Cox Redux: David Bradbury’s On Borrowed Time

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 lushly 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.