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Waiting for Godard

If there are a few things I've understood about French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, he'll refuse the honorary Oscar the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is keen to give him this November. The Academy has been trying to reach the 79-year-old auteur since last fortnight without success.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2010 21:52 IST
Paramita Ghosh

If there are a few things I've understood about French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, he'll refuse the honorary Oscar the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is keen to give him this November. The Academy has been trying to reach the 79-year-old auteur since last fortnight without success.

Godard's anti-Hollywoodism is not a sentiment; he made it part of the structure of his films. The 'American producer' and 'American melodrama' — both symbols of the hold of big money over cinema — were on top of his list of things to destroy. And to destroy them, he had to diminish their image.

In Contempt (1963), a film made with American money, Godard lampoons the crass commercial side of the American studio system through the tale of a film crew based on an Alberto Moravia story. He pits the character of Jerry Prokosch, a Hollywood producer (Godard's hatchet job on Contempt producer Joe Levine) who reaches for his chequebook whenever he hears the word 'culture', with the director, played by master film noir director Fritz Lang, suffering Prokosch's interference.

Contempt also starred Bridget Bardot and producer Levine was depending on her appearing nude in it. Godard's revenge is one of cinema's most tongue-in-cheek anti-pornography 'nude scenes': he makes Bardot count her body parts.

In In Praise of Love ( 2002), Godard continues his hit on the American culture industry. Through the figure of the director (the reference is to Steven Spielberg, Schindler's List and Hollywood's constant return to World War II stories), America is shown to go to Europe to steal other people's memories.

For America then to award an Oscar to a director who has put the 'European film' as an alternative to the 'Hollywood film' with its system of monopoly, its culture of fantasy, representation and psychological analysis, is surprising. For Godard, the director was everything. The critic's job was to improve the quality of cinema with his criticism and films were reality. Godard wouldn't put fiction in front of his camera.

Thus, the common experience in his movies to be aware that a film is a film. "We often went to the movies. The screen lit up and we trembled…" says one character to another in Masculine Feminine. "Marilyn Monroe had aged terribly. It made us sad, this wasn't the film we had dreamed of or wanted to live."

Unlike his friend Francois Truffaut, there were other reasons why Godard and Hollywood didn't get along. A Leftist who counted Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and German playwright Bertolt Brecht as his major influences, Godard's idea of cinema was art that could only be developed in relation to politics. The Academy halted the screening of his film, Pierrot Le Fou (1965), a film not really about the Vietnam War, but, among other things, the French attitude to the war.

In a 1968 interview, Godard explained the purpose of his typical juxtaposition of text with image: "Take a photo and statement by Lenin or Ché, divide the sentence into ten parts, one word per image, then add the photo that corresponds to the meaning either with or against it."

The answer to the Oscar offering perhaps lies elsewhere. Perhaps the Academy has remembered what Godard did love about Hollywood: the thriller form, directors Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Truffaut in an angry letter to Godard added another name: Francis Ford Coppola. (He called Godard "a Coppola groupie".) The maker of Godfather also gets an honorary Oscar this year. Did he play a part in the handshake? Unthinkable. It must be Hollywood looking for recognition. Godard's recognition. Or, at least that is how I want to remember Jean-Luc Godard at 79.