" Oh come come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler. "
— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Halfmoon (the film) presents itself as a trilogy of short films based on the writings of author Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky). Each part is a well made, if somewhat enigmatic, slice-of-exotic-life story with no connection to the other parts, aside from the fact that they were written by the same man. As is explained elsewhere in this DVD, the directing team of Frieder Schlaich and Irene Alberti, use Bowles as the bridge to connect them. In brief clips, he comments on the story to be seen and in the case of the first one, he actually narrates it.

Bowles was an American associated with the Moroccan city of Tangier where he lived for years
Bowles was an American associated with the Moroccan city of Tangier where he lived for years

I’m sure fans of Bowles will be pleased with this trilogy. But if you are from outside that circle, you may be baffled by it. The stories go something like this: in the first one, Merkala Beach, two young men from Tangier meet a girl from the country. One man prefers alcohol as his drug of choice and the other smokes kif (marijuana). In the end, the pothead gets the girl. In the second story, Call at Corazon a newlywed English couple are on a river boat adventure in Brazil. The woman sleeps with one of the boat’s crew and the husband leaves her at the riverside. The third story Allal’ is about a fatherless street child in rural Morocco who controls a deadly snake by feeding it majoun (a confection made of dates, nuts and hashish) and in return becomes possessed by the snake. Don’t feel alone if these stories leave you scratching your head and trying to make some sense out of the trilogy. If there is one thing in common here, it’s all three stories are typical of Bowles’ writing in that they are set in exotic non-Western-European locations.

Here Halfmoon (the DVD) comes to the rescue with additional material about Bowles that may help the audience. The directors seemed to be aware of this too. They set up the initial DVD menu with the choices of Play Movie, Special Features, The Music of Paul Bowles, Creating a Legend (a 45 minute “fragment of a complete film” about the Moroccans closest to Paul Bowles), and Paul Bowles Reads. Everything after “Play Movie” you would expect to find in the “Special Features” section of a regular DVD. But perhaps the trilogy is only part of a larger “Paul Bowles DVD.” What we’ve got here is an introduction to the style of Bowles. Seen in that light, it’s a pretty good production. Once I started watching the rest of the DVD, the trilogy didn’t hang in the air quite so badly.

If you’ve heard of Bowles at all, it was probably from his novel The Sheltering Sky, and for a lot of people that means the film version made in 1990. So it’s not too surprising that the first part of the trilogy was shot shortly after The Sheltering Sky was released. It captures the flavor of Bowles’ report-from-foreign-lands style found therein. The next two parts were made in the following years and Schliaich and Alberti were able to film and record Bowles the year before he died for the narration and comments used in the trilogy. In Merkala Beach, Bowles explains, “I’m trying to show the superior effects of smoking cannabis to drinking alcohol.” In Call at Corazon he says only that the experience of riding a crowded Amazon river boat really happened to him as described... though there was no wife to leave behind. Other than being set in Brazil, Call at Corazon is quite like The Sheltering Sky in tone, cast, and events. There is not much explanation from the author for Allal other than it is a “story of revenge.” He seems somewhat bemused at it’s being chosen by the filmmakers, and I had the feeling they got in a little over their heads on that one. As seen in the short doc about the making of Halfmoon, the site (a remote Moroccan village) and subject matter (magical realism) seem to best them. I had the sense that like Kurtz, they went too far up the river for their own good.

Bowles, who died at age 88 in 1999, was an American associated with the Moroccan city of Tangier where he lived for years. He was known to many of the leading artists, composers and writers from the 1930s on. The Beat troupe of Burroughs, Kerouac, Gingsberg, et. al., made pilgrimages to visit him in Tangier. And like the Beats, there has grown up a mythos around Bowles and the people who knew him. Schliaich and Alberti have stepped up to the plate and tracked down the usual suspects: Bowles’ servants, chauffeurs and Moroccan authors that knew him and interviewed them with interesting results. They are the subject of the “partial” documentary Creating a Legend included in this DVD. In any other art form this would be the province of fan-boys and groupies but here we’re dealing with literary scholars and biographers of famous men. Nothing is too trivial.

After Bowles’ death, the filmakers returned to Tangier to shoot footage that appears in Creating a Legend. By that time there’s a shift in the vision we are getting of Bowles. Something has changed, and we see an American living the ex-pat high life of what the British call The Raj. We learn that Bowles demands his driver wear a chauffeur’s uniform and at one point when the driver tries to quit, Bowles has the police retrieve him. Stuff like that isn’t going to make the Bowles official web site and is just the kind of gossip that keeps them buzzing down at the library or wherever else people still read books.

Because of its literary slant, Halfmoon is probably better suited to be reviewed in The Atlantic than on Movie Habit. But I liked it. If you view it as a video essay on Paul Bowels, perhaps you’ll like it too.

DVD Extras

As detailed above, things that would normally be extra features are in the main menu, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything in the Special Features section. Of particular interest is the short feature The Making of Halfmoon. There is also Bowles reading The Story of Lachen and Idir ( from which Merkala Beach was adapted), a sound clip of a Moroccan village at 4AM (mainly a dog barking but can you ever get enough Moroccan atmosphere?), and the usual film trailers.

Picture and Sound

Picture quality is very good. The film portions are first rate. I suspect some of the video may have been shot on old analog video, but it’s still not bad. Sound quality is also very good. The inclusion of CD quality recordings of Bowles’ music is a real treat. I had no idea he was a composer and I enjoyed listening to the selections.

How to Use this DVD

I recommend going to the documentary Creating a Legend first if you are not familiar with Paul Bowles. Then watch the trilogy, and follow that with the special feature Making of Halfmoon, which may answer some questions you might have... then again it may not. Go back to the main menu and listen to Bowles read the actual text for Merkala Beach. I thought that this was fairly flattering to the film version in that it shows it to be a faithful representation of the text. You can listen to the music of Paul Bowles at any point, as it was composed before he went to North Africa. This will be of particular interest to Bowles fans.