1. If I had to choose a motto for Paul Cox’s films, no motto would seem more appropriate to me than the phrase: “For people who like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing they like”. In other words, I believe that idiosyncrasy is very much the element of these films. For all their beauty, they are not perfect in any conventional sense. There is something about them to which I feel attracted or not, as if the artist’s subjectivity had not been entirely absorbed into the films themselves, or as if my response depended on a remainder, on a willingness to relate to a specific intention, to a particular sense of oddity and whim, to a mixture of Cox’s own. That is why his films challenge a commonplace of aesthetics. For it is often thought that artworks fail the test when repeated viewing, or reading, or listening, no longer reveals the force originally attributed to them. Who would be in the mood to allow for idiosyncrasies all the time? In art, the experience of idiosyncrasy is very much of the moment. Spectators who love the films Cox has made tend to await his next film eagerly rather than engage in endless analyses of his past work. But when I immerse myself in his films’ idiosyncratic element, let myself be touched by it, I learn a lesson. Cox teaches me that the intensity of a feeling is physical as much as spiritual. Hence the relevance of touch. Here, between the somatic and the intelligible, extends the domain of idiosyncrasy, which belongs neither to the body nor to the mind. It is the domain where the other’s touch is inseparable from touchiness, from the singularity of an individual’s spontaneity and receptivity. In Human Touch (2004), a cultured, rich man is impressed by a singer’s performance and offers her what help he can provide. When she accepts his request to pose for him in the nude and have her photograph taken, and later does not object to him touching her, I know that she is not doing it simply in order to raise money for her choir’s tour to China. Nor is she betraying her boyfriend. I also know that the rich man has not lured her into prostitution to satisfy a preexisting need. Rather, idiosyncrasy has cleared a path unexpectedly. The two characters are willing to follow this path. They are surprised and taken in by the experience, not overwhelmed and blinded.
2. In Cox’s films, idiosyncrasy is a friendly element, and rarely lapses into sentimentality. It does not prevent reality from hitting me hard. Here is an example. In Cactus (1986), a young blind man takes care of a large and unique collection of cacti that he has inherited from his father. The cacti form a kind of forest inside a hothouse, a densely populated desert. It must be difficult to move among the plants and not get hurt, but this is exactly what the blind man achieves. A clever spectator might be tempted to consider the cacti a metaphor of the real. Do I not keep bumping into reality because I look at the world but am unable to feel it, touch it, as if my body and my mind were nothing but a wound that I prevent from healing? At the same time, the cacti are just cacti and the man whose blindness has forced him to learn how to move between the plants, how to touch them without injuring himself, is just a blind man. Cox’s camera travels through the forest of cacti, lingers on the plants, because he wants to make them visible, just as he indulges in transforming the lush landscape outside into a panoramic canvas. This way of seeing is not so much a vestige of European tradition and culture as its reinvention, the birth of seeing in a foreign territory and perhaps the first sign of a blindness that will not be an impairment. In one scene, the blind man and a French woman who is slowly going blind herself, join a group of lively elderly people for a celebration. On television, the parade of war veterans marks a national holiday. Cox enjoys himself when making the scene of the party last longer than necessary. It almost turns into a document of improvisation. A dotty old woman plays the piano and sings with great panache. The young people find themselves in the company of kind and funny goblins, of wise creatures, as the palmistry scene demonstrates later on in the film. Young or old, the characters are all outsiders, social outcasts, marginalised because of their age, their disability, their origin. Is there not a fairytale atmosphere in Cactus, the painterly sights of the dense green vegetation of Melbourne’s Dandenongs punctuated with the cry of an exotic bird? Spending more time with something or someone than I would normally do, looking for the infectious instead of avoiding it, waiting for what may appear, can amount to the constitution and the manifestation of an idiosyncrasy, at least when measured against the established demands of dramaturgy or plot development. Metaphoric interpretation puts such time to work so that it is not wasted.
