Paul Cox

A Paul Cox filmography is at the end of this essay.

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One day my father found the time to take me for a walk. For some reason we went on our own. Not far from the house were the woods with small farms scattered all around. My father warned me that the further we went, the longer the trip home, so I had to be tough and stand up to it.

(Paul Cox – Reflections – an autobiographical journey)

Paul Cox is one of the most important filmmakers to come out of Australia. He is also without a doubt one of our most prolific, having made 18 feature films (including a 3D IMAX film), 7 documentaries, 11 shorts and 3 children’s films. He is also highly regarded for his photography, and has written a number of short stories and books.

Innocence

Paul Cox is a filmmaker whose work has been praised and honoured, more often overseas than in Australia. In his adopted Australia, he and his films have been largely ignored, and at worst derided (by Government film funding agencies, film distributors and some critics). In the mid 1990s, and with more than a dozen feature films behind him, Paul Cox was virtually driven out of this country in order to be able to continue making the types of films that he wanted to make.

Following screenings of his new feature film Innocence (1999) at Cannes in May, where American critic Roger Ebert praised it as his favourite film, Paul Cox recently returned to Australia to screen both Innocence and the much troubled Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999) to audiences at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). At a public forum after the screenings, a seemingly re-invigorated Paul Cox spoke with great passion about his method of filmmaking, the problems and consequences of working within the American film system, the need for a more caring, compassionate society in an increasingly consumerist world, and the ultimate certainty of death. But it was not all seriousness as he spoke with considerable humour, a side of Paul Cox perhaps not usually seen, about how his films have sometimes been received in Australia. “A lot of people have in the past been very bored with my films. I understand this, and I forgive them for it,” he said with a wry smile on his face.

Paul Cox is a filmmaker of incredible energy, persistence and vision – all qualities which are crucial to survive as a filmmaker. He is also uncompromising in fulfilling his vision which is almost always achieved with comparatively small budgets of about $1 million – Innocence was made for $856,000. As a director, he has an ongoing screen relationship with many of Australia’s greatest actors. The themes in his films – isolation, faith, hope, love, survival – remain the same and reoccur over and over, but above all else Paul Cox’s films are about human frailty. Why is it then that Paul Cox’s films generate such strong feelings, both positive and negative, the latter perhaps more so in Australia?

Lonely Hearts

It seems that much of the Australian film community has never been at ease with this most independent of filmmakers and his films. Apart from a brief period of praise in the early 1980s for Lonely Hearts (1981) and Man of Flowers (1983), Paul Cox has struggled to gain the same recognition from Australia that he has received elsewhere around the world. Could it be that after that early success Australia felt that Paul Cox had had his chance and that he should now suffer the same fate of so many other Australian achievers, that is, to be cut down to size?

Could it be that this “auteur filmmaker” is a problem within the Australian film industry, and that his approach to filmmaking is not seen as a model to be encouraged, even though the majority of his feature films have recouped their budgets after 10 years – unlike most other Australian films? In recent years the concept of the auteur, as the main creative force behind a film, has been discouraged in Australia. Increasingly the model which the Australian film funding bodies have adopted, seemingly without any discussion with the filmmaking community, is the American model. Under the US system, producers have control over the film production, and generally are far more likely to have the right of final cut than a director. Within the US system the director is a hired hand, and is in the same position as any other crewmember. Now the Australian film funding bodies prefer to deal directly with producers rather than those usually directly associated with the creative vision behind a film, the writer/director or director. This policy is in contrast to the European approach to filmmaking where the author of the ideas, the beholder of the vision is held in high regard and even respected. Could it be that within the Australian film environment, Paul Cox is seen to be too European, too much the auteur? After all, the terms “auteur” and “European” have sometimes been used in the past about this filmmaker in a less than flattering way.

