INTERVIEW: Making "Nijinksy"; Paul Cox Gets Punched in the Nose By Nureyev and Other Tales From the Front
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 05.31.02) — At the end of her 1934 biography on her husband, Romola Nijinsky recalled that she once uttered after seeing him dance at Convent Garden: “Thank you, my God, that I have lived in this century to have seen Nijinsky dance.” This bio was released after the man declared to be the world’s greatest dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, had been declared insane for 14 years. It’s a touching, riveting book. But it’s not as startling, chaotic, or even mesmerizing as the entries in Vaslav’s own madman diaries.
Both works were understandably censored by Romola. It was only after her death that Nijinsky’s homosexual encounters were no longer left to the imagination of those who sensed the truth. Now Australian director Paul Cox has visualized the diaries in all their uncensored glory. A more fitting pairing of two creative forces would be hard to imagine. (Ken Russell and Nijinsky? Well, that would probably be a bit over the top.)
Exploring madmen who see the truth more clearly than the sane is not a new topic for Cox. There was “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh” (1987) and “Man of Flowers” (1983) in which a lover of art kills an enemy and turns him into an actual statue. Also, if I remember correctly 1975’s “The Island” touched upon this state of affairs, too.
Of course, Cox’s own constant outspokenness has made some wish he was confined, too. Take his view on Quentin Tarantino: “I’m certainly not looking forward to the next Tarantino film. He has done a lot of damage to a lot of people with his crappy films. A lot of young people think ‘Pulp Fiction‘ is really great but to me, it is a terrible film and has pushed back cinema for many, many years. There are a lot of imitators at work there.”
Then there’s his depiction of critics in this film as brainless ducks. To find out more about the man, Brandon Judell nervously wobbled into his hotel room the other day and quacked the following questions.
indieWIRE: You’ve dealt with other artists who’ve gone bonkers like Van Gogh. Do you feel you’re going insane yourself? Is that why you were attracted to Nijinsky?
Paul Cox: I’ve always been a little insane. No. I am just interested in people who are right on the edge, who walk around with exposed nerves and bleeding hearts, who are so close to the truth of living, dying, and being. And I find it remarkable that here you have two so-called madmen who had actually all by themselves single-handedly changed the future of their medium and became the forefathers of modern art and modern dance, which is extraordinary. These people are supposedly mad. I have this theory that I live in a very insane world.
iW: I think it was Thomas Szasz who in the ’70s said the insane do not exist. They’re just people who don’t fit into the mainstream of their time. Do you feel if you were living in Nijinsky’s time, you could have been put away?
Cox: Me personally? [chuckles]
Cox: No, I think I’m one of the sanest people I know.
iW: But your views are extreme. I endorse your stands completely, but others have said you’re too out there. Or too far to the left. Or too something or other.
Cox: Right, yes. I even recently got a threatening letter saying that I was evil because I had promoted elderly people being unfaithful to one another. That sort of insanity we have to learn to cope with.
iW: I read Nijinsky’s diaries way back in my college days. I read it right after Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” and I truly believe I came close to having a nervous breakdown because I started questioning what’s sanity and whether I was indeed sane. For you to recreate the world as seen through the eyes of one whose hold on reality was nonexistent, did you ever lose your grip on reality? Did you start wondering what is sane and what isn’t?
Cox: Well, I’ve always asked that question. But indeed, suddenly I was facing such a dark cloud that was very hard to escape. Especially when you’re emotionally and physically exhausted, you do wonder a little within, and that certainly happened to me. But there is some sort of strange strength that lifts you. I had to finish this journey especially because I did it in the old-fashioned way. There was no digitized image or anything. Even the editing was done on the flatbed. And I did not have an assistant so you can just imagine. [Laughs] No, you couldn’t imagine.
iW: Well, just the scene of Nijinsky’s train ride to Zurich, that’s completely brilliant editing. It captures the insane mind plus Nijinsky’s past, present, and future. That scene alone must have taken weeks or even months to edit. It’s phenomenal.
iW: Did you try to get into Nijinsky’s mind and see what he sensed he was seeing?
