Media & Reviews
Variety Film Review
by Russell Edwards
A premature eulogy turns into an engaging celebration of Euro-flavored, Oz-based vet auteur Paul Cox in "On Borrowed Time." Helmed by Oscar-nominated documentarian David Bradbury ("Frontline," "Nicaragua: No Parasan"), pic captures both the charmer and the curmudgeon behind the camera while portraying Cox's wait for a liver transplant. Multiple collaborators testify to the film-maker's genius, while clips of everything from "Man of Flowers" to "Innocence" catch the arty essence of his work. A natural setup for Cox retrospectives or Oz sidebars, the docu is guaranteed fest-circuit berths. Pubcasters will also want a look.
Pic begins with a withered Cox writing a memoir to pass the time while he waits for someone else with his rare blood type to die and donate his or her liver. With a frank, clear-eyed calm about his cancer, the Dutch-raised septuagenarian helmer cuts a dignified figure as he reflects on his past and his impending death. Tracking his subject's visits to a Melbourne hospital for treatment over several months, Bradbury unobtrusively augments the medical waiting game with celebratory interviews.
Loyal thesps and regular players, including Wendy Hughes, Chris Haywood and longtime muse Gosia Dobrowolska, all marvel at the collision of order and chaos that characterizes Cox's shoots. Recollections focus more on the man rather than on his work, though high-quality productions from the director's 1980s heyday, including searing film a clef "My First Wife," are prominent. An appetizing array of clips nails the emotional intensity, trippy experimentation and austere beauty of Cox's capital-A arthouse features.
Docu gets beyond pure hagiography with affectionate glimpses of Cox's cantankerous side. The gist of the auteur's personality is summed up by his onetime producer Philip Adams ("Lonely Hearts"), who recalls that the director spoke of "integrity" as if he was the only person who had it.
Cox's sole big-budget film, "Molokai," featuring David Wenham (who narrates the docu) alongside Peter O'Toole and Kris Kristofferson, is dismissed as a debacle ruined by philistine producers. But the docu also uncovers the director's hypersensitivity to criticism; longtime Cox supporter and former Variety critic David Stratton relates the fiery response he got after filing a negative review of "Salvation," while thesp Aden Young (who edited "Salvation") laughs about being physically attacked by Cox when the two had a disagreement while working on 1994's "Exile."
Bradbury's contemplative views of Cox's Melbourne milieu capture the city's gritty appeal and successfully mimic the helmer's Euro-styled eye. A 60-minute tube version is ready for Oz broadcast, but the pleasurable 87-minute length already seems too short.
Cox Redux: David Bradbury's On Borrowed Time
by Bob Ellis
It was Charles Dickens I guess who invented the narrative plotline of a crabbed, unrepentant old man forced by a pestering visitant on Christmas Eve to review and assess his past life lest he go to his grave unthankful. And Frank Capra who, in It's A Wonderful Life, asked what the world would have been like without him, before Richard Curtis added, in Love Actually, a multiplicity of recognizeable characters in their various Yuletide crises of love lost, love mourned and love regained. But it was David Bradbury who, after stalking the dying Dutch-Australian auteur Paul Cox down the last days of his diagnosis, chemotherapy, remorse, dark amusement and cosmic sorrow, managed to be there in the surgery on Christmas Day 2010 to film his death, liver transplant and resurrection, and to sit on stage with him last night and hear his vivid posthumous reflections on life's blissful sweetness in the Chauvel Cinema.
David Stratton was on stage too, and gave it four and a half. I told Bradbury, an intense, heroic and hectoring left-winger whose constipated ferocity I sometimes dislike, it was 'as good as Wild Strawberries but no better', a judgment I made when sober and maintain still now I am drunk. Both David and I are in it, of course, as critics, collaborators and Persons from Porlock, but its quality is not in doubt. It is a film for the ages. It may not get a release, of course, though it could run a year at the Orpheum like that similar angel-wrestle with death's implications As It Is In Heaven. But there you go. It will be on DVD. It exists. It plays. It resounds. It re-echoes. It is very, very fine.