“It is insane that most filmmakers are not in charge of what they do. There must always be a latitude there to be able to change because you make a film in the making, whether you stick to the script or not. . Most films suffer extraordinary nonsense and tension and fights between Producing and Directing . that is the greatest evil in the filmmaking business.” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000)

Similarly, is it perhaps possible that as with the filmmaker himself, Paul Cox’s stories and his films are considered too European for Australia? Perhaps the fact that his films are “little films” about ordinary, forgotten people, that they contain no explicit violence or car chases, they are generally stories about adults, and often, like life, they have unresolved endings, means that they are not seen to be commercial enough.

Paul Cox was made to feel most unwelcome here in the mid 1990s and subsequently left this country because, as he recently told the Film Festival audience with some disgust, he had been sent a letter by Government representatives stating that “it is all very well to have a person of your status living in our State (of Victoria), but we wish your international reputation would bring in international money.” “That hurt me tremendously and I left (Australia). . Of course half of my heart is here, but it was also torn out. Why was I such a threat? Because I did my own thing with my friends? Perhaps they thought my films were too European, they were not Australian enough?” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000)

Then we entered the forest. How soft that carpet of green on which we walked. How dark those large mysterious trees. … I remember the soft wind, the birds, the clouds and especially the light. Everything so dark, so mysterious. Then suddenly, a strong shaft of light when the sun burned through the clouds. It illuminated the forest, penetrated the soil, took my breath away. Deep down I felt that I was witnessing something very special that would never leave me.

(Paul Cox – Reflections)

Born in Holland in 1940, Paul Cox was a young boy growing up in a house where the living room served as his father’s photographic studio. He has clear childhood memories of German soldiers searching his home, kicking in cupboards, and their ongoing presence in the street outside his home. Paul was raised in a strictly Catholic household; he served Mass as an altar boy and sang in the choir. “I am glad now in retrospect that we were not allowed to look at ourselves in the bath, you couldn’t wash yourself down there, or if you did you had to keep talking to God while you cleaned yourself between your legs.” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000)

As a young man he studied photography at art school and in 1963 came to Australia as an exchange student before returning to Holland the following year. However the Australian light had burnt an indelible impression into both his consciousness and his memory, and in 1965 Paul Cox returned to Australia. Not surprisingly, years later his first full-length feature film would be called Illuminations (1976).

During his first years in Melbourne, Paul Cox found life for a migrant to be a lonely experience. He found great pleasure in listening to classical music. With his skills in photography he found a job teaching photography at Prahran Technical College. He also set up his own photographic studio and soon became a well-regarded stills photographer. As a hobby he began making short films and documentaries with the help of friends.

If you want to do anything seriously, do it as a hobby. I’ve always believed this. As soon as it becomes a profession, a degree of compromise comes in. . Photography was my profession; cinematography my hobby. It was a safe start.

(Paul Cox – Reflections)

By the mid 1970s he began making low-budget feature films, and established a model for his filmmaking which has changed little in almost 25 years.

Paul Cox’s films are about ordinary, forgotten people dealing with everyday life and their own human weakness. The same themes – love, hope, faith, loneliness, isolation, home – occur and reoccur throughout his films, in different combinations. As a director, he carefully chooses those that work with him, and seeks an atmosphere of mutual loyalty and respect. He usually works closely with a small cast and crew, many of these returning for numerous films. He chooses actors on the basis of their earlier work. “I would never screen test anyone. I find that humiliating and denigrating to an actor . to give a part to an actor without screen-testing, you’ve already earned 10 points because you’ve got their trust, you’ve got their confidence.” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000)

Although he writes scripts, he does not always follow them closely, allowing himself freedom for spontaneity and improvisation. “I have no system at all. I work totally on instinct, at random. I don’t know anything. I empty myself of all knowledge so I know nothing when I start. We never rehearse, we talk about it and read through the scripts maybe.” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000) Similarly, his production crews are often the same from film to film. “I think it is important that you have total trust.”

