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Homage to a Fellow Outsider : Director Paul Cox Offers an Impassioned Documentary on Van Gogh

Painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and film maker Paul Cox (“Lonely Hearts,” “Man of Flowers”) share some essential qualities. Both work from an outsider’s viewpoint. Both are prolific--though Van Gogh’s 1,800 canvases in 10 years far outstrip Cox’s 29 films, short and long, since 1965. Both can be moody, idealistic, explosive. And both were born in the south of Holland, in countryside areas only 40 kilometers apart.

That proximity may have helped lead one-time painter Cox to his latest film, the shattering “Vincent” (now playing the Westside Pavilion). It’s an impassioned documentary, using shots of Van Gogh’s paintings, the places where he lived and his own words--culled from nearly two decades of letters sent to younger brother Theo--to dramatize his protean, isolated, poignant life.

The film works wrenchingly well. It’s one art documentary powerful enough to make audiences weep. Says Cox: “I would never have done this film any other way. It’s a homage to a great soul, a great human being. I didn’t want to be seen too much in the film; I wanted to make his film, let him speak. . . . But when you present an idea like that to people who put money in movies, their first question is always: ‘Who’s going to play Vincent?’ ”

Cox, who now lives and works in Australia, worked 18 months on “Vincent” after his last feature, “Cactus.” “It was about a year of shooting. Every season I would go back to the same spots. . . . I was suddenly, all the time, confronted with our century. I couldn’t freeze time: It’s pretty tricky, just to get a clean field with poppies, or sunflowers blowing in the wind. Suddenly, a plastic bag flies by. There are power lines everywhere. Or I had to clear a whole forest of Coca-Cola cans.

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“It made me very angry, disgusted. When you’re walking with a camera through a forest, very carefully timed with all Van Gogh’s words--which I was saying while I was shooting--and I came to exactly the same road that he had used, suddenly looked through, and there’s this incredible heap of rubbish in the forest! Terrible, you know. It’s very hard to find a bit of clean, clear earth.”

Cox’s films have been a strange mix of compassion, scathing satire, rapt pictorialism and blistering emotion--and he projects most of these qualities in person. His voice is low, eloquent, Dutch-accented and gloomy, and he often breaks into a bitterly bemused smile. His work released here has been full of empathy for outsiders, and in “Vincent” this reaches high expression. We are locked in the soul of a man communicating only by letters to a distant brother.

The centenary of Van Gogh’s death is 1990, which is something that also helped inspire Cox. “After a hundred years, it puzzles me how people are totally in awe of him, how important he has become.

“If you look at what he did in 10 years, it’s basically impossible. He painted 1,800 pictures. He spent all his time perfecting his art, morning till night. And then he wrote. . . . I always say: ‘What a marvelous thing that he didn’t have a telephone--though he wouldn’t have been able to pay the bills anyway--because all those thoughts would have been lost.’ He wrote every night, by hand, to Theo. And, if you had to read everything he wrote, it’s like reading the Bible three times. Unbelievable! All this in 10 years.

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“Where does his energy come from? At times, he says: ‘I have to stun myself; I drink a bit too much.’ I think that was his imbalance: He had too much energy. If he’d lived now, they probably would have put him on Valium to calm him down. I think if you’re really madly and passionately and feverishly involved in something, it automatically becomes a kind of drug.

“In the process of making this film, I became totally overwhelmed by Van Gogh’s constant, total honesty. He didn’t know how to lie. Wonderful, you know? I think his real madness was his love for people. And love for his work. . . . Actually, I don’t think he was mad at all. What is more insane: Cutting off your ear, or buying a painting for 50 million by someone who did cut off his ear? It’s totally insane. . . . If Van Gogh had ever known or guessed. . . .” Cox breaks out into mordant laughter.

One of “Vincent’s” strongest elements is the brilliant performance of John Hurt, who reads Van Gogh’s letters with stunning empathy, and whose involvement in the project came with surprising ease. According to Cox, “I knew him vaguely. I rang him and said, ‘You have to do this.’ And he said, ‘I’ll hop on a plane.’ He did it in two days; one day we spent talking about it, looking at the film.

“Later on, I learned that John’s father was a minister, and his second name is Vincent. He was a real Vincent freak. And he was actually very moved at the end, overcome. He’s a very instinctive man too. The way he slowly disintegrates in his reading: the way he breaks up his voice, becomes a broken man at the end. . . . I think it’s very splendid. A lot of movie stars are boring, because there’s only one dimension showing. With Hurt, it’s never like that. He’s a great actor . . . and a great human being, of course.”

Cox shot all the landscape scenes himself with a tripod and a secondhand German Arriflex 35-millimeter camera. (“I think that camera belonged to Leni Riefenstahl or something.”) His odyssey of loneliness, in a way, duplicated Van Gogh’s. “Vincent” was a very intense journey, I can tell you. It was a very difficult film to make. The last six months of that film were basically living with it, and being in hell, because I didn’t know where to go anymore.

“It was extraordinary, because it was like writing a symphony and not knowing where the next notes come from. I had all the shots, but I was going half out of my brain. And also I was pretty obsessed by the whole thing, so I didn’t sleep at night. And that’s never very good. But then, at the Vancouver Festival, it suddenly exploded and the audience was very enthusiastic. I was very, very moved, felt we were on the right track.

“So many people have told me they’ve broken up at the end, you know? But anyone that feels and thinks and lives and struggles would identify with Vincent. A lot of people have asked me, ‘You must have empathized strongly with him?’ I say: ‘Everyone that still has some humanity left in them must identify with Van Gogh.’ ”

Cox once taught film history courses but seldom goes to the movies these days; he feels that the Australian film renaissance is dead. He has a few favorite film makers though: Bunuel, Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky (“a great soul; I wept when he died”). And some strong feelings on the industrial side of his art.

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“To me, a film is not a ‘product.’ It’s much more than that. It’s the most unbelievably powerful medium. President Reagan would not be here if he hadn’t been a performer. And, if Hitler and Goebbels had been able to go on daily talk-back shows . . . you can just imagine, if Hitler had his own little show, between 6 and 7, before everybody had a meal, the Third Reich would still be marching.”

Cox doesn’t think much of a previous Van Gogh bio-film, Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 “Lust for Life,” with Kirk Douglas as Vincent and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. “It lacked total heart and soul. It didn’t have anything that Van Gogh really went through. That film left me totally dead; there was no passion in it.

“Kirk Douglas is very good in it--he’s working very hard and he’s very real--but I can’t feel Van Gogh through him. . . . You know, when I first started to talk about this film with people, one of them said, “You should get Michael Douglas to play Vincent. He’d be very good.’ This was years ago, of course; now Michael Douglas costs several million dollars. . . . But that wasn’t the kind of actor I wanted. I wanted people to feel Van Gogh as a little individual, alone and suffering. . . .

“Vincent was desperately lonely. Loneliness drives people crazy. I think a lot of people nowadays are very lonely, you know? I think an individual is more alone these days than ever before. Vincent was maybe a hundred years ahead of his time: so were Strindberg and Edvard Munch. That type of loneliness a lot of people now experience: especially people who think and feel and struggle and go out into a world that does not in any way feed their inner selves.”

Cox’s eyes squint in a sudden reverie. “You should go to the room where he died. Tiny little room, off of a square . . . I’ve never, ever been so moved. It was very, very . . . it was a dirty little room with a little bit of light coming from the ceiling. An old rusty bed. And there’s just enough room to move . . . and a chair and a desk, a few dirty planks. Everything falling off the walls. That’s where this man died. All by himself.”


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