Like Lord Cut-Glass in Under Milk Wood, Cox dwells in a house full of clocks, whose multiple thuddings, tickings, chimings and gleamings open the film, as in the Bergman classic of 1958. Interviews follow, with David Wenham, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Wendy Hughes, Chris Haywood, Phillip Adams, Gosia Dobrowolska, Leila Blake, Jackie McKenzie, Aden Young, me, none of them unrelievedly adulatory, all of them sometimes abusively exasperated, and a tender farewell toast from John Clarke, who said once of Paul, 'He's the only man who can complain bitterly while being carried shoulder-high.' No irritation at his ill-temper, womanising, self-indulgence, disdain for his adopted country and occasional murderous violence goes for long unmentioned. Like Orson Welles or Malcolm Tucker there are different sides to him, not all of them repellent, and both awe and resentment follow wherever he marauds, and great wide lashings of unfeigned, enduring affection.
In among all this are images from his films, a tumble of memory one might expect at death's door, in montages as good as any in world cinema (editors Lindi Harrison and Andrew Arestides) which like a Mozart symphony or a Shakespeare soliloquy seem to give us life's entirety in half a minute or so. They give us as well some astonishingly beautiful nude women in tantalising postures, gorgeous as Botticellis, composed like Caravaggios, their pubic bushes always lavishly visible, and always unoffensive, some from an exhibition of stills he tenderly, longingly shot and put together in the last months of his illness to raise money for possible surgery overseas, all of them erotic but none of them -- somehow -- exploitative of women, a gender that has always been very fond of Cox, as Picasso's mistresses were of him, in the old European way.
Among this as well great operatic music strides and tiptoes, bellows and whispers. And the film is all of a piece, like one of Paul Keating's Regency clocks, or a perfect Beethoven sonata. Death comes, and withdraws, and all for a time is well. And then the question comes again and comes again, and will not go away.
David Wenham narrates, with interpolations from Cox's diaries in his own distinct immaculate English, some of it as arresting as his beloved W.H. Auden, and some very funny anecdotes, one of them involving mutinous lepers, one a shouting-match at Cannes about Pulp Fiction between Cox and Stratton that could be heard, some say, in North Africa across the water.
On Borrowed Time is being 'picked up', as the dread phrase is, by the ABC who are cutting out of it thirty minutes to fit some pointless time-slot on some torpid Sunday afternoon. For this the responsible innumerate bureaucrat should suffer a parliamentary enquiry, and two weeks doing slops in Long Bay. It is like reducing every Shakespeare sonnet by five lines to make a smaller book. Where do these people come from? As Cox might say.
His reflections on mortality have clarity, searing wit and dark nostalgia. Half his town died under German strafing and jackboot raids at midnight, and he would run back from school afraid his house would not be there. Aircraft noises terrify him still, and his railings against the violence of latterday Hollywood and its values make poignant sense when we see the cards that life has dealt him, and the bohemian civility and sensuous revelry that was for so long his way of life. He is a good man, worth a spare liver, and an artist worth acclaiming and preserving in a film like this. A masterpiece. But see it whole, or not at all.
The artist, in the kitchen, warts and all.
by Craig Mathieson - SBS
It must be the season for documentaries about crucial but underappreciated Australian artists and their tangling with mortality. In the wake of Autoluminescent, the story of former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard, comes On Borrowed Time, David Bradbury’s neatly concise exploration of filmmaker Paul Cox’s art and outlook. Mapped to a loose timeline of 2010, a year where Cox was initially told his diagnosis of liver cancer was terminal and that subsequently seesawed from hope to surrender and back again as illness and the hopes of a transplant came to the fore, the documentary offers an affectionate portrayal of the Dutch-born writer and director.
Director David Bradbury is best known for his politically orientated documentaries, such as Chile: Hasta Cuando? And Nicaragua No Pasaran, and if he appears an odd match for Cox, the maker of highly personal and intimate independent dramas, Bradbury is quick to establish he’s working as a friend of Cox’s, one of many to rally around the filmmaker as he struggled with illness.
