I believe the first film by Paul Cox I saw was Man of Flowers (1983), at the 1984 Chicago Film Festival. The next year, My First Wife (1984). I heard at once a distinctive voice, saw a special vision. Those films might not appear similar, but they are both deeply interested in their characters and radiate a tenderness and sympathy toward them. Paul Cox has never followed a formula, and his characters are stark originals. He operates outside genres, conventions, archetypes and established cinematic patterns. He begins fresh, with these people, in this situation.
For me his best film is A Woman’s Tale (1991), one of the three I have invited over the years to my annual film festival. This film is an act of astonishing empathy. Cox begins with an old and lonely woman who discovers she is dying of cancer, and he doesn’t for a second condescend to her or make her pitiable. He celebrates her. He finds in the great actress Sheila Florance the performance of a lifetime, the performance springing from a lifetime – and the performance bringing closure to a career, for Paul told me that both he and Sheila knew she was dying of cancer as they filmed. She died by the time she was named the year’s Best Actress by the Australian Film Institute (1991).
A commercial production would have turned down a film featuring Florance with the argument that she was “uninsurable”. Paul didn’t and doesn’t think that way. He is a friend for life. An actor like Norman Kaye, who appeared in his early film, The Journey (1972), was in 16 more. He returns to the same collaborators, such as Wendy Hughes, Paul Grabowsky, Chris Haywood and Charles “Bud” Tingwell, over the years.
Few filmmakers would have been capable of making most of Paul’s films. Few of the usual channels of financing and distribution would have supported them. He seems to exist oblivious to such realities. Oh, he knows all about them. He has been making films for 40 years. But there is not the slightest hint that he has ever compromised himself and made anything other than the films he had in mind.
Reading some of the Australian reviews for his latest film, Salvation (2008), I became aware that we know at once we’re in “Paul Cox territory”. Now think about that. Does this refer to location, genre, a kind of character, theme, or style? It may have something to do with a theme, which I’ll return to, but otherwise each film is one of a kind. Paul doesn’t make a film he has made before. He invents a film to contain what he wants to say.
Cox’s theme is, more often than not, the difficulty that complex people have in finding serenity and happiness. This is a difficulty we all share. It has nothing to do with a “search for love”, although romance may be the venue, as in the masterful Innocence (2000). His protagonists are invariably adult, often in middle or old age. He has little interest in the 20-somethings who overrun the commercial cinema, because, I suspect, their problems often stem from practical, immediate reasons, or involve situations rather than the deeper currents of life.
The unexamined life is not worth living, a wise Greek told us. Cox’s characters are about examining their lives. Consider the characters Gloria and Barry, played by Wendy Hughes and Bruce Myles in his recent Salvation. Gloria has never examined her life, has much conceit but little self-awareness. We meet Barry in the process of self-discovery, and Irina (Natalia Novikova) is the catalyst to set him free. The performances in this film are vivid. Although some critics found Gloria’s TV evangelism to be over the top, I assure you that people exactly like her are not uncommon on American TV, and I have faith that Australia can easily keep up.
Cox is open to invention, to experiment. He made one of the best documentaries of an artist I have ever seen, Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (1987), which has informed every Van Gogh painting I have seen since, and is an empathetic act of solidarity with the artist. When he made another documentary about an artist, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001), it took a wholly original direction. With Derek Jacobi reading from the diaries written by Nijinsky in the year before madness overtook him, it is not a conventional biography in any sense. It is instead pure cinema, with images that sometimes represent episodes in Nijinsky’s life, sometimes symbolise them obliquely, sometimes represent images in his mind, and sometimes simply want to evoke his state of mind. I think that Cox saw Nijinsky not as a madman, but as a man too inspired to be sane.
The film premiered at Toronto only a few days after 9/11. The audience was in a state of turmoil, and some were not prepared to attend to the film. Afterwards, Paul took the microphone and castigated some who had walked out, saying art defends the final battlements against ignorance and violence. After a film so bold as to evoke such art, “at least when you walk out the door you will not have become a more disgusting human being”, he said. These words have remained in my mind.
That day Paul was, in the words of his friend Werner Herzog, “God’s angry man”. I more often see him cheerful, whimsical, philosophical, amused. I do not know an angry man who smokes a pipe. I saw him angry one other time, at a Cannes screening of his Human Touch (2004). There was some bestial businessman making deals over his cellphone. I mentioned it to Paul. “If he had made one more call”, he told me, “I would have taken his bloody phone and ground it under my heel”.
Yes, but there was that other time, too, when I was seated next to him at the Calcutta Film Festival during the screening of his Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1998), his evocation of the saintliness of the title character. The door of the projection booth at the back of the theatre was open, and we could clearly see the projectionists playing cards. The film was incorrectly framed and parts of it fell outside the boundaries of the screen. After a reel change, remarkably, the film appeared upside-down. I mentioned this at a dinner that evening. “I didn’t know that was possible”, Paul marvelled, indicating that even though it was his film, at least from the catastrophe he had learned something new.
Paul Cox is a great film director, a great artist, and above all, a great soul.