The smile curls up in a puckish twinkle. Above the Buddha belly, the Santa Claus pipe tumbles a few more specks of tobacco onto a professorial corduroy jacket. Director Paul Cox has been a busy man on the film circuit with two films, the kinky and critically praised "Man of Flowers" (now at the Key Theatre in Washington) and "My First Wife," jerking tears from the toughest critics.
"I feel right now like the flavor-of-the-month director in Australia," the 45-year-old Cox says. "And because the films have everybody calling me hot, I've become very cool. I actually begin to doubt the worth of my films as art. Now" -- Cox pulls in a long drag on his pipe -- "doesn't that sound pretentious?"
Doggedly pursuing his point in the hotel suite, he puts down his scotch and becomes a social worker, hunched over the problem, elbows on his knees.
"We have this modern problem of rock stars becoming short-term divinities. A Boy George or Kiss or your Prince is celebrated, worshiped, listened to as if it were the ultimate creation of musical esthetics. Then all the sudden, they're gone. And all these kids with their Kiss masks, Prince posters and crap are left with the debris of a cult, and the music slips back to Sunday radio retrospectives.
"That's not music, not art, and these poor youngsters have lost something they admired, possibly the only thing they cared about for a certain period of their life. And it gets replaced by something just as ephemeral and tawdry.
"Instead of teaching them the beauty and wealth of nature and traditions, we watch them spend their youth and money and time on shallow little symbols of the marketplace. I grow so sad when I walk into a cafe' or record store and see Prince or Boy George in duplicate, triplicate. They think that to be different they dress up like somebody else. Aping someone else is a badge of independence? What are we teaching them? What have we learned?"
The interview is suspended for the afternoon as he turns to other concerns. A long rap with the feminist filmmaker about what a killer filmmaking can be, about work habits that have caused collapses after completing films.
Later, at a party in his honor, Cox withdraws to a corner of the winter garden in a three-story house on the bluffs of Montreal. Looking down on the city lights, he wonders aloud why he never considered emigrating to Canada.
After growing up in the Netherlands, Paulus Henrique Benedictus Cox managed to enter art school against his father's will but encouraged by his mother. "I was raised in an atmosphere very much like the house of flowers. My childhood was steeped in moody, dark, bitter memories." Cox's father had made documentary films before World War II and, in the postwar devastation, opened a photography studio.
As a child, Cox spent many hours alone in the attic playing with an old projector and "looking at the dark," as he remembers it. "I was always impressed by how clear everything was in the dark. Which may be why I withdrew out here tonight into the shadows."
Does he like the darkness of a movie theater? "I used to when I was younger, but it's getting more difficult for me to go to the cinema, because I like films that show me something new about life. And I hate movies with predictable plots and unalloyed emotions.
"Every important act in life is accompanied by conflicting feelings. Take my emigration to Australia," he says, striding up and down the length of the porch. "At 22 I was glad to leave the darkness of Europe behind and went to Australia on a program where they paid me to come. But my feelings, and I'd like to emphasize the physical meaning of feeling here, were mixed, because I fell asleep on deck and burned myself so badly that I spent three weeks in bed when I arrived in Melbourne. Immigration can be very painful."
Cox spent several years traveling through Southeast Asia before deciding to make films but insists, "I did not decide to become a filmmaker. I always say that the most important things one does are done as a hobby. My hobby became an obsession, now a profession, although I am still working definitely outside the mainstream of Australian cinema."
Because he is based in Melbourne, Cox remains a foreigner to the Sydney-controlled film industry Down Under. "They spend enormous amounts on productions of truly marginal worth," Cox says with some outrage. "I argue with them, because I also produce and know their business better than they.
"Of course, Sydney filmmakers don't . . .see what I see when they look in the mirror. I've aged enormously. I looked the same from 20 to 40. In the past five years, I've grown old, but I still want to work in my way. I want to make changes and shape things without explaining to somebody who will just waste my time and expend my energy in verbal skirmishes that have nothing to do with the images that really concern me."