On the whole that friendship works for the film’s better. Bradbury has a sense of the complex man he’s trying to get across – dedicated and irascible, blunt in person yet in love with art’s poetic possibilities – and if he’s rightly gentle to a friend who may well be approaching the end of his life, it doesn’t mean he pulls his punches. Others can recount Cox’s emotional swings, such as veteran film critic and friend of Cox’s, David Stratton, who admits to experiencing a “distressing call” with Cox after negatively reviewing his last feature, 2008’s Salvation.
The best thing about Bradbury’s movie is how he allows Cox’s own observations and commentary to intermingle with his own art; when Cox talks about the realisation that death is now a very tangible concept for him, it abuts the same troubling realisations experienced by Charles “Bud” Tingwell’s Andreas in 2000’s Innocence. You also get a sense of how Cox’s obsessions inform his protagonists, a link that proved to be painful on 1984’s autobiographical My First Wife, where the subject was marital discord.
“Paul prefers disciples to collaborators,” Phillip Adams points out, but those who’ve worked with Cox, whether it’s Chris Haywood or Jacqueline McKenzie, speak with obvious respect, even if they don’t always understand his methods; Aden Young says his arguments with Cox on the set of 1994’s Exile became physical, but “it sort of sealed our friendship”.
Perhaps that’s a different Cox, for the acceptance of death – something he came to terms with before a successful liver transplant at the beginning of this year – made him appreciate what he had. Reading out his own writings, he speaks of the “strange desperation” in the eyes of his worried children, and calmly notes that he had no time for depression once he believed the end was looming.
An hour is far too little time to go into the merits of Cox’s work, especially given his prolific output throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, when like Woody Allen, he was making a movie a year (22 features and 11 documentaries is the suggested total). “So sumptuous, so European, so un-Australian,” suggests David Wenham’s narration, which is a good throwaway line, but not one that gets to grips with his hermetic creative world or the question of whether Cox was an auteur or a director living in the past.
Those lesser failings aside, On Borrowed Time is a timely reminder that Australia often leaves it too late to appreciate our own cinematic history. All that remains now, in what would be the most fitting celebration of Paul Cox’s life, is for the man himself to get back behind the camera.
Phillip Adams interviews David Bradbury
Late Night Live ABC Radio National: Download audio (right/ctrl click to download)
by Scott Gilbert & Cara Nash - FilmInk
David Bradbury’s latest documentary – which he dubs an “ideas film” – profiles the career and personal battles of daring Australian filmmaker Paul Cox.
"When I discovered that Paul was dying from liver cancer and given six months to live, I wanted to honour his life and work as a filmmaker with a one-off interview because I feared he'd dropped off the Richter scale and would vanish without anyone knowing or thinking more of him."
Prolific Australian documentarian David Bradbury is talking to FilmInk about the starting point for his latest documentary, On Borrowed Time, which turns the camera on auteur filmmaker and truly unconventional artist Paul Cox during his recent battle with cancer.
Since arriving in Australia from his native Netherlands in the sixties, the uncompromising Cox has remained a director faithful to his art and himself, continually rejecting conventional production methods, sometimes to the detriment of the final product. His acclaimed features - including Man of Flowers, Lonely Hearts, My First Wife and Innocence - have inspired a generation of directors.
The values promoted by Cox throughout his career adhered closely to those of Bradbury who has also made films outside the traditional local funding system. This common ground aided the documentary, allowing the two to forge a connection, and for Bradbury to "invade" his documentary subject's personal life beyond that initial interview.
"Paul knew and liked my work," Bradbury says. "He respected that both of us had gone down our own path with stubborn determination to make films that we both wanted to make, with our own personal integrity attached to them, often speaking out and offending film bureaucrats and film culture apparatchiks. We both believe fiercely in director driven films rather than producer driven films."
