from Films of the Golden Age #63
Bob King, editor...
made in Hollywood, U.S.A. or oscar goes to Switzerland!!!
The world is weird. Last November, the Motion Picture Academy handed out more of it's coveted awards, but not everyone on the receiving end was grateful. Of course, in the past, some recipients of the Academy's largesse have snubbed this august organization and it's tokens of affection, but I can't recall anything quite like the honoring of director Jean-Luc Godard with the Academy's Governors Award.
When news leaked that Godard was to receive the award, a feckless protest arose over Godard's alleged "anti-Semitism" a charge that has dogged the radical director since the 1970's when his films became overtly political and he shot a propaganda film for the PLO titled Until Victory. (Victory presumably would mean the end of that tiny hotbed of "imperialism and racism" called Israel.) I another Godard film, Here and There, images of Adolf Hitler and Golda Meir are juxtaposed, giving some viewers the impression that the two leaders were equally evil.
To someone like me, there is something vaguely sinister about these little details, especially hen I remember that generations of Israelis have been in the crosshairs of Soviet weapons systems, but to the art lover, I suppose, all this is merely a part of the charm of the artistic provocateur. Thus, the Academy bravely held to it's convictions, shrugged off the protest, and proceeded boldly to give an Oscar to the Swiss film director.
There's something else, however, that the Academy cannot shrug off. To put it bluntly, the idea of giving an Oscar to someone like M. Godard is laughably absurd. It's sort of like giving Matisse the Norman Rockwell award for painting. It's no big secret that Godard has spent a lifetime expressing his mepris (contempt) for the authority of organizations like the Academy. In an attempt to address this slight problem, Academy president Tom Sherak spoke to assure any wavering colleagues. "I want you to know," Mr. Sherak claimed, "that this award is meaningful to [Godard]."
Really? Well, in an interview conducted for a German language Swiss newspaper the Neue Zurcher Zeitung and posted on their website, nzz.com, the interviewer pointedly asked Godard, a French speaking Swiss, what the award meant to him. Not surprisingly Godard answered with a big fat "Nichts," or perhaps he actually said "Rien" which of course means "Nada." Is that clear? The Oscar means NOTHING to Godard. Get it? And while we're at it, let's not forget that the Academy's mission means nothing to Godard. Get it? After all, culture is just an alibi for imperialism. Get it? And how, dear reader, could the Academy boys miss coming to this rather unavoidable conclusion after all these years of redundant proofs? What fantasy world do these people inhabit?
In the nzz.com interview, Godard went on to say that he thought that this was all very strange: "What films of mine have [the people at the Academy] seen? Don't they understand my films?" To me, this is a very funny statement on several levels. First of all, when I saw Godard in person in Iowa City in 1972 when he was flogging his latest masterpiece, Tout va bien starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, I had to wonder if Godard himself had ever seen any of his films. During a Q&A session with the audience, Godard was unable to answer any questions about his films. It seemed to me that he was at a distinct disadvantage because the people asking him questions had just watched several of his hastily made films before his appearance, but Godard had not, and he never seemed to know what they were talking about.
His statement is also funny in that Godard seems mystified that people just don't seem to get what his films are all about. Now, let's see, M. Godard, your films after 1965 tend to be chaotic and incoherent accretions of sounds and images and quite unlike films made by other directors, and you can't figure out why people can't grasp your meaning? After 50 years you never noticed that most people, especially the oppressed proletariat, shun your films the way they shun lice and cockroaches?
For me, the most delightful thing about Godard's reaction to his "honor" is that it makes it clear that his Academy admirers are not the only ones who do not understand who or what he is. Godard's fans think of him as a person who has deep insights into art, history, politics, civilization, and all that junk. But does he? Isn't it obvious that this fellow doesn't even realize what he has been doing the past 50 years? Yes, even he doesn't get it. He doesn't realize that no matter what he does with his films, they remain just so much merchandise. No matter how hard he tries to address this problem, his decades-long attempt to spurn the affections of the art house crowd that admired his early films, has failed. Despite relentless attacks on consumerism and capitalism, he is still just a chic boutique shop girl who sells expensive baubles to the cultural elite.
I suppose we really oughta feel for him. Just look at him dilemma. The proletariat doesn't know or care who he is. And if he made the proles watch his films, they'd only end up hating him. This means that Godard is stuck making films for the elites in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Godard loathes these people, but they go on loving him because to them he is as necessary as the over-priced clothes they wear. Having a true understanding of art and culture is difficult, but pretending to have it is not, and this is what Godard's career rests upon.
Apparently, it matters not a bit to Godard's Academy supporters that they and the director are antithetical, and this puts JLG in a sticky spot. Godard reminds me of the cute little kitty who catches the eye of Pepe le Pew in those classic cartoons. No matter how hard he tries to escape his pungent pursuer, he ends up in Pepe's arms as sweet nussings are wheespaired in his ear, "Ah, mon petit chou, comb wiss me to ze Casbah, we weel make bootiful muzique togehzair." It must be a special form of hell to be admired by those you despise, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
Amusingly, Godard seems powerless to escape his dialectical dilemma. When Godard gets Oscar, this scathing critic of America will fuse with the capitalism and imperialism of the Hollywood industry. How fitting. Although the people at the Academy who attempted to honor Godard can never understand this, their gift is symbolic of the utter futility of the life's work of one Jean-Luc Godard.
And will Godard ever wise up? Hard to say. When I saw him speak in Iowa City I got the impression that this was a man who did not feel normal human emotions. There is something eerily distant and cold about him. He doesn't seem to connect with people and grasp their humanity. His main way of bonding with his fellow man seems to be to lash out, which I saw demonstrated in an especially creepy way that day in Iowa City.
Proving what a class act he is, Godard stabbed his star, Jane Fonda, in the back. The normal sense of loyalty or, plain good manners, that would make a film director refrain from attacking his star in front of hundreds of people, was obviously lacking in JLG. He slammed her over a goofy little thing, and of course she could not defend herself because she wasn't there. It was clear that he had a low opinion of her, and remember, this was the Jane Fonda of her radical period, not the later business=woman Jane who became a wealthy Hollywood capitalist.
And what little sin was Godard's gimlet eye magnifying that day? As is his habitude, Godard was complaining that someone, Fonda in this case, was speaking a lie with an image. In the little world that exists solely within his skull, everyone, including Moses, manipulates images in dishonest ways. Thank God, for Godard. Without JLG there'd be no one on the planet who knows how to use images honestly.
(I wonder if it was her experience with Godard that helped change Fonda. Godard's other Tout va bien co-star, Yves Montand, also turned his back on Godard's kind after Montand began to shake off the influences of his youth and start seeing the world through his own eyes.)
While Godard's lack of personal warmth and empathy might seem to be a great defect in an artist, I believe it is actually a perverse form of strength with him. Godard's films are inhuman, and while this is repellent to the average viewer, it is intoxicating to some. For a select few intellectuals, Godard's films are like alcohol. Alcohol, after all, is a deadly killer of brain cells. When the brain feels the touch of the lethal liquid, it cries out in agony. Does this stop the imbiber? No, of course not. He keeps drinking, because as he senses the death throes of those brain cells, he is lifted by a blissful feeling of release. The constant and sometimes intolerable pressure of survival is slightly relieved by the process. Sure, some of the brain cells will be killed, but not all of them will die right away. We can go on living a while yet, and feel slightly better even as are dying inside.
Thus, we see the peculiar allure of the would-be destroyer of culture. Those most charged with maintaining culture, the intellectuals, are most drawn to collaborating in it's destruction because some of them just can't stand the pressure. Godard is simply irresistible to these absinthe-minded professors.
A report that I read about Godard's Oscar ended with a line that sent a chill through me: "The Academy is arranging for the Oscar statuette to be delivered to Godard in Switzerland." I was surprised that this innocuous line affected me so strongly, but I began to understand as I imagined the indignities that could befall this poor Oscar. Once the symbol of a great industry behind the great art form of the past century, Oscar has fallen far. In his youth, he was the apple of his father's eye. Now he's a poor old man, neglected and abused by young ones too busy and selfish to care.
I can imagine the movie that could be made from this little tragedy. It starts with a graffiti card, Made in Hollywood, U.S.A., painted hastily on a brick wall. The film then cuts to a harsh close-up of Oscar's face inexplicably jerking from side to side as the sound of a hammer hitting metal comes from off camera. A voice-over, in a flat monotone, reads a political screed denouncing Zionism, capitalism and imperialism. As the camera pulls back in a very slow tracking shot we see an AK-47 pointed at Oscar's head, even as a hammer and chisel hack away at his nether parts. When the chisel finally cleaves the noble face and a heap of metal cuttings is all that remains, the voice-over ends.
Then, the delicate hand of a young artist meticulously sweeps all the fragments into the same shipping box used to send Oscar from Hollywood. The artist next hops on a motor scooter and speeds the remains of his victim through a seemingly endless tour of the worst and most appalling slums in the world. The camera repeatedly cuts back to a closeup of the box so that every image of misery and despair is like an accusing finger pointing directly at Oscar's guilty remains. Finally, the artist tosses the box into a gutter where it lies unmolested, hour after hour, day after day, night after night until a stealthy pair of hands snatch it up and spirit it away.
In a shabby room, masked men and boys sit around a table assembling mysterious looking parcels. We can't imagine what the parcels are until we see a closeup of a man pouring Oscar onto the table. Carefully, the man packs the jagged pieces around the core of high explosives. Noticing the return address on the box, the man quickly writes his own label and tapes it to the bottom of the bomb. The label reads, "Made in Hollywood, U.S.A."
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