Cox: Please believe me. I have no pretense about any of this. I felt compelled to do that out of great frustration, passion, and a degree of love. I felt compelled to actually exhaust myself into this because I have enormous respect for somebody who can actually express what they feel. I live in a world that is based on thought, and thought is very much part of this society that becomes increasing more metallic and less attractive as I get older.
iW: Nijinsky had immense guilt about his homosexuality. One thinks that if he hadn’t gotten married or if he was living in this generation where homosexuality is a bit more accepted, he wouldn’t have gone insane.
Cox: No. I don’t think so. His soul is sick, not his mind. By that, I think it’s the old eternal embrace of men. It’s much larger. Sometimes you see somebody smiling, and you see all the people in similar situations smile right through the centuries. It was a large embrace. Van Gogh calls it that the Great Grave of Man. That Great Grave. The insensitivity of man. The insensitivity of man drove him insane.
iW: But Nijinsky had great guilt about having a homosexual inclination. Many of the quotes you include in your film, which were cut out of the original published diaries, deal with this guilt.
Cox: Definitely. But at the same time, he was also a beast. He was a faun. He went to Diaghilev’s hotel and “I immediately allowed him to make love to me,” he says in his diary. What was that about? It was extraordinary. “It was all the same to me. My mother and I had to eat.” This is extraordinary.
iW: The totally nude dances in your film are stunning. Have you ever filmed dance before?
Cox: I’ve always been interested. I worked years and years ago on this film “Don Quixote” with Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Helpmann until Nureyev punched me on the nose hard. I have never forgiven myself that I didn’t punch him back. But that was the first time. Then I did some work with the Australian Ballet at the time. That was the first time I really got sort of quite excited by the dance.
iW: I came across a film venture that never happened. It was called the “Nijinsky Project.” The year was 1970. It was supposed to star Nureyev as Nijinsky with a screenplay by Edward Albee. Do you know anything about that?
Cox: Yes. I know the Nijinsky family very well: Nijinsky’s granddaughter and the second daughter Tamara. So they’ve been very much involved. They hated that film Herbert Ross made. Have you seen that one?
iW: Yes. Many years ago.
Cox: It had no heart for some reason. Ross missed it. It had money and some marvelous dancing but there’s no heart there. The Nijinskys hated that very much. And Romola, Nijinsky’s wife, didn’t want to cooperate with all this because she was still alive. She died in ’78, I think.
There have been so many attempts at trying to do something about Nijinsky, and I find it very strange that there’s no footage of him dancing. There’s only this diary which ordinary people can’t read. They think it’s too crazy. There’s the myth of his powers in the photographs, and that’s it. Why has his spirit lingered for so long? At the moment there’s an enormous surge. If you go to Japan and you say, “I’m making a film about Nijinsky,” they fall on the floor. They’re so excited about him. Why is this? I ask myself.
In one way, when I look at the heroes of our times, when we have people that scream into microphones loudly and they become instant heroes, and our children pray to these instant gods that have no substance, I think there is a great need in our society to find people that actually have something to say or who stood for a degree of love or beauty or whatever. You know, to have substance. I’m answering my own question, but that has something to do with it. But it still puzzles me as to what is the sudden surge in interest.
iW: Your film seems to be not so much a documentary on Nijinsky as much as a celluloid poem. A paean to someone you admire.
Cox: Well, it’s not a documentary, although I will say it’s film. But, of course, it will be classified as a documentary. But I don’t see it as a documentary. In fact, academics would have great trouble with this because there’s no particular logic in the film. Yes, it says “I was born in Kiev, etc., etc.” but it doesn’t go into the documentation of his life at all.
iW: Nijinsky in this film says, “I am God.” In a sense, a director is God, except maybe if you work in the Hollywood system. Do you feel like a god who’s creating his own little world?
Cox: No, I felt in this case like not even the priest. I felt like the altar boy. Now and then I could bring in the wine or the blood of Christ. Then maybe now and then I would become the priest at the editing table for that’s where the film was really composed. But I was a servant, and I never regarded myself as any more.