Given both their strong attitudes and working styles, did things ever get heated during shooting? "There was a bit of argy bargy between Paul and I, with him muttering under his breath many times, ‘He never listens to me... I suggested that,'" Bradbury recalls. "He felt I chose the wrong snippets from some of his old feature films and that he would have chosen better moments. But I wanted it to be ‘my' film, not ‘A Paul Cox film in association with David Bradbury', which Paul was respectful of."
On reflecting on his own body of work - which includes Frontline, a portrait of war cameraman Neil Davis; and Chile: Hasta Cuando?, which explores the brutal military dictatorship of General Pinochet, both of which saw Bradbury nominated for Oscars - Bradbury notes that most of his films were "about death in one form or the other", and he was inspired to make another film about the same theme but from a different perspective.
"It was the chance to look ‘Death' in the eye from an older man's point of view," Bradbury explains. "It was a considered look at death, not one where you were suddenly dead from misadventure before your time. I was approaching 60 and seeing a number of friends buried around me from cancer or natural causes. It was a good chance to hear from someone who had also done a lot of thinking about his own mortality and could accept that he was going to die. But didn't want to say ‘Die!' just yet."
Despite the talent both behind and in front (David Wenham appears as well as narrates, plus the likes of Aden Young, Julia Blake, Philip Adams, Bob Ellis, Wendy Hughes, Jacqueline McKenzie, John Clarke, Gosia Dobrowolska and Chris Haywood are interviewed) of the camera, the film was a difficult one to get made. When Bradbury pitched the film to the commissioning heads of the ABC and SBS - "as much out of desperation to get something up to feed my family as to finish the film" - he was knocked back. One of the real champions of the film, however, was ABC Arts' Amanda Duthie, who, being a real fan of Cox, backed the documentary.
When the film was completed, however, Screen Australia still declined to help fund a theatrical release. "I think the perception of the film funding bodies in general, not only Screen Australia, is that Australians don't want to see real life stories and documentaries up on the big screen," Bradbury says." The place for any documentary no matter what, is TV. Fullstop."
Bradbury refutes this by pointing to Bob Connolly's recent success with the documentary he made with Sophie Raymond, Mrs Carey's Concert, which the pair self-distributed, and which now stands as the fifth highest grossing local documentary of all time. In attempting a cinema release, Bradbury understands that his film may not hold the same "widespread appeal" as Mrs Carey's Concert but the filmmaker believes it will touch and challenge people given the chance.
"My film is much more esoteric and a journey in the mind which requires, like watching a Paul Cox film, a certain interest in the big questions of life," Bradbury says. "It requires an interest in ideas about one's existence; the role of an artist in society; the themes of love and fidelity in marriage; mainstream religion versus metaphysical needs; and the question of how one faces one's mortality with dignity and acceptance. They're not themes everyone in today's Australia is going to find worth thinking about with our superficial race to grab whatever we can before it disappears."
Bradbury, however, is quietly confident. "It's a good film, one of my best I think," he muses.
A life in death's shadow
by Jane Freebury
David Bradbury's study of director and friend Paul Cox after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer is a richly detailed work, Jane Freebury writes
In the rolling green hills outside Mullumbimby, where temperatures hover between temperate and tropical, veteran Australian documentary maker David Bradbury lives a world away from the global hot spots that brought him into prominence as a filmmaker. His first film, Frontline (1979), was a tribute to the life of the courageous Australian photojournalist Neil Davis who covered the war in Vietnam and other Indochinese conflicts. Besides earning Bradbury the first of his two Academy Award nominations, it reflects the gutsy investigative reportage style about political events and issues that Bradbury has become best known for.
That's not to say that he hasn't found stories to unearth close to home. The impact of development on the environment of the NSW north coast also came under scrutiny in the film made with Richard Mordaunt, The Battle for Byron, about ''brick veneer'' creep into the shire's pristine natural areas and the cost to biodiversity. Similar themes are explored in his Shoalwater: Up for Grabs, a collaboration with Peter Garrett about the impact of sandmining on wilderness in Far North Queensland.
