his arm. (“The hardest part of being a filmmaker is carrying the cans,” he opines.) Intertwined with the filmmaker’s odyssey is a series of scenes set in a recording studio where the techno-pop group Rita Mitsouko comes up with one tired sound after another in an attempt to make a new album. Only at the last minute does Godard succeed in wresting form from the chaos of worn-out options by returning to ground zero. Soigne Ta Droite ends with three luminous shots of the empty sea and sky viewed through an open French window at different times of the day and night.

A wide-screen, comic-book-styled allegory in which every juxtaposition of primary colors seems like an act of violence, Weekend depicts an affluent French society destroying itself in a frenzy of road rage and cannibalism. A married couple (played by the mid-’60s sex symbol Mireille Darc and the stolid Jean Yanne) drive halfway across the country to try to get the wife’s mother to fork over the family fortune. The film opens with two implied sexual triangles. In a telephone conversation with his mistress, the husband assures the unseen woman that he plans to murder his wife as soon as she gets her inheritance. This is followed by a long monologue in which the wife describes in pornographic detail her participation in a threesome where (shades of Bataille) a raw egg and a saucer of milk are used as sex toys.

No sooner have the couple embarked on their journey than they are caught in an epic traffic jam. Accompanied by a cacophony of car horns, the camera tracks for 10 uninterrupted minutes alongside a highway filled with bumper-to-bumper stalled cars until it arrives at the cause of the tie-up: the twisted steel wreckage of a multiple-vehicle crash, dappled with blood and littered with body parts.

From here on, the film becomes more fragmented, violent, and grimly hilarious. Just as the roads are strewn with corpses and burning cars, the dialogue is littered with references to designer goods. The couple hitch a ride with a pianist, who sets up his instrument in a barnyard and proceeds to play Mozart. In a ludicrous parody of the product placement just then gaining a foothold in Hollywood movies, Godard has painted “Pianos Bechstein” in large white letters on the side of the concert grand.

Having killed the wife’s mother when she refuses to part with the money, the couple try to get home, only to become hopelessly lost in a countryside teeming with rapists, murderers, loquacious African Marxists, and cannibalistic revolutionary terrorists. The final image of the wife chewing on a bit of roasted human flesh that may have been carved from the body of her butchered husband still delivers the nasty frisson it did 30 years ago. Kinetic and cruel, Weekend is the film in which Godard really sticks it to narrative. Not only is it devoid of a single character anyone could care about, the fact that I’ve given away the ending doesn’t matter a jot.