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Tribute to Paul Cox
The film and artistic community mourns the loss of Paul Cox, aged 76. Paul was a vital voice in Australian filmmaking over the last 40+ years – his films were always intimate and humanist. Paul was also a big part of MIFF 2015, in conversation with David Stratton, and of course as our opening night director with Force of Destiny. Though ill, he was charmed all with his intelligence, humanity and honesty.
Here are some thoughts and memories from MIFF staff and some of Paul’s closest collaborators. Stay tuned for full program launch where we will announce a tribute screening for this very beloved filmmaker.
"The happiest times working with Paul Cox were when I remembered to suspend any need to get anything done. Then I was free to follow his loving, extraordinary soul wherever it wanted to go, and all the while helping him fix his computer, journeying to the corner shop and listening to his profound insights as he searched for meaning in every encounter. I would leave him really feeling that I’d been somewhere, somewhere way beyond the corner shop. These were blessed and happy times. To play my part in helping Paul and his close-knit team to send Force of Destiny out into the world is something I’m deeply grateful for. I know he stayed on cloud-nine for a very long time after the film played at the Opening Night of MIFF 2015. On that occasion Paul's now infamous speech reflected very keenly his love for cinema and deep gratitude for life itself; those were passionate words from a true creative warrior, who will never be forgotten.” – Maggie Miles, Force of Destiny producer
"A man of many vivid colours, who didn’t suffer fools but had a huge capacity to love those he cared about and respected. He’ll be known for his vast body of work which will live well beyond our own lives but he was also a devoted father, grandfather, partner and friend. Every breath he took meant something: he was a passionate campaigner against injustice and barbaric attacks on culture that matters. It's hard to believe he’s gone when he worked so hard at living. We are so much richer having known him." – Mark Patterson, Producer on Paul Cox films Innocence (2000), Human Touch (2004), The Remarkable Mr Kaye (2006), Kaluapapa Heaven (2007), Force of Destiny (2015)
"Myself and all at MIFF are deeply saddened by the passing of Paul Cox. Paul was a total rarity in Australian filmmaking - a headstrong yet eternally romantic soul who always stuck to his guns in his filmmaking and created an extraordinary, singular body of work. MIFF was honoured to have screened his last work, Force of Destiny, as its opening night film in 2015. We send out heartfelt condolences to Rosie and his family and many many friends in the film industry." – Michelle Carey, MIFF Artistic Director
"Paul Cox’s films were true art films that blended distinctively Australian (and often Melbourne) iconography with a more European filmmaking sensibility, reflecting his interest and passion in making highly personal and subjective films that grappled with grand themes. He was both a maverick and pioneer, working without compromise and staying true to his own vision in a way that inspired so many others. I only crossed paths with him a few times, but the first time was when I hosted an In Conversation event with him and I was struck by his intelligence, humanity and conviction. He loved cinema, knew so much about its powerful to connect with people, and had fiercely strong opinions about it! The Australian cultural landscape is now the poorer for having to farewell one of its champions and I was very sad to hear the news of his death. However, I am grateful that the last time I met Paul it was just after the premiere of his final film and it was a happy occasion: he was relaxed, making jokes and content with what he had achieved. He had the kind of smile that made you feel at ease." – Thomas Caldwell, film critic
"Paul Cox seemed to have a pathological resistance to giving direct answers. That reluctance came from somewhere deep inside, and its effects were often as winning as they could be unnerving.
In an official capacity, I’d interviewed him many times over the years. The first was in the late 1970s, when I was hosting a film program called Talking Pictures for radio station 3ZZZ. “Hello, Paul. It’s nice to have you on the show. Let’s talk a bit about Kostas. How much of Paul Cox is lurking inside the character [a Greek immigrant, newly-arrived in Australia]?” A reasonable question, I’m sure I was thinking, designed to draw Paul into conversation about the autobiographical aspects of his film work.
At which point, Paul got the giggles. The kind that burst through any attempt to resist, that bring tears to the eyes and make it impossible to speak except in splutters, that transform a simple “hello” into the most hilarious thing ever said, and that are wholly contagious to all in the vicinity. Including interviewers.
To this day, I have no idea what I did to provoke such a response. Perhaps it was the earnestness of my introduction that tickled his fancy? But, whenever I raised this with him, he’d patiently explain that he’d always believed that there was too little laughter in the world and that he was just trying to pitch in. Or something like that. Needless to say, I never got an answer to the original question I’d innocently tried to ask him, or any of the others I’d prepared for him that day. Or any since.
The last time I interviewed Paul was in 2015, this time for a feature I was writing for The Australian about his latest – and final – film, Force of Destiny. I asked him if he had any regrets about his professional career. This is how he shaped his reply: “Well…,” he said, before interrupting the flow with an extended silence. Then: “They say that life is fate and that you don’t have much choice. It happened. You know, we’re here [at the office for Illumination Films, which is downstairs from the Albert Park home Paul shared with his partner, Rosie Raka] because I put my hand up at an auction… I was holding an apple.
“When Tony [Llewellyn-Jones] and I were shooting My First Wife in Williamstown, we had a little office down the road. We were driving back from the shoot one day and there was an auction happening here. I was having the apple for lunch and we were just walking past. We had looked at this place and we knew it was for sale, but I didn’t know the auction was on. I was living in a motel at the time. I had no money. My life was fucked, it had fallen to pieces. I was paying $16 a night.
