Last week, the recipients of the Honorary Oscars were announced, the awards ceremony taking place at the Academy Governor’s Awards Dinner on November 13 (an evident pushback from the typical televised reception of the Honorary Oscar at the actual ceremony in the first quarter of the following calendar year). Honorary awards are being given to Veteran actor and senior-senior-citizen Eli Wallach, film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, legendary French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard, and the Irving G. Thalberg memorial award for excellent producing has been bestowed (to the surprise of no one) to the occasionally brilliant cinematic patriarch and wine magnate Francis Ford Coppola.
According to the Academy’s executive director on August 25, attempts were made to contact Godard directly (by phone, fax, and through associates), but to no avail. Unbeknownst to the fact there does indeed exist television and the Internet in Paris, members of the Academy interpreted Godard’s behavior as elusive rather than evasive. Godard has a history of rejecting awards of the honorary or lifetime achievement variety, so until he makes a statement that provides an official stance, it remains likely that Godard will simply and inevitably turn this one down as well.
And as well he should.
By contrast, giving the Thalberg award to Coppola makes sense because, like Coppola’s other Academy Awards (as well as those by his family), it functions as a validation by an industry that the filmmaker who, unlike Godard, has both struggled and succeeded within. In the 1970s, Coppola made some of the most important films to come out of the New Hollywood movement – he did it through the Hollywood system, and through that system he succeeded. While the director has certainly experienced his occasional highs and many artistic lows since, his 1970s career alone merits the denomination of a lifetime achievement; as this is a producing award, his pre-Sophia producing credits in the 1980s consists of a great deal of important and challenging films that may not have reached American audiences without him (and films that certainly weren’t designed for profit, like Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Kagemusha, Godfrey Reggio’s experimental documentaries Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, and Paul Schrader’s unconventional biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters).
But like a university that seeks the acquisition of a bigger endowment by giving an honorary doctorate to a wealthy celebrity, an Honorary Oscar for Godard benefits the Academy more than Godard himself. An Honorary Oscar for Godard functions as a form of cultural capital for the Academy: a quick and insincere acquisition of false credibility by pretending to honor a convention-bending foreign filmmaker.
This attention to Godard by the Academy is also completely unprecedented, for unlike the arguably more accessible work by his New Wave cohorts François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, approximately zero of Godard’s films have ever once been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Sure, the Honorary Oscar typically operates as a way for the Academy to fill in the holes of previously unacknowledged accomplishments in the history of cinematic achievement, but this isn’t a situation in which, say, Al Pacino or Martin Scorsese were snubbed in one decade to inevitably be honored for a “lesser work” in another, or in which aging icons like Peter O’Toole, Robert Altman, or Sidney Lumet are promptly bestowed belated awards before they are no longer alive to receive them. The Academy is instead showing here a belated acknowledgment that Godard ever existed, much less a belated recognition of his importance in both using and influencing American filmmaking. (Ironically enough, Coppola and his fellow film-school-educated New Hollywood cohorts were quite inspired by Godard and the New Wave in the initial works of their careers.)
In some ways it makes sense that it wasn’t until now that the Academy has chosen to acknowledge the work of Godard, for this year being the 50th anniversary of his zeitgeist-capturing, milestone-making first feature Breathless has reinvigorated a contextualized, reflective interest in Godard – not only his individual films, but in what his career has meant for the 1960s counterculture in France and subsequent countercultures in the US. But Breathless, as previously stated, is his first film, and he has made many, many films since. So an additional problem with this particular honorary award is that it nominally signifies a lifetime of achievement, but in reality only a small fraction of Godard’s five-decade career is even accessible to the US voters that make up the Academy.
An award of this type for Godard is essentially an award for seven years in filmmaking rather than fifty, for it is his work from 1960–67 (roughly, from Breathless to Week-End) that is most often referenced in American cinematic discourse, even amongst those best-read on European film. It’s only this period of Godard’s work that is deemed “essential” by the mainstream collective historical imagination of serious American filmgoers, emphasized by the predominance of his films from this period in the canon-making Criterion Collection and the fact that much of his work from the past twenty years is hardly available to North Americans in any commercial form. Not only is the award itself misguided, but the allegation of his influence is selective as well.
This is not to say, of course, that Godard hasn’t been making important work since the 1960s. In fact, the case is quite the opposite, as many cinephilic non-owners of multiregional DVD players like myself are quite frustrated with the fact that we don’t have access to his epic four-part love letter to cinema, Historie(s) du cinéma (1988–98), an allegedly schizophrenic exploration of cinema history through a rather ahistorical succession of film clips and images combined with text constructed by Godard himself. This is supposedly one of the great achievements of his career.
In a fitting summation for why the Academy honoring Godard’s work is so out-of-place, the all-too-convenient clip-montage methodology for summarizing film history practiced so often by the Academy on Oscar night through reflection montages which indulge in sweeping music, superficial emotional appeal, and the complete removal of specific context and particular meaning for each film stands in stark contrast to Historie(s) du cinéma, which uses a similar clip-montage methodology to show just how elusive and impenetrable an idea the history of cinema actually is.
Of course, the obvious counter-argument here is that Godard himself is a cinephile greatly influenced by Classical Hollywood Cinema (and whose Hollywood-influenced films, in turn, greatly influenced Hollywood directors of the 60s and 70s). To an extent, this is correct.
Godard, like the Academy, shares a love for the films of, say, John Ford – but how this affection for the same filmmaker is articulated within each body is markedly different. Where the Academy Awards ceremony repeatedly reflects on Hollywood’s past with whimsical nostalgia and a lack of acknowledgment of chronological history or social context, Godard’s love for this cinema has always been a love that interrogates Classical Hollywood, turning his affection into an intricate, structuralist act of dismantling Hollywood’s many – otherwise unquestioned – sources of meaning.
Besides this award being part of the “Holy shit, he’s still alive?!” variety, the Honorary Oscar for Godard displays the acts of contempt (pun intended) inherent in the Academy’s means of bestowing lifetime achievement awards and in recognizing important foreign cinema. As the Honorary Oscar acts as a way for the Academy to recognize important work that they previously ignored, it also continues to prove how inaccurate the organization is and how little the ceremony matters in being able to identify which films or filmic artists are artistically, historically, and culturally important in-the-moment, as the significance of many movies become apparent well after the fact, independently of whether or not they were recognized by the Academy. Also, the regulations for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards are ideologically problematic as well as a bureaucratic mess, and the fact that none of Godard’s work has even been recognized with a nomination in that category up to this point evidences that the Academy’s propensity of being out-of-touch isn’t limited to the recognition of films from their own country.
Godard’s films are both historically and presently important, and his work continues to mystify and frustrate; for instance, audiences looked back with great affection to Breathless this year, but didn’t quite know what to do with his newest work, Film Socialisme, at Cannes in May. From Breathless up to now, his films have been controversial, beloved, and maddening, and he continually proves himself to be a forward-thinking, progressive filmmaker, whether or not some of his ambitious cinematic experiments “work.” Godard’s continued importance exists independently of whether or not its honored by an arbitrary voting body of questionable relevance.
Also, Godard, lest his Frenchness be questioned, refuses to fly on planes because he can’t smoke on them. So that might be the main reason he doesn’t show up.