Bradbury's roots are in broadcast journalism, where he started out in the 1970s covering regime change in Greece, Portugal and Iran. Around that time, he managed to have himself smuggled into the border area of Irian Jaya to record the first interview with the guerrilla movement for a free Papua, and he documented the events in Poland on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Polska, 1990). However, some of his best-known work was shot in Central and South America, such asFond Memories of Cuba (2003) and Chile: Hasta Cuando?(1986), for which he earned his second Oscar nomination.
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Over the years Bradbury has also been following the nuclear debate, making four films on the issue - Public Enemy Number One, Jabiluka, Blowin' in the Wind and A Hard Rain. The latter, released in 2007, examined the latest push in Australia to increase the production and export of uranium.
Individuals of courage and commitment - like controversial Australian correspondent Wilfred Burchett featured in Public Enemy Number One, or a Sandinista leader in Nicaragua: No Pasaran - are often the focus in Bradbury's films. Perhaps it was this that drew the filmmaker to the recent personal drama experienced by Paul Cox, another veteran of the local industry. Early in 2008, Cox discovered he had terminal liver cancer and was given six months to live unless he received a transplant. This was going to be difficult to achieve in a country where organ donation rates are low, and extremely hard when Cox's blood type is shared by only 2 per cent of the population.
The two filmmakers - the director and his subject - were already friends. Wishing to make a transition from documentary to fiction feature filmmaking, Bradbury had enlisted for ''work experience'' with Cox on Human Touch in 2003. He wanted to find out how the Dutch-born filmmaker made dramas ''that had real balls to them, for want of a better word, rather than lightweight Hollywood entertainment schtick''. The two men, 10 years apart in age, had struck up a friendship and when he found out about Cox's condition, Bradbury approached him about making a documentary on his life and work.
The result is On Borrowed Time, made on the slimmest of budgets, a mere $240,000, but a richly detailed and entertaining tapestry of the life of a complex creative individual. Cox is interviewed in his home, crowded with clocks all telling different times as they ''live their own life'', along with a cast of significant others. And David Wenham narrates.
Phillip Adams, Bob Ellis, actors Gosia Dobrowolska, Chris Haywood and Wendy Hughes and many more air their views on their friend and collaborator. Ellis offers: ''I've never known a more undisciplined and more arrogant and more charming and more charismatic man.'' Adams describes Cox as a blend of Werner Herzog and Woody Allen.
Into this rich material are woven excerpts from Cox's films along with some images from the filmmaker's own remarkable early life story, captured on film in The Netherlands by his own father, also a photographer and filmmaker. It is a very skilful mix and Bradbury has good reason to say: ''I think it is one of my best ever, in terms of craft and the maturity of ideas it canvasses through Paul's intimate brush with his own mortality.''
Many will share David Stratton's view that ''all Paul's films are about himself to one degree or another, and that takes guts'', but perhaps they won't be aware of Cox's early years. How, born in The Netherlands in 1940, he was brought up in a small town near the border with Germany. The first five years of his life were spent in a war zone and ''it caused in me, and others who had crawled from the ruins, a profound fascination with death and decay''. This seems to help explain a touch of morbidity in Cox's films, as sensuous and beautiful as they are, and then of course he made A Woman's Tale with Sheila Florance who was known to be dying of cancer in the process.
Despite his long-standing international reputation, Bradbury finds it hard to raise the finance to make a film today. This is hard to credit, when public money can be found to support the production of the light entertainment reality television that fits the definition of documentary for funding purposes.
Bradbury says he's not the only documentary filmmaker in this position. There are others out there and ''we can't get the 'holy grail', the pre-sale from the public broadcaster to trigger the finance to make another film''. Luckily, On Borrowed Timeachieved this pre-sale.
His views are supported by the Australian Directors Guild which has recently pointed to a change in the patterns of documentary funding in this country. The guild's Kingston Anderson says that the national broadcasters - without whom most documentaries could not be made - have changed from commissioning a majority of one-off individual documentaries to commissioning series, usually made by larger production companies.
''Australia's fine tradition of landmark documentaries is diminishing,'' says Anderson. ''We are not going to see a new generation of filmmakers like Bob Connolly or Dennis O'Rourke or Aviva Zeigler or Tom Zubrycki emerge in this current climate.''
And the losers will be the one-off individual documentary producers who make programs about ideas and issues that they see affecting this country, ''and Australian audiences now and into the future who will lose the opportunity to watch programs of this kind of depth and relevance''.
On Borrowed Time will screen at ARC cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive at 2pm today. We Are All Alone My Dear (1976), a short documentary by Paul Cox, will screen prior to the main feature. Filmmaker David Bradbury will participate in a Q&A session at the screening.
Force of Life Triumphs
By Philippa Hawker
"We all live on borrowed time,'' Paul Cox says. ''There is no other time.'' It's a notion that he has come to appreciate, as the subject of a documentary about life, death, art and friendship made by Oscar-nominated filmmaker David Bradbury. Its focus is on Cox, one of Australia's leading film directors. It's an appreciation of his life and his work, and it was shot at a particularly difficult time, when Cox was coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis, then undergoing a liver transplant.
Cox likes to joke that Bradbury did not get his ''snuff movie ending''. As the documentary is about to screen on the ABC, he is thinking once again about life and time, with the same mixture of wry detachment and strongly held opinion that is evident in the documentary. He is back in the Austin Hospital, where he received his transplant in 2009; he's just had an operation to remove a tumour in his adrenal gland. The procedure was difficult and gruelling, he says; he's grateful to the doctors he calls ''these magicians here. I don't know how many times my life has been saved by them.''
Cox was born in Holland in 1940 and came to Australia in the 1960s, settling in Melbourne. He studied and taught photography, then gravitated towards films. He has made more than a score of features. His greatest success came in the 1980s, with films such as Lonely Hearts, Man of Flowers and My First Wife, works with distinctive personal vision in which flawed characters search for grace. They were award-winning successes in Australia and overseas. Man of Flowerswas invited to Cannes and actor Isabelle Huppert came to Australia to make Cactus, a 1986 feature that also made its debut at Cannes. In subsequent years, he fell out of critical favour and found it harder to get his films funded, although he has remained prolific.
Cox is frail, but brimming with ideas and plans. He is already looking forward to what he can do when he leaves hospital. He hopes to be able to see his friend David Wenham performing in The Crucible with the Melbourne Theatre Company in a production that opens later this month. He has been involved with a book about the photographer John Cato, and a tribute exhibition of Cato's work that will take place in August in Ballarat. He is determined to begin work next year on a movie, called The Force of Destiny.
''I've had so much time to think,'' he says. What has struck him most of all, he adds, is the experience of friendship. ''I have known so many fine people. I have been very blessed that way.'' One of them was the American film critic Roger Ebert, who died in April , after years of debilitating illness. Ebert was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid in 2002. Following treatment and complications, he lost the use of his voice, but he continued to write and review, right to the end of his life. There are plans to publish a book of their correspondence, Cox says. ''He was a powerful man in film, but kindness was the big thing with him.''
Since his diagnosis and his transplant - when he met a fellow recipient, Rosie Raka, who is now his partner - Cox has been remarkably active and engaged. He wrote a memoir, Tales from the Cancer Ward, and donated the profits to the hospital and made his own hour-long film, The Dinner Party, in which eight people (including Cox himself) shared a meal and talked about one thing they have in common: the experience of having a liver transplant.
He and Raka also have a new challenge: they have taken over a coffee shop that was part of the building where his home and office are located. After a slow start, but with a manager now in place, Cox says ''it makes enough money now to look after itself''.
He plans to hold an exhibition there of another of his recent projects: mandalas he made using sea shells, objects he became fascinated with in the aftermath of his diagnosis.
He's going to put a sizeable price on them, he says, because he'd rather keep them. Yet he hopes sales will help him make The Force of Destiny. He has a primary investor but still needs additional funding. ''It will be done. It has to be done. The film is a mission.''