Mark Peploe: Morocco without Sunglasses
Visual maximalist Bernardo Bertolucci has brought literary minimalist Paul Bowles's Sahara classic The Sheltering Sky to the screen. The film's screenwriter, Mark Peploe, Oscar-winner for Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, explains how this meeting of masters stands out in blinding relief from the desert romances of the past.
There's a reason why The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles's cult classic of abandoned souls in the Sahara, has been pursued by obsessed filmmakers for decades without ever making it to the screen--until now. It's one of the most ecstatically nihilistic, profoundly internalized masterpieces of modern literature. That a director like Nicolas Roeg, who strategically placed a copy of The Sheltering Sky face down on his suicidal heroine's lap by john kobai in his none-too-cheerful Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession back in 1980, should have long ago wanted desperately to adapt this shattering novel cannot surprise us. But especially now in the '90s, with signs that the most harebrained romances may be the next big cinematic trend, Are we ready for the desert wanderings of a spiritually shell-shocked husband and wife with nothing but time on their hands?
You have to give Warner Brothers credit for sheer guts. It's hard enough to make a good, commercially viable movie when you start out with a clear, attention-grabbing storyline, appealing characters, accessible psychological content (if, indeed, there's any), and a happy ending. The Sheltering Sky offered none of the above, and that's why we consider this $23 million production the hands-down winner as the highest-risk roll-of-the-dice in this year's Christmas box office crapshoot. Sure, the director at work here is Bernardo Bertolucci, the Oscar-bedecked creator of The Last Emperor, and the cinematic genius behind such classics as Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist. And the screenwriter is, again, Bertolucci's brother-in-law, Mark Peploe, also an Oscar winner for Emperor. And yes, Debra Winger stars-- she may not have had a hit lately, but she's a powerful actress who's always worth watching. But still. This is The Sheltering Sky.
We asked writer John Kobal to talk with Mark Peploe about the challenge of adapting Paul Bowles's austere tragedy into screen entertainment. Peploe is himself one of the individuals who, years ago, tried unsuccessfully to wrest the film rights from director Robert Aldrich, who'd acquired them and held on like a pit bull without being able to get the film version made. Peploe ended up, in a roundabout way he describes as "magical," having The Sheltering Sky eventually come to him through Bertolucci, only after he had co-written another existential desert drama of the slow-spinning ceiling fan variety, Antonioni's The Passenger.
Here's the gist of the story Peploe had to work with in The Sheltering Sky. It's North Africa, 1948, not a place for tourists. But our protagonists, Kit (Winger) and Port (John Malkovich), are not tourists anyway. They're "travelers", people with no home in their heads to return to. They've brought with them, as buffer or distraction, the clueless Tunner (Campbell Scott), an ineffectual third wheel who understands nothing of the complex shadowdance--of need, desire, and hopelessness--that his married companions engage in. And they themselves are not fully aware of the larger outlines their relationship is assuming as they drive, hellbent and goal-less at the same time, deeper into the Sahara, toward the promise of a reunion at first, and then toward catastrophe.
Von Sternberg's 1930 masterpiece Morocco, which introduced Marlenc Dietrich to American audiences, was an early example of the desert romance genre, and a high point in the tradition, too. In movies of this kind, the characters have left their own families, cultures, and constraints behind, usually out of desperation, real or imagined. But because it is the movies, some romantic shading is granted, even in the desert. We're relieved from the psychological equivalent of stark desert light by the metaphorical equivalent of oasis palm shadows. At the end of Morocco, Dietrich, wearing a cocktail dress and high heels, rushes off into the desert to follow her soulmate, legionnaire Gary Cooper, in a delirious reaffirmation of the power of love.
Paul Bowles is not a writer who offers up any delirious reaffirmations. The novel The Sheltering Sky, written some years after Morocco hit the screen, could be thought of as Morocco Without Sunglasses. It's a bracing experience. Mark Peploe tells John Kobal how he, working with Bertolucci, approached the task of turning the literary experience of The Sheltering Sky into a cinematic experience that would conform to the necessities of the big screen and not compromise the heart of Paul Bowles's big vision.