01 April 2012

Napoleon the Film Conquers All

Now what?

How does one follow up on a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience? What's next?  And how can you ever re-create that one time?

Yesterday I went to see a movie. This is not an altogether uncommon thing for me to do. But this was a different trip to the cinema from any I'd ever had and will be difficult to rival in whatever time I have left.

The movie was Napoleon (1927). The four showings, two last weekend and two this, are the first for the film in over 30 years. Tickets were more than I could afford but I couldn't afford not to go. I have previously been in packed movie houses, but this one was packed to the tune of 3,000 fellow patrons. The total does not, of course, include the 47 piece orchestra. I've seen silent films accompanied by a piano player, but never so much as a violin in addition to that.

The setting was the Paramount Theater in Oakland. The magnificence of this 82 year old classic art deco theater belies the notion that there is no there in Oakland. They've got one of the few places in the country that can show a movie requiring three screens and an orchestra. Just walking around this wonderfully preserved and refurbished theater was a thrill. I remember as a child when going to see a movie meant a trip to a theater, not a cineplex.

The sponsors of Napoleon were the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Bless them.

Napoleon in its current incarnation clocks in at 5 1/2 hours. Two intermissions and a dinner break were included as part of the program meaning that the 1:30 start resulted in a 9:40 finish. Including arriving very early and travel time there and back, my family had to (got to?) make do without me for 10 1/2 hours. For me it was time well spent. Very well.

For the first four hours of the Napoleon I was suitably impressed. I was watching a magnificent film on a huge screen in an idyllic setting with perfect musical accompaniment. Then it got really good. I mean really really good. The curtains bordering the huge screen spread revealing two more screens and the action in the story filled them all.


Scenes of Napoleon's army preparing for battle spreading across three screens was something I shan't soon forget. But director Abel Gance (have I gone this far without evoking his name? Shame!) was not happy with just showing triple sized scenes. He at times had different things going on on each screen or even the same thing on the two outside screens to bookend the middle action.

The previous four hours or so were a feast for the eyes. This was the sweetest cinematic gluttony one could imagine. Cinemascope next to this is like grandma's old RCA.

The film ends when Napoleon is still but 27 years old (it begins with him as a child) having only recently wed Josephine and well before his assumption of France's throne.
Gance had planned to tell Napoleon's entire life story through another three super epic length films. It was not to be.

The history of cinema is rich with stories of films that were not well received, even reviled upon their release. Movies that were stashed away, sometimