Australian director Paul Cox might just hold the record for the director who’s appeared most often at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.
But in 2013 he was a no-show, even though he had been scheduled to attend with his lyrical 1987 documentary, “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh.”
Cox, who turned 73 the day before the 2013 Ebertfest started on April 17, had wanted to come. However, doctors ordered him not to travel by air to Champaign.
People at Ebertfest 2013 at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign did see Cox, though, in a different way. He appears as the village priest in “To Music,” a 17-minute short film thath was shown alongside “Vincent” at the festival and was co-directed and co-written by Sophie Kohn and Fieke Santbergen.
They created it on impulse while visiting Cox’s home in Provence in the South of France. He has a home in Holland, too, where he was born but lives most of the time in Australia, according to Ebertfest director Nate Kohn.
An old friend of both Ebert and Nate Kohn, Cox appeared at earlier Ebertfests with “A Woman’s Tale” in 2009, “Innocence” in 2002 and “Man of Flowers” in 2007. And last year he came back, that time as the subject of director David Bradbury’s documentary, “On Borrowed Time” (2011). The doc tells of Cox’s having had liver cancer and surviving a transplant.
Nate Kohn — Sophie is his daughter — said Roger Ebert and Cox have admired each other’s work for decades.
“And Paul really wanted to come back to the festival to be with Roger, knowing that he was not well. So we invited him.”
Ebert, who died on April 4 at age 70. and Cox share a similar humanist sensibility, and the topics Cox covers in his movies resonated with Ebert, Nate Kohn said.
Soon after Ebert’s death, Cox by email said simply, “A great man has departed.”
“It will take many years for the cinema to recover from the loss of Roger Ebert,” he wrote a few days later, again by email.
“There was never anyone like him, I don’t think there will ever be another voice like him. But he was more than a brilliant film critic. Roger was a human being and his kindness, compassion, humor and love will linger for many years to come. The only proof of your life is the love you leave behind.”
When Cox was ill with liver cancer and was told not much could be done for him, Ebert wrote often, urging him not to give up.
“He refused to accept that I was sick and dying and told me to keep faith,” Cox wrote. “This coming from a man who could hardly walk, couldn’t eat and couldn’t talk. I’m sure he had much to do with my survival.”
Ebert and Cox both have had a great deal to do with the survival of overlooked films that have a conscience.
When Cox told Ebert he was considering making a film portrait of the famed critic, Ebert replied: “Good gravy, Paul, you have to make a Paul Cox film, we need them!”
One reason Ebert felt that way was he, as well as Cox, believed the film industry has little conscience. Cox considers most blockbusters “acts of collective insanity.” Once, after he complained about a particularly bad example, Ebert, with a smile, wrote on a piece of paper, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Cox also believes “the ludicrous violence in so many films is a sign of a lost world, a lost spoiled civilization that celebrates destruction instead of creation that is based on fear and compromise.
“Remarkable that the heroes of these ‘collective acts of insanity’ are embraced by the public and their insane salaries, for all the killing and destroying are applauded.”
Cox said two or so decades ago people were unwilling to finance his biopic on van Gogh — they called it an “act of insanity” on Cox’s part.
“That took 20 years! One single lonely individual painted what he felt and saw — without an audience, without approval, without compromise. Let’s never forget that the world has a conscience that cannot be bribed!,” Cox wrote.
The director believes Ebert wanted to show “Vincent” at his 2013 festival because it remains as fresh and new as when it was released in 1987.
Narrated by John Hurt, “Vincent” explores the last years of the artist’s life, mainly through the letters he wrote to his brother, Theo. In the 99-minute movie, Cox chose to show on screen in chronological order a wide selection of van Gogh’s paintings and sketches. The director supplemented those images with shots of the locations where van Gogh had lived, as well as a number of dramatized reconstructions of events.
Popular on the art-house circuit, “Vincent” ran for two years in New York. Ebertfest might have been a another perfect place for “Vincent.”
“Ebertfest is a most intimate cinematic adventure,” Cox said. “It’s wonderful how a whole town gangs up and stands in line to celebrate films with a conscience, films that enrich our lives instead of the usual pandering to the lower levels of our conscience.”
Cox is now working on finding money to make his next movie, “Force of Destiny.”
“The experts think it’s too real!” he said.
Cox emailed me a PDF file of the proposal for “Force of Destiny,” which seems partly semi-autobiographical. The first paragraph reads:
“Established artist Robert is told he has liver cancer and limited time to live. This unexpected message leaves him feeling confused, scared and utterly alone. In the process of physical decline and mental turmoil, he meets Maya, a marine biologist who comes from a different world, a different reality.”