Great or Nothing
The Australian arthouse legend Paul Cox moved into the feature format with Kostas (1979), bringing with him the traits he had developed over the prior 15 years in short, experimental filmmaking and art photography: a striking use of lyrical and symbolic imagery, often shot on Super-8; a thick sense of mood; a concentration on human intimacies set within the social contexts of contemporary Australia; and themes of alienation, exile, hope.
Cox reached a career highpoint, at least from the vantage point of public recognition and acclaim, at the turn of the century with Innocence. Like a previous success of his, A Woman's Tale (1991), Innocence deals with the passion and pain experienced by the elderly – a subject always deemed unfashionable by the standards of the commercial film industry.
Yet opinion tends to split right down the middle on the true value of Cox’s films: for every occasion that a national artistic figure of the status of novelist Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s Ark) compares Cox to national icon Patrick White and declares him “a bit of a genius and something of an Elijah”, (1) there is a grumbling counter-reaction keen to caricature the director as the epitome of everything that is dubious in the old-fashioned, middle-class notion of art cinema.
Since the start of his feature career, Cox has fulfilled a nostalgia among older patrons of art cinema – as a throwback to the grand Fellini-Bergman-Truffaut era of yesteryear – as well as providing a handy target for a younger generation eager to jump onto an anti-art-cinema backlash wagon.
Sympathetic viewers and reviewers (including David Stratton) (2) have long felt moved to defend Cox as a film artist, an auteur, someone with his own, unique voice – very European and mostly High Art in his obsessions, references and temperament, tending towards a serene spirituality in tune with the growing New Age mood. Regarded as the noble exception to the norm of mainstream film and TV in Australia, Cox is (in Brian McFarlane’s assessment) “prepared to be ambitious, to risk charges of floridness and pretension”. (3)
Among the dissenters, the Cinema Papers review by Richard Brown of Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (1987) wryly summed up the case for the prosecution: “It … comes as no surprise that Paul Cox should choose to make a documentary on this artist, given Cox’s apparent reverence for (artistic) suffering and high-art values … It’s the old cliché that to be truly creative (and ultimately to possess ‘genius’) one must go beyond the tolerances of bourgeois society to the very limits of existence. Only in this way can one’s art be ‘authentic’”. (4) Here, the droll citation of once reverential words and concepts (artistry, creativity, genius, existential authenticity) sums up the skepticism, common among cinephiles by the late 1980s, about Cox’s status as a local art cinema icon.
Has Cox’s cinema changed, evolved, deepened since Kostas in 1979? Innocence is, in so many ways, exactly the film that Cox has always made. In one sense, this is an admirable sign of consistency – just the sort of signature we demand from auteurs. But a signature can be a prison, if it leads to stasis. Positif editor Michel Ciment once rightly exclaimed in admiration of the greats: “What a complex path leads from I Vitelloni (1953) to Intervista (1987) for Fellini, from Los Olvidados (1950) to That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) for Buñuel, from Citizen Kane (1940) to The Immortal Story (1968) for Welles, from Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) to Fanny and Alexander (1982) for Bergman!” (5)
There is no comparable evolution evident in Cox’s handling of his pet themes, such as the spiritually redemptive power of love (Innocence ends with the bald exhortation to “Love the world!”), versus the soulless, alienated materialism of contemporary society. There is one intriguing, paradoxical complication that Cox has introduced into this standard scenario, in films including Golden Braid (1991) and Man of Flowers (1983): his characters tend to have a particularly troubled relation to art (especially the high art of painting and classical music).
Such art inspires with its transcendent air, its aura of the highest human achievement; but it can also become a morbid, solitary obsession, blocking the journey back to life, the natural world (always prominently and solemnly featured in his films) and other people. As themes per se, these are perfectly valid, indeed fertile preoccupations; Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, 1996) and Takeshi Kitano (Hana-Bi, 1998) have done wonders with them. But Cox’s films, from one to the next, catch themselves in a facile loop: they all start with vague malaise, churn through a dark night of the soul, and end in a spurious redemption.
Even more grievously, to my eyes and ears, Cox’s craft as a filmmaker has not grown much over the past two decades. What seemed striking and personal in his first features can now seem tired and calculated, a species of cliché – especially those grainy, step-printed, Super-8 flashes of birds, streams and naked bodies. More crucially, a comparison with contemporary classicists such as Bertrand Tavernier (A Sunday in the Country, 1984) reveals a fundamental lack of real aesthetic control on Cox’s part. I remain unconvinced by assertions of Cox’s “formal subtlety”, “restrained ingenuity” or “inspired craftsmanship”. (6) To me, his films have a sometimes shocking air of amateurishness and off-handedness – as if near enough a particular effect, mood or meaning is always good enough.
The sombre elements (visions, outbursts, tears, declarations) rub uneasily against the daggy, funny touches (supplied by local writers of dubious renown including Bob Ellis, John Clarke and Barry Dickens). The long dialogue scenes are often inert, unimaginatively staged and framed: Cox may have given up his penchant for the meandering pan-and-zoom shots that once pulverised Man of Flowers, but now he seems to have settled into the evenly lit, stodgily centred, glacial mode of mise en scène announced in Lust and Revenge (1996). His films betray a tin ear for the properly cinematic soundtrack: unsubtle noisescapes (like the thundering clocks in Golden Braid) alternate with reams of quoted and composed music. As for the acting in these films, it is no fault of the performers (Charles Tingwell, Julia Blake and Terry Norris take the principal roles here) that they must struggle with such unutterably miserable, clunky dialogue (from Innocence: “We shared a lot of lust”) and the sorry lack of any ensemble effect blending the entire cast.
those who, since the 1950s, have set the tone for classic “art cinema” (a
designation I dislike) find particular, indelible, often slyly subversive ways
of matching the personal substance of their visions to the more conventional
demands of storytelling. Cox has not yet managed to reach such a level of
ingenuity. Innocence displays the
self-same clumsiness with respect to establishing a coherent fictional world,
laying out the terms of a plotline or creating psychologically plausible
characters that his films displayed 20 years ago.
The fact that Cox can keep treading water in his work – and that he keeps getting congratulated for it, as a gifted, singular innocent – says a lot about the still embryonic state that art cinema has reached in Australia. (7)
Ultimately, I believe there is a more fruitful way to consider Cox: not as a master, but – alongside his closest cousin, Rolf de Heer (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, 2000) – an exponent of naive cinema, akin to the genre of naive art. (Curiously, the director’s path has crossed with that of a truly inspired but far more ironic innocent, Guy Maddin – Cox is among the cast of Careful .)
In this mode, one can appreciate better, even enjoy, the excessive, declaratory, over-reaching, earnestly sentimental thrust of Cox’s films. Innocence is, in the final analysis, a naive message picture peopled with characters who mouth supposedly wise and wonderful things about life, love and ageing. As Robin Wood once said of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): “The film’s ambition challenges one to see it as a great work or as nothing; for me, the choice is easy”. (8)
© Adrian Martin July 2001