Friday, August 27, 2010

Does "God" really need an Oscar?

Every self-respecting film fan knows that the Oscars are a game that Hollywood plays with the world (and itself). Mainstream multiplex fare is worse than it has ever been in history, even the best films are pathetically derivative and the biggest stars are blander and less talented than ever. But at the Oscarcast each year they tell us about how today’s best films (maybe 10 out of the few hundred they produce every year) are part of a continuum, they are the current-day “descendents,” so to speak, of the masterworks made during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Silver Ages like the stunning period in the early Seventies when some of the best-ever American films were made with major studio backing.

Each year’s Oscar telecast has less and less time for anything to do with Hollywood’s past, though. The old-movie montages get quicker and shorter, each dead-this-year tribute now lasts maybe 10-20 seconds instead of a minute or two (unless you're John Hughes!), and finally, this past ceremony saw the “erasure” from the official telecast of the Lifetime Achievement winners (Roger Corman, Lauren Bacall, studio exec John Calley, and cinematographer Gordon Willis), which I wrote about here.

So this week the new Lifetime Achievement winners were announced, and they are as worthy of the prize as Corman, Bacall, Calley, and Willis. The announced honorees are the most pre-eminent writer about silent cinema, Kevin Brownlow (right)(the first time a film historian has gotten an Oscar), character actor extraordinaire Eli Wallach, a “Hollywood maverick” generation director who still is trying to make challenging cinema (Francis Ford Coppola), and a legend who is one of the greatest living filmmakers, Uncle Jean, aka Jean-Luc Godard.

Now I winced as I heard that Godard was up for this award, since I knew that either it meant he was severely ill — the Oscars seem to have the inside track on old filmmakers who are dying — or that they were prepping “Godard fan” Quentin Tarantino to make a presentation and gush about Band A Part once more. The award seems to be pegged to the fact that this is the 50th anniversary of A bout de souffle (Breathless), and someone at Oscar Central decided that seminal film needed to get some belated recognition. Hey, they passed on giving Citizen Kane anything way back when, so Orson got the same kind of honorary business many, many years down the line — pictures that change cinema don’t really have top priority in the skewed vision of the movies that guides the Oscars (Kubrick never really nabbed anything for being a visionary, so just forget about connecting the Oscars to what is taught in film school as genius filmmaking).

Ah, but this blog entry isn’t just a chance for me to carp about how this belated gesture seems too little, too late (since you know they’re not honoring Godard for the whole of his stunning cinematic oeuvre, but more for his having made a trendsetting pic back in the era of Mad Men). The “story” surrounding the announcement that Godard will receive this honorary award has become more about the fact that he hasn’t yet gratefully acknowledged the prize than the fact that he’s not likely to show up to receive it. Vanity Fair published a bizarre blog piece today noting that Uncle Jean hadn’t yet answered the Academy — a whole 24 hours after their representative called! (hey, be grateful we even considered you for this high honor, which we won’t be making part of our official ceremony!).

Another blogger mocked the ginned-up non-story, and noted that Kevin Brownlow, who is currently 72, was woken up out of a sound sleep at night in England to be told the news by an Oscar rep (Hollywood does not acknowledge that the rest of the world lives in different time zones). All these gents are being invited to a prestigious shindig that is taking place on November 13 of this year, which will most likely be glimpsed in a two-minute quick-cut montage on the actual Oscarcast.

Godard has a history of not showing up in recent years to any film festivals where his work is showing, or to fests that honor him with Lifetime Achievement Awards. He seemed to be considering accepting the European Film Awards' 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award when he agreed to a few interviews a few weeks before the ceremony — and then he never showed up to claim the prize (then again, please check out the EFA’s list of honorees — much as I dearly love the Monty Python troupe, their "lifetime achievement" in cinema is in the realm of one excellent and four very fun movies). The official quote he gave at the time to the EFA was "I say at the same time ‘thank you’ and ‘no, thank you,’" which is thoroughly consistent with his behavior in the past 45 years or so.

I believe that the Academy might waive its no-Lifetime-Achievement-presentations-on-air rule for Coppola, if only because his friends, and one assumes, presenters, are A-list names in the business. But the incredibly important Mr. Brownlow and the hardworking Wallach will certainly get merely what Corman and Bacall got this year on the televised ceremony — a quick mention from the stage, and a wave to the camera from the audience (I was surprised the honorees weren’t moved to the back where resident senior Mickey Rooney is always seated; so much for Hollywood’s pride in its past….).

I’ll end on a note that is quite familiar to Godard fans, his letter to the New York Film Critics Circle in 1995 when they announced they were giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award. It is written with tongue-in-cheek and with film references galore (including ones familiar only to students of his career). Ah... the Bleecker Street Cinema!

Dear Sir,

Thanks for your electronic mail dated January 20 — 11:24 am. Too little good health. Too big snow to the airport, and too few banknotes saved for the ticket. Hollywood always used to say that your servant is not fit for telling stories. I therefore said in the last chapter of my stories of cinema [Histoires du cinema(s)] that nothing is lost, except honor.

And it is then my duty — no copyright, only copyduties — not to accept any longer the honor of your reward. Do please accept the incomplete following reasons for such genuine and shy statement.

JLG was never able through his whole movie maker/goer career to:
Prevent M. Spielberg from rebuilding Auschwitz,
Convince Mrs. Ted Turner not to colorize past and dear funny faces,
To sentence M. Bill Gates for naming his bug's office Rosebud,
To compel New York Film Critics Circle not to forget Shirley Clarke,
To oblige Sony ex-Columbia Pictures to imitate Dan Talbot / New Yorker Films when delivering accounts,
To force Oscar people to reward Abbas Klarostami instead of Kieslowski,
To persuade M. Kubrick to screen Santiago Alvarez shorts on Vietnam.
To beg Ms. Keaton to read Bugsy Siegel's biography.
To shoot Contempt with Sinatra and Novak, 
etc., etc.,

I'm still not over, dear Sir, through my long voyage to the home of cinematography, but I missed indeed quite a lot of ports of call — no girls in every port, but no honors neither I could deserve.

Do please ask the distinguished audience some indulgence for the piteous English of your colleague and send the reward to the Bleecker Street Cinema if remaining.

Faithfully yours,
Jean-Luc Godard

Thanks to David Arthur-Simons for passing on the text of JLG's letter.

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