The visual style of his films is simple. Paul Cox films are not about and do not contain special effects. They do not generally involve complicated production set-ups. There are rarely crane shots – a simple tracking shot is usually about as complex as it gets. It is worth recalling the 540-degree opening shot Cactus (1986). As a director, he is more concerned with story telling and capturing the performance of his actors. Light is often a strong motivating element in any Paul Cox film. His cinematography often uses strong shadows and he is not afraid to include considerable darkness in the frame. Many Paul Cox films also contain repeating motifs, such as the use of grainy Super 8 footage of someone’s point-of-view looking up through the treetops towards the sky.

“Music is the basis of all creativity.” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000) Music is a major source of inspiration for Paul Cox, who often has the music in his head, long before he begins shooting a single scene. (Stanley Kubrick was another director who generally had the music in mind long before he developed the image). Often he will use an operatic or classical piece of music that he is familiar with. Sometimes this piece of music will have been in his head for 25 years. In recent films he has worked closely with Australian composer/musician Paul Grabowsky in developing the music.

Paul Cox is inspired by art, particularly the work of Dutch artists such as Vermeer and Van Gogh, and their use of light and colour. His favourite filmmakers include the Spanish master Luis Buñuel and the Russian Serge Paradjanov.

I saw Serge Paradjanov’s Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors well before I started making films. It totally stunned me and left a big, bleeding hole inside. Throughout the years that wound became a treasure – a rich source of inspiration.

(Paul Cox – Reflections)

He has said in the past that he likes the films of Woody Allen for their integrity and humour. But there is not a lot else that Paul Cox likes about America. He has been invited to make films in the USA, but usually “they promise you the world and give you nothing”. (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000) And as a director he will not take on any film without the right of final cut, and the American studio system gives that right to only a handful of directors. Further he does not like the way that films are discussed as “projects”, and when made these “projects” become “products” for audiences to consume.

His recent bad experiences during the making of Molokai on the Hawaiian island of the same name seems to have reinforced his earlier feelings about working in the American film system. ” It was a war zone. For some reason a very evil force set in there, and things went terribly wrong” he told the MIFF audience. Paul has spoken before publicly about those experiences with ABC radio broadcaster Phillip Adams. He told the Festival audience that it was the only time in his life that he had been sacked, and that it happened twice on that film. But cast and crew refused to work with anyone else and he was reinstated. “It is 82 and 1/2 percent my film . in terms of filmmaking, I bleed when I see the film.” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000)

Currently Paul Cox is in the final stages of editing the film he has wanted to make for years – Najinsky. “It is a film celebrating a person saying what he feels, like Vincent (Van Gogh). . This is the most difficult film I have ever attempted.” (Paul Cox: MIFF 2000)

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Thanks to ABC Radio National – “Arts Today”; and Currency Press, publishers of Reflections – an autobiographical journey (1998) by Paul Cox.

Paul Cox Filmography

FEATURE FILMS

2000 Innocence

1998 Molokai – The Story of Father Damien

1997 The Hidden Dimension

1996 Lust and Revenge

1994 Exile

1992 The Nun and the Bandit

1991 A Woman’s Tale

1990 Golden Braid

1989 Island

1987 Vincent – the Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh

1986 Cactus

1984 My First Wife

1983 Man of Flowers

1981 Lonely Hearts

1978 Kostas

1977 Inside Looking Out

1976 Illuminations

1972 The Journey

IN PRODUCTION

2000 Nuinsky

DOCUMENTARY FILMS

1985 Handle with Care

1984 Death and Destiny

1980 Underdog

1980 The Kingdom of Nek Chand

1979 For a Child Called Michael

1974 All Set Backstage

1970 Calcutta

TV PRODUCTIONS

1993 Touch Me (part of “Erotic Tales”)

1988 The Gift

SHORT FILMS

1978 Ritual

1977 Ways of Seeing

1975 We Are All Alone My Dear

1975 Island

1971 Phyllis

1970 Mirka

1969 Symphony

1969 Marcel

1968 Skindeep

1966 Time Past

1965 Matuta

About The Author

Philip Tyndall is an Australian filmmaker and lecturer in film production at Deakin University. He is best known for his arts documentary films Someone Looks At Something (1987) and Words And Silk (1989). See here for a review of the latter.