When Hollywood goes righteous, it’s a particularly smarmy sight. What could be more obviously and easily righteous than a stand against anti-Semitism, especially for a town that’s managed to reduce the shattering enormity of the Holocaust to the rah-rah beat-the-Nazis level so brilliantly parodied by Quentin Tarantino in last year’s Inglourious Basterds? (Please don’t ask why it’s spelled that way – I have no idea, and no idea whether Tarantino has any idea either).
Hollywood ‘s newest bout of righteousness is over the decision to award an honorary Oscar – aka a “governors’ award” — to legendary French nouvelle vague director Jean-Luc Godard.
To say that this is about time is to be madly anachronistic, since Godard has been working his cinematic brilliance since 1960 — fifty years in which not a single one of his movies has been Oscar-nominated even as best foreign picture. That in itself is an eloquent condemnation of the essential shallowness of the Oscars. While Godard was making classics like A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) and Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders), Hollywood was delivering its best-picture laurels to fluffy romances like Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960) and George Cukor’s film adaptation of “My Fair Lady” (1964).
But while the decision to finally honor Godard reveals an interestingly new awareness of Oscarite limitations, it’s by no means incidental that the honor is to be bestowed not in the orgy of sentimentality telecast as the Awards Ceremony in February, but well away from all the red-carpet brouhaha, in the Hollywood equivalent of privacy: a black-tie banquet on November 13.
Godard has already said he won’t be there. It’s hardly surprising that he has no great regard for Hollywood. And no surprise either that as a French intellectual, he’s outspokenly anti-Zionist and an advocate of Palestinian independence. The issue is that infamous overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
In a 1985 newspaper interview, for example, Godard spoke of Hollywood in terms echoing the old anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews as usurers: “What I find interesting in the cinema is that, from the beginning, there is the idea of debt. The real producer is the image of the Central European Jew. They’re the ones who invented the cinema, they brought it to Hollywood… Making a film is visibly producing debts.”
Hmm. Overlookable, perhaps, except that four years earlier, on French television, he’d made what at first seemed an amusingly quirky remark: “Moses is my principal enemy… Moses, when he received the commandments, he saw images and translated them. Then when he brought the texts, he didn’t show what he had seen.” I’m not quite sure what this meant, but it could have been funny – the man of images railing against the man of words – until the man of images added the kicker: “That’s why the Jewish people are accursed.”
Yup, anti-Semitic for sure. The same old stale stereotypes dating back to the Middle Ages. But does that mean I should view Godard’s work differently?
One of my favorite poets – a man whose work I go back to again and again for reflection, consolation, sheer beauty, and complexity – was also an anti-Semite. I can’t imagine living without T.S. Eliot on my bookshelf – The Four Quartets above all – even though I wince when I come across lines like “the Jew squats on the windowsill” in “Gerontion” (the squatting Jew being a rapacious landlord), or “The rats are underneath the piles/ The Jew is underneath the lot” from “Burbank with a Baedeker.” Or statements like this, in a lecture: “Reasons of race and religion make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”
So as one of a large number of free-thinking Jews, should I be boycotting T.S. Eliot?
The trouble is, if I did, I’d have to boycott most of the canon of English literature, including Shakespeare. In fact if I were to apply the litmus test of anti-Semitism, I’d be so poorly read I’d have a mind the size of a walnut and a soul the size of a shriveled dried pea.
The same goes for the idea of using feminism as a litmus test. Or any “ism.” I can live with the fact that those whose work I admire are flawed, even prejudiced – all of us are, one way or another. But to toss out the brilliance with the bathwater? That’s plain stupid. Or perhaps just smarmily righteous.
So I’m a rapacious, accursed rat? Bite me.
Excellent post, Lesley!
I didn’t know about Godard’s antisemitism (although I knew of TS Eliot’s – and Joseph Campbell’s, too.)
I understand their revulsion. But I’m struck by the contrast between Hollywood’s rejection of Godard and its embrace of Roman Polanski. Apparently raping a 13-year-old is not as offensive as bigotry. That’s a curious moral calculus.
The difference couldn’t have something to do with the box office receipts for their films, could it?