Cox is worried, furthermore, about what will happen when he is cut off from experience by other people answering his phone, taking messages, organizing his schedule. "I like to move around looking for faces, characters, to talk to people I like. I don't need a secretary to put somebody off I won't talk to. Besides, everything develops bit by bit. My films. Our interview. . . .
"Making 'Man of Flowers' was like some kind of crazy, cultish snake in a charming situation," Cox goes on about the quirky, somewhat perverse tale of an amateur artist and art collector -- and his relations with women and flowers. "We shot it all in three weeks, during which I didn't sleep at all. No exaggeration, and I know it's very dangerous for the brain, so I would try to catch an hour, but I was living the emotions of the film. Fortunately the actors had a good grip on the action. Actors act, right? Directors orchestrate, write, rewrite, modulate, consider rhythms and visual details . . . and worry. When it was through, I was half crazy. Still am.
"I rewrote the script every night based on that day's shoot. Working with actor Norman Kaye was magical and silent. Our thoughts were like railroad tracks, always exactly parallel. I trust his heart and gut -- and head! -- as much as my own. It's due to him that I began making films, and I'll never make a film without a part in it for Norman."
Cox met Kaye 16 years ago, when Cox was working as a photographer for a stage company, where "Norman was an enormous ham," as he describes him. "I had a small photography shop and did a portfolio for him, and we became fast friends. Nobody else would ever have cast him as a lead in a movie. He's too gentle and, I suppose, normal. Most people think intellect is an albatross. I don't." The pipe is now billowing.
"Most people -- and I use that phrase to avoid pointing the finger at people whom I consider pandering producers -- think that in a society as rich as ours, what is desired is another car, more clothes, another gadget or trip to Europe to talk about with other people just as acquisitive. I don't. I think most people do want something to make them stop wanting things and to think about why they live the way they do, even if it means they only shrug and decide they like it all just as it is.
"For example, I take music seriously. I like it to stir me, to come from the heart and not from a speaker. I don't need it to be amplified before it reaches me. And we make mistakes thinking films need to be amplified through special effects or humongous budgets or extravagant publicity campaigns before reaching the audience.
"I despise much modern painting because it also depends on one effect and salesmanship. I can see no point in being a painter unless you know how to mix paint. That's why we made the paintings in 'Man of Flowers' as appalling as possible. To reflect such paltry ambitions as to be popular. The world doesn't need another action painting."
The question most often asked is whether Cox hesitated to make such "sensitive" films about masculine sensibilities in a macho place like Australia.
"I am shamelessly arrogant," he says, "because I never doubted my own abilities for a moment. I wanted to leave something behind me that will move people for a long time to come. I don't want to be remembered for a car chase."
One of his pressing projects is a film about Vincent van Gogh, conceived a few years ago when he visited the small room in which van Gogh lived in Arles. "What a lonely life and what a brillant man! All the things he said are now so true. I was struck by what he stood for and by the fact that he remains so loved. At the end of his life, he said that he no longer needed to go out of his way to express his isolation, because he finally knew the force of yellow."
Reading the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky also inspired the quixotic Cox to pursue the aberrations of genius. "His writings are the most thrilling literature I've ever touched. He wrote, 'I give my wife white roses and they cost 25 cents each. Red roses are cheaper.' Love isn't cheap. That bit of 'Man of Flowers' comes from Nijinsky. When Charles says, 'I told my little flower that we would be friends, and she wept, and her tears ruined my silk tie.' Love ruins silk ties more often than not."
Cox drains a wine bottle and finishes the evening by comparing his own place in Australia with the "out-of-placeness" of Montreal in North America.
"I have great affinities with the past and with the process of aging and growing beyond the easy achievements. I know it sounds dreadfully serious, but some of the people I am most interested in lived around 1910 to 1925. France, the Bauhaus, Vienna in the '20s -- that's what I was trying to create in 'Man of Flowers.' "
And in Paul Cox and his films there's something of the Rosenkavalier, the forget-me-not -- the unplucked Eden.