“The bid was $240,000 and, to surprise Tony, I put my hand up. It was a joke! The area was full of derelicts. And the smell that came from this place was terrible. Anyway, the estate agent went inside. Tony said, ‘Let’s go.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ And then they came back and started again. But nobody bid. And, before I knew it, they were congratulating me. I’d lost the plot. I had absolutely nothing, I promise you. And we had to give them a cheque for $24,000. I remember: all my blood went into my feet and I couldn’t walk. Tony was holding me.” Paul is laughing at this point, the tears running down his cheeks.
“It was a Friday afternoon,” he continued. “Jim [Khong], my Chinese doctor friend for 50 years or more was working in Phillip Island and he knew the bank manager there. Over the weekend, he managed to get hold of him and by Monday we had $24,000 in my account. And we had three months to get some proper money together and get a loan. We then realised that it wasn’t such a bad deal.”
Then came his oh-yes-your-question moment. “But we’re talking about what I regret,” he continued, as an aside. “I regret now that I wasn’t tougher with business because a lot of my films are still working; they still go around. It’s the same with these photographs [a new batch had arrived during the interview]. I should have had more belief in what I was doing. That’s what I regret. It sounds silly, but often I just let the films go. People have made millions out of Vincent. Innocence made $90 million, I hear, and I was never even paid. I regret my stupidity because I thought it would all work itself out.”
Paul was always a stream-of-consciousness fellow. He never lost sight of the bigger picture, but he always had his own unique take on it. I asked him if he felt comfortable with the description of Force of Destiny as a film about illness as a learning experience. I’d expected a reply relating to how his protagonist (David Wenham) learns about himself and about his life in the material world and how people see him in it. But Paul took me somewhere else altogether.
“Of course, that’s very much part of it,” he began. “You know, while it was all happening to me, I sincerely lived in Venice for three days and they couldn’t get me out. And I know the year: 1743. It’s very complicated. I looked up what happened in Venice then. Nothing much, no world-shattering events. I remember a doctor coming to tell me, ‘You’re in the Austin Hospital and it’s 2014.’ And I said to him – it sounds very silly, I know… I was reassuring him – ‘It’s OK. If I’m in Venice, you’re in Venice too.’”
What we might call Paul’s eccentricities were crucial to his distinctive vision of the world. Key aspects of his gift as an artist were his refusal to bend to others’ inabilities to see it with the same kind of clarity as he could and his impatience with those for whom filmmaking and the other arts were a business before they were anything else.
He’s long been an important figure for Australian film culture and I’ve never understood the disjuncture between his international reputation and the way his films were received locally, in the country he’d made his own and that owed him so much. Not just because he contributed so much to Australian film culture, not just because he made so many good films, but also because of the inspiration he’s been to others involved in the noble art of filmmaking.
In some ways, it’s easy to measure that influence: his films’ casts and crews read like a who’s who of Australian cinema, providing a showcase for so many on both sides of the camera at a time when our industry wasn’t always a happy place to work.
From the outside anyway – and I’ve never come across any insiders who disagree – to work on a Paul Cox film was to feel part of a collaboration, even if your voice wasn’t always heard in quite the way you’d expected. Which is why, over the years, such a loyal team formed itself around him. Paul was creating collaborations from the so-called renaissance of the 1970s through the hard times and right up to the weeks before his death, when he was planning projects such as Sublime (with playwright Daniel Keene) and Inferno. He was a significant force and it’s hard to believe that he’s gone on ahead.
He was important to us in ways you can’t easily measure. Just by being Paul, he showed what was possible even when conservative funding bodies said “no”. On the day after he died, my daughter texted me about the beautiful evening sky she could see from her back window: “I’ve been thinking about Paul all day. I think he organised the amazing sunset. He must have gotten funding from St. Peter straight away.” Appreciated by the Big Boys at last!
He was also an inspiration to all those fortunate students who attended his classes over the years: when he was at Prahran in the photography department in the good old days, and whenever he spoke to budding young filmmakers.
On a personal note, I’d love to be able to thank him for his friendship over the past 44 years, ever since we found ourselves sitting together on a short film jury in the balcony at the Palais during the Melbourne Film Festival (those were the pre-MIFF days). Back then, I saw myself as leading man material, but he knew better and saved me much future embarrassment.We made each other laugh a lot: there was always a mischievous twinkle in his eye and he was a great person to be silly with.
He could sound like a grumpy bastard sometimes, but that was all a front. He was an artist passionate about his craft and, as his collaborators and others who knew him can testify, he exuded love. That is there for all to see in his work. It’s there in his affection for every one of his characters: even for Wendy Hughes’ nutty evangelist in Salvation, a character who in other hands might have been reduced to a cliché. Can you think of a character in any of his films that he didn’t make you care about, even when you might disapprove of what they said or did?
The love was there too in his ongoing fascination with the eccentricities that make us tick as human beings, and the generosity of his humour. When you laugh in one of Paul’s films, the comedy comes attached to an affection for our blundering ways. He was an astute observer of human flaws, and his sense of our failings as a species was apocalyptic: “The world is fucked” was a recurring refrain. But his comedy was always a humane comedy. It was never about someone’s humiliation. He’d gently poke fun at those who try to find neat explanations for the vagaries of human behaviour, like Tony Llewellyn-Jones’ loony Confucius-quoting psychiatrist in The Human Touch, but he’d never look down on them.
I reckon it was because he saw himself in them ... That’s why I loved him. Farewell, Paulus." - Tom Ryan, film critic
Banner image: Paul Cox introducing Force of Destiny at the MIFF 2015 Opening Night gala. Photo by Dean Wallis and Tony Zara