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Is Jean-Luc Godard the New Mel Gibson?

As Oscar controversies go it isn’t the biggest contretemps the Academy has ever seen, but after brewing beneath the surface, earlier this week the New York Times’ Michael Cieply threw a stinkbomb into the Governors Awards dinner, scheduled for Nov. 13.

Eli Wallach and film historian Kevin Brownlow are scheduled to accept honorary Oscars, and Francis Ford Coppola has been tapped to recieve the Thalberg Award. The problem: Another honorary Oscar has been reserved for the ornery and reclusive Jean-Luc Godard. While there have been mutterings about Godard’s alleged anti-Semitism, Cieply dived into the godlike French New Wave director's scary, complicated views of Jews (like calling his early patron Pierre Braunberger a “dirty Jew”). And the Anti-Defamation League, whose attack on Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant helped spur Mel's shame spiral (and Hangover 2 exit), called Godard's honorary Oscar “regrettable.” The Academy, in response, has said it “has not found the accusations against M. Godard persuasive.” Academy executive director Bruce Davis says, “It’s hard enough just to make judgments about artistry, without having to work in considerations of morality.”

"I think from the moment the Academy decided to give this award, they were juggling with cutthroat razors,” says David Thomson (whose latest, 1008-page New Biographical Dictionary of Film just landed in my Kindle with a whisper). “I'm sure he despises the Academy. He's an extremely perverse, difficult person, and he'll make as much trouble as he can. I suspect he may twist the knife in the wound.”

“Godard's 'I'm coming, I'm not coming' game has already made the situation seem like some Joaquin Phoenix stunt,” kvetches Marie Claire film critic and Newsweek contributor Caryn James. Godard's apparent anti-Semitism is crazy even by anti-Semitism standards, so weirdly philosophical, it's tougher to pin him down than the blunter words of the plainspoken Gibson.

Here's why Godard hates Moses: Instead of bringing a nice cinematic picture of a burning bush down from the mountain, he brought a ten-commandment text instead, ruining history (and movie history).

However, Richard Brody, whose Godard bio provided damning ammo for Cieply's takedown, says Cieply got him, and Godard, wrong. In his New Yorker blog, the Jewish Brody volunteers to hand Godard the Oscar himself. “I am not out to minimize the prejudicial utterances,” Brody tells The Race. When Godard compared Palestinian suicide bombers to Holocaust victims, says Brody, he failed to grasp that the former are volunteers, “and Holocaust people don't take anybody with them.” But he says the Holocaust is a central concern of Godard's. Godard attacked Hollywood Jews for not making movies about it while it was happening, and Steven Spielberg for doing Schindler’s List wrong.

“Spielberg's heart is in the right place, but he Hollywoodizes it, treats it as the stuff of conventional melodrama," says Brody. "He treats the Holocaust the way he could treat a story about sharks or outer space.” In Godard's new movie Socialism, says Brody, “Godard is suggesting that secular Jews have in fact created a vast modern mythology that has the scope and significance of a new religion - the cinema. Which is Godard's religion.”

“The idea that he himself is anti-Semitic seems to me highly questionable,” says Kent Jones, Martin Scorsese's codirector of the new movie A Letter to Elia, about 1999 honorary Oscar controversy magnet Elia Kazan. “The Holocaust and its presence in history and in cinema is at the heart of  Histoire(s) du cinéma.” Jones grants that Godard's juxtaposition of Golda Meir and Hitler in Ici et ailleurs and other movie scenes “are...odd, and mysteriously provocative. His relationship to Jewish culture is jarring - it reminds me of a secret agent walking into an unfamiliar, exotic country.”

So who's crazier, Godard or Gibson? “Well, I don't think it is different,” says Thomson. “Mel Gibson strikes me as being a very troubled person, and Godard may have similar turbulence and troubles inside. They're very often wrong. But they make some important work. I don't put them at the same level. Though I don't think Mel Gibson is the least interesting filmmaker in the country, by any means.” Just don't expect Jean-Luc Godard to be as noble as Star Trek commander Jean-Luc Picard. “He'll be churlish and meanspirited. He doesn't want to be admired as a nice guy.”

But people admire Godard anyway. Says Caryn James, “There's a long history of artists being better than their opinions (Pound, Eliot) and of the Academy forgiving when it's good and ready (Chaplin, Kazan) so they should just be ready and go through with it."  

“Does he deserve an Oscar? If you're talking about the art of moviemaking, then the award is absolutely unquestionable,” says Jones.

“If film history and epochmaking stylistic brilliance mean anything to the Academy,” says former Film Comment editor Richard T. Jameson, “then Godard's Oscarworthiness is beyond question, and would be even if he took out a full-page ads saying he's anti-Semitic.”

The real scandal, say Brody, Jones, and Thomson, is that Godard and the rest aren't getting Oscars at the actual Feb. 27 broadcast. “Godard's not living in a cave,” says Brody. “I'd be surprised if the Oscars didn't mean something to him - the real Oscars, not the rump Oscars.” Retorts Davis, “Godard, in a note to Tom Sherak, explicitly rejected the suggestion that his non-attendance had anything to do with the honoraries not being presented live on the broadcast.”

Thomson says, “What the Academy is doing is weird, these November awards. I think these people are good value on a telecast.” But the telecast is courting viewers so young they probably think it was Godard and Moses who had a fistfight atop Mount Ararat.

“The discussion about giving the Honorary Awards their own evening was a fair issue to raise last year,” says Davis, “but the near-universal agreement that the inaugural event was a smash has pretty much ended the debate, except perhaps in David Thomson’s mind.”