Mortality is traditionally a favourite theme of artists. In the realm of film, diverse directors have embraced it, in both documentary and fictional formats. Among European auteurs (think filmmakers whose individual style and control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp), Werner Herzog is noted for his series of portraits of US death row inmates, to say nothing of his features and documentaries about individuals who diced with danger and death as a matter of course in their daily existences. His German counterpart Wim Wenders’ 1980 production Lightning Over Water shines the spotlight on the ailing American director Nicholas Ray.
The Dutch – Australian auteur Paul Cox touched on the theme in documentaries – 1975’s We Are All Alone My Dear and 2005’s The Remarkable Mr. Kaye, about his ill actor friend Norman Kaye, for example – before treating it otherwise in Force of Destiny (2015), the final film the director made before his death in mid-2016 at the age of 76.
The hero of the piece is Robert (David Wenham), a sculptor of renown who lives alone in the countryside of Victoria, Australia. A maverick in life and art, as his unusual creations attest, he is on close terms with his daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen) but much less sure footing with his ex-wife Hannah (Jacqueline McKenzie). Around the same time that Robert is diagnosed with cancer of the liver and given months to live he meets Maya (Shahana Gosswami), an Indian marine biologist temporarily working and studying in Victoria.
Robert’s work fascinates Maya, whose uncle in Kerala, India is in the final stages of a protracted battle with stomach cancer. Uncle is a brave individual determined not to leave the world without gracefully imparting to those who will outlive him the wisdom he has accrued on his journey. Robert, who meets the old man on a trip he undertakes to Kerala with Maya, is accepting too, much more than some of his near and dear. The possibility of going on a transplant list, thereby gaining a prolongation of life beyond the time frame initially given cannot, however, completely erase his pique that a wonderful woman like Maya, with whom he becomes besotted, has stepped on to the stage of his life when he may not have much of that life left.
It is impossible not to view Force of Destiny without bearing in mind the director’s own cancer diagnosis in 2009. Broadly speaking, an auteur’s individual films cannot help but mirror their makers’ states of mind at the time those films were shot. The dream-like images of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) would not have come to be had it not been for the long illness and convalescence the director underwent around the time of the film’s conception. Alter-ego characters – frequently they are artists or individuals possessed of keen poetic or artistic sensibilities – permeate the films of Mr. Cox. Sculptor Robert is perhaps as close as he came to a direct representation of himself. When we hear Robert describe himself to Maya as an agnostic humanist we sense it is the director, who built his reputation upon his deeply humanist perspective, speaking.
The long held close-up shots that abound in Force of Destiny enhance the intimacy of the portrait, the laid baring of souls, not only of Robert but also fellow cancer sufferers and those in their inner circles. For the artist, Maya represents both new love and a new cultural outlook on the business of death and dying. There is estrangement in his natural family. He has never been close to his father and his ex-wife, though well-meaning, grates on his nerves, especially when she reacts with Pavlovian-like predictability to Maya’s easy commandeering of the role of leading lady in his life. Even after receiving the ominous prognosis he would much rather be left alone until the radiant Maya appears on the scene. Her own brand of worldly wisdom does much to alleviate his apprehension about the ‘end’. While a great deal of what he witnesses on his hospital visits confuses and scares him, in Maya’s presence he is relaxed, at times even carefree.
Many segments in the film are classic examples of ‘mindscreen’ or first-person film, as Bruce Kawin termed it. The director never shied away from liberal usage of the cinema’s potential to portray subconscious states, including distant memories. We witness not only Robert’s fears and dire imaginings but also lilting, uplifting fragments, both visual and aural. Mr. Cox also employs mindscreen of a different sort in scenes where Robert’s compassionate interest in and observance of the patients with whom he is sharing ward space briefly ‘take over’ the narrative. It is an arresting technique and gives rise to some of the film’s most poignant moments. They are a potent reminder that as ‘all alone’ as we may well be, there is and remains a unifying thread of humanity death will be powerless to sunder when she comes calling.
In an inner suburb of Melbourne in the late 1960s, a fifty-seven-year-old widower and wood carver by the name of Ron befriends twelve-year-old seventh grader Angela. The basis of their friendship is the pain and sadness both recognise in one another. Ron bears the burden of the death of his wife in an accident some years earlier. Angela, for her part, endures torment at home living with an alcoholic mother in the throes of an affair. When a nosy café patron reports their ‘suspicious relationship’ to the police, their modicum of happiness becomes threatened. Despite ample warnings, Ron pursues this newfound bond, unaware and unashamed of the tragic end he is barrelling toward.
One of the first directors with whom I shared this screenplay idea decades ago was Paul Cox. I knew little about him or his films at the time, with the exception of his feature Kostas (1979), which I had appreciated. He was still to become an established identity within the Australian independent cinema scene. My relative unfamiliarity aside, I hesitated not in sending my work to him when I discovered his name on a list of producers and directors open to receiving unsolicited ideas.
Weeks later I was delighted to discover he was enamoured of my story. But he was committed to projects of his own for some years to come, ruling out any possibility of direct collaboration. Though kind enough to offer suggestions and encouragement, he categorically stated that my screenplay was ‘too human for the average producer’. I inferred from this that he believed I would have my work cut out selling it in the marketplace. If this was what he was implying, he was correct. Not that the fundamental story idea would go to waste.
Mr. Cox’s disdain for the ‘average producer’ is one of the threads running through his memoir Tales from the Cancer Ward (Transit Lounge Publishing, 2011). The book details his late life battle with liver cancer and the stark confrontation with his mortality this leads him to embark upon. His determination to remain independent in a ‘predatory’ industry is depicted as both an enormous cross and a great joy. He is hypercritical of the way in which the once great art of the cinema has been betrayed, transformed into another opiate for the masses.
His prodigious output, which includes Lonely Hearts, Man of Flowers, Innocence, A Woman’s Tale, biographies of van Gogh, Nijinsky and Father Damien, among many other films, consistently deals with the inner lives of people. The illusory, ephemeral, exterior world is unquestionably there but it is not of great importance on his palette. He underlines the fascination exhibited by rafts of storytellers with ‘illegal activities … that break the laws of Man.’ ‘What a challenge it is and how beautiful life becomes,’ he writes, ‘when we acknowledge the inner world of a person and balance the inner with the outer. The interior is usually more interesting and rewarding.’
‘Artists,’ he goes on to assert, ‘must protest. Start at least one revolution a day and never take anything for granted. We’re living with too many contradictions, and our crazy indulgences are rarely questioned. Artists can change the world, are always changing the world.’
He adds: ‘We can make a more adventurous, more spiritual, more creative society. The first step is to lose all fear and stop compromising, today in one way, tomorrow in another, by never contradicting the world around us and always following public opinion. Compromise is another word for mediocrity and failure.’
Elsewhere, in a less ornery frame of mind, feverishly if not quite successfully contemplating the eternal questions, he concedes ‘that it’s probably quite true that we’re all more interested in finding our food, shelter and human contacts than thinking too much about the purpose of life.’ He is gracious enough too to make a late, if begrudging, concession to a place in the artistic spectrum for purely escapist cinema.
Tales from the Cancer Ward can be read as a companion piece to the director’s Force of Destiny, his cinematic swansong, which he would make a couple of years after the writing of the book, when his health had recovered sufficiently following the receipt of a new liver. Scenes in the film have their embryo in the pages of the memoir. The tone of poignant searching is identical.
The director cum memoirist also reflects at length on his relations with family and friends, including Vincent van Gogh’s great grandnephew Theo, Norman Kaye, Werner Herzog, his brother Wim, his sister Angeline and brother-in-law Jaap, as well as the American film critic Roger Ebert, a fellow cancer sufferer. Vivid, at times horrid, dreams lace the narrative but are countered by visions of light and love.
War child Mr. Cox readily acknowledges that the death and destruction he witnessed daily growing up in occupied Holland established the tenor of his life. Though for a time he aspired to a priestly calling, he struggled ever after to conceive of a benevolent Creator. He renounced conventional religion but admired faith. It is out of the question that any Creator figure meriting the name would be so meanspirited to have not ushered such a man into one of the brightest astral realms when the reprieve his new liver granted him finally ended.