3. But Cox’s idiosyncrasy reveals its friendliness in the suspension of work, the suspension of metaphor. There is an idleness here, something bordering on the wacky. Idiosyncrasies thus help me to distinguish between a seeing that is a way of controlling things, of handling them from a distance in a generally accepted manner, and that, for this very reason, remains exposed to the impact of the real, and a seeing that is a way of touching and of being touched, as if the subject had ceased to set itself against the world, or as if seeing had blindly assimilated itself to the world, nestled up against its edges, still exposed to the real but, perhaps, knowingly so. How can the camera go blind and continue to be a camera? That is the question a filmmaker must ask himself who has understood that idiosyncrasy is a blindness that can engender the sight of touch, and that such sight makes it possible to see the world anew. When the young woman causes the car accident that will change her life, that will make her realise what seeing and not seeing amount to, the spectator is in the same position. He does not see it coming and is shocked. When she decides to have her blind eye removed, the spectator discovers that eyes are objects that can be taken out of their cavities, just as the image he sees on the screen is captured by a camera that can be broken. But blindness, the blindness of the blind, is not without its own dangers. The guardian of cacti admits to having become caught up in a smug world of darkness. Thus, to say that idiosyncrasy does not lapse into sentimentality and does not prevent reality from hitting me hard, means that it does not provoke a longing for a world without edges. Feeling the edges again and again makes me grow old. Will I grow old like the sad and authoritarian father in Lonely Hearts (1981) or like the spirited lady who, in Cox’s short film We Are All Alone My Dear (1975), lives in a home for the elderly?
4. That the impact of the real in Cactus is real; that the idiosyncratic eye or disposition does not falsify or cloud reality can be gauged from the scene in which Colo (Isabelle Huppert), the young woman affected by diminishing sight, goes to Melbourne and finds herself in the middle of the crowd opposite Flinders Street Station. An efficient but talentless filmmaker would have jumped at the opportunity to exaggerate the feeling of disorientation and isolation that the encounter between the one and the many triggers. He would have produced a cliché of trauma. In Cactus, there is something almost subdued about the scene, something measured. The refusal to indulge in drama proves much more effective. That idiosyncrasy in Cox is friendly can be gauged from a scene at the end of Lust and Revenge (1996), his satire of the art world. Here, the humorous portrayal of a group of selfish, weak, greedy characters is pushed to the limit by turning fraud into a stroke of genius. What makes the portrayal into an idiosyncratic one, and what accounts for the friendliness of the idiosyncrasy, is that these characters are not entirely unlovable. When put under pressure, they even come up with an idea. A museum director, spurred on by his capricious and shallow daughter, commissions a hyped artist to create a sculpture; together with his colleagues he uses this commission to seek some kind of financial advantage. The male model who poses in the nude for the artist has an affair with the daughter. On the day the sculpture is to be unveiled in the presence of a tipsy art critic, the jealous wife destroys the work of art. But the sculpture is still presented to the critic’s discerning eye. Only the spectator sees that it is, in fact, a tableau vivant
5. The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno describes his ideal of film in terms which suggest that film is idiosyncratic by nature. According to this ideal, film comes into its own and asserts itself as an art form when it succeeds in objectifying a peculiar subjective experience. Adorno provides the example of a person who has chosen to spend a holiday in the mountains so that she can recover from a tiring year in the city. When, idle and carefree, she falls half asleep, colourful pictures of the landscape suddenly appear, move in front of her eyes or traverse her mind. Adorno insists on the discontinuity of the movement, as if each image were separate from the other and thereby contributed to the creation of a sort of writing rather than producing the illusion of cinematography. To the extent that such an experience calls for its restitution in art, it is film, Adorno says, that is best suited to fulfill the task.(1) There are strangely dreamlike sequences in Cactus which consist of the young woman’s memories, of meaningful or contingent and yet recurring images of her past. She walks in the forest with her parents; a wooden horse on a truck moves along the shores of the Seine in Paris. Some of these sequences resemble the ones that reveal the main character’s childhood in Man of Flowers (1983). We are also shown fragments of French and Australian landscapes the woman has seen. It is as if the film has turned her vision of the world inside out. Although Cox’s choice here could be judged more conventional than innovative, he gives a glimpse of a possible relation between film and idiosyncrasy on the level of the artistic medium itself. His is an art of wandering off that dislodges its focus without renouncing it.