Film Fund-amentals: Where on Earth Is Jean-Luc Godard?

If you give an award and nobody comes, does it still make any sense? This ancient philosophical question is about to be tested by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as they attempt to give Jean-Luc Godard an award on Nov. 13. The problem is that Godard is refusing to answer their phone calls. He is also refusing to accept their faxes, e-mail, public appeals ad infinitum. At this rate, his photo may soon appear on the back of milk cartons.

All of which has left the Academy a tad baffled. They do seem genuinely concerned that Godard may accidentally miss his best chance to fly to Los Angles and get feted by Hollywood’s brightest (well, at least best dressed). So it seems as if the most obvious answer to this Godardian silence is hard for them to grasp. He simply doesn’t want the damn thing.

The most bizarre question is not over Godard’s apparent refusal but why they want to give him this award in the first place. Oh sure, a very major case can (and should) be made regarding his importance to the development of  contemporary cinema. But part of that importance has to do with Godard’s complete rejection of the economic and aesthetic basis of the dominant Hollywood cinema. So what’s the deal? Did somebody in California think he was joking all these years?

OK, maybe they just thought he had gone soft in his old age. It’s even possible that by the time you read this Godard will have called them up and apologized for the delay, explaining that he was so excited by the news that he dashed out to buy a new tux or something. But I suspect it’s more likely that he’s sitting somewhere in Switzerland making raspberry noises at the phone each time it rings. Hollywood may not comprehend this, but trying to give an Oscar to Godard is a bit like the Pope inviting John Calvin to pop over to the Vatican for lunch.

So what exactly is the Academy hoping to achieve with this award? OK, Godard was one of the founding members of the French New Wave movement (along with Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and others). His production of Breathless is often viewed – wrongly – as the start of the movement (it actually was simply the first of these films to get a wide viewing here in the States). Many of these movies remain virtual textbooks on low-budget independent film making and have been extremely inspirational to several generations of indie filmmakers (especially in their use of low – to no – lighting techniques, experimental editing structures, improvised scripts etc., etc.).

But the movement was also founded on a general state of contempt for mainstream Hollywood film making. Oh sure, these guys were highly influenced by American B movies and strongly embraced such outcast directors as Sam Fuller, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich and Nicholas Ray (all of whom were basically on the outs at the time with the Hollywood establishment). But they really couldn’t stomach big-budget Grade A Hollywood cinema. Even more important, they despised the way that Hollywood had maneuvered to dominate, control and sharply limit the possibilities of French and European film production (an ugly story not often discussed in American Cinema history books). It was more than a rejection of the Hollywood artistic code. It was a venomous rejection of American economic domination over the entire production system.

Over the years, the fervor of the New Wave set off in a variety of separate directions. Some (such as Truffaut and Chabrol) made a sort of quizzical peace with the American-dominated system. Others (such as Rohmer) simply kept on doing whatever it was they were doing and carved out their own little niche. Godard took a different route as he discovered Maoism. After the French political riots of 1968, Godard devoted his creative energy to advocating the violent takeover of TV and film production systems (See You at Mao); delivering an hour-long cinematic harangue against Jane Fonda (A Letter to Jane) for being a sentimental bourgeois revisionist; and pressing so hard on Yves Montand during the making of Tout Va Bein that Montand dropped his long-standing liberal views and became a Reagan era right-winger.

In between these movies, Godard amused audiences with his rare public appearances, where he would make cryptic comments and issue outright insults. During such an appearance at Berkeley, California, he found himself continuously asked long, convoluted questions by a young lady who always prefaced her statements with “My feeling is…” until Godard snapped back “Fuck your feelings!” He has never been a man who suffered fools…well, ever.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually not trying to criticize Godard (I am simply reporting). To be honest, I still have a youthful soft spot for that violent overthrow of the production system idea. Ain’t gonna happen, but it’s fun to dream about. It should also be noted that in the course of his long career, Godard has coined a wide assortment of pretty nifty quotes (hint to any agent or publisher: I would love to do a book entitled The Quotations of Chairman Jean-Luc Godard). In fact, he really already gave the Academy his response years ago when he said: “I pity the French Cinema because it has no money. I pity the American Cinema because it has no ideas.”

So what is the idea behind this award that the Academy wants to give him? As far as I can tell, they haven’t a clue. Maybe they got him confused with Truffaut (who would have shown up – and that’s despite the fact that he’s dead). The whole thing is a total farce and will remain so no matter what happens. For better or worse, Godard is the patron saint of indie cinema, and he earned that position by never flinching on his opinions.

But I do have one suggestion for the Academy. No matter what happens this time, next year they should try this same stunt with Chris Marker. I actually know how to find this guy, but I can also guarantee that he will not respond to anyone about much of anything. So go for it, boys!

Or the Academy could simply wise up on the French position by reviewing this important statement from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.