When Paul Cox was moved from hospital into palliative care, we prepared ourselves for tough news. Paul was getting smaller and weaker, his voice was in retreat and family and friends had attended his bedside to say their goodbyes. His siblings flew out from Europe. I didn’t expect to see him again.
A week or so later, Paul decided he was going home and explained to the palliative care people that although he loved them dearly, he would not be dying just yet. He travelled home in a Popemobile-shaped taxi and began blessing people as he passed them in the street. This cheered him up enormously and when we saw him a few days later he rose to meet us, offered us coffee and sat rather grandly in a chair, chatting for hours with a keen emphasis on the future. His voice was stronger, his memory was wonderful, his manners were elegant, his talk was clever and in some cases what he said was astonishing. At 7 o'clock each evening, for example, he went out on to his little balcony in Melbourne and raised both arms high in the air in order to receive healing waves being beamed to him by a woman in Uzbekistan. Paul was very amusing about all this but as he said, ‘at this stage I believe in nothing and everything.’
A few years earlier, the first time he was going to die, he received a liver transplant and, in a state of profound gratitude, he continued writing and making films. Last year he made a movie in which David Wenham played a man who has a liver transplant and falls in love. Paul met his partner Rosie when they were both receiving liver transplants. He was in his late sixties at the time and she is a beautiful Balinese woman of somewhat more tender years. ‘I know what you’re thinking Johnny’ Cox said to me when he introduced us. ‘Rosie is much younger than I am. But I want you to know Johnny, my liver is younger than Rosie’s’.
Half a lifetime ago Paul and I wrote some films together and we’ve always stayed in touch. I’d never written a movie before and I quickly learnt it was no use suggesting to Paul a thematically consistent sequence involving sport, for example. That wouldn’t fit in a Cox film. Too healthy. And there wasn’t much interest in men who fixed cars and called each other ‘mate’. Paul’s films looked like Dutch interiors with dappled light playing through the window and they were full of urban characters who were ill at ease, often slightly wounded or suffering from incongruity of some kind. As with many collaborations, we wrote by talking a lot together and then writing separately. Paul’s house was always full of good conversation. At one stage Werner Herzog was living in a shed in the backyard with a dingo. Peter Watkins also lived there at some point, while he and Paul were discussing a film project. Peter had made the brilliant 1964 docudrama ‘Culloden’ in which 1960s British journalists report live from a battle which occurred in 1745. This strategy of anachronism was new in 1964 and the effect in ‘Culloden’ was terrifying.
Paul’s public presentation was that of a serious artist but he was nevertheless given to fits of amusement which produced a snuffling and rumbling sound such as might occur if a badger were attempting not to explode. When he regrouped, he expressed matters once more in his formal mode, which was not unlike an antiques catalogue. A suggestion which would solve a problem was ‘good,’ a great idea for a scene was ‘fine,’ and if he completely approved of a whole section of plot and dialogue he would pronounce it ‘very fine’; as in ‘I read that section again last night Johnny. That really is very fine’. When ‘Lonely Hearts,’ the first film we wrote together, was about to be released thirty-five years ago, Paul wrote me a letter which I have always kept. In the last line of the letter he said he hoped that having worked on this film together and seeing it come to fruition, would ‘strengthen our shy human friendship’. It did.
Having received blessings from Uzbekistan, Paul announced he was going to America. The only people who thought this wouldn’t happen were those unfamiliar with Paul’s willpower. The doctors wouldn’t allow him to fly across the Pacific for fourteen hours so he’d negotiated overnight stays in Bangkok, Dubai and Frankfurt and then a trip across the Atlantic to Chicago. His film ‘Force of Destiny’ was to play at the Ebert Film Festival and Paul had been invited to speak. Rosie would go with him and make sure he rested, ate the right food and took his tablets. The couple left on April Fool’s Day and that night Rosie, whose canonisation is imminent, sent a message reporting that Paul had gone out to dinner in Bangkok. This was probably a PB for the palliative care unit at the Austin but Cox was just limbering up. After Dubai and Frankfurt the official party arrived in Chicago and Paul made a gracious, honest and very engaging speech to an audience who couldn’t believe quite what they were watching. Following the festival, Paul and Rosie made their way home and Paul was planning another movie. The fact that he died on Saturday will probably slow him down a bit although I expect he’ll call sometime during the next week or so with a revised schedule. ‘I’m still going to do it’ he’ll say. ‘Why not? I have some good ideas. I want to talk about it. Come to dinner.’
Paulus Henrique Benedictus Cox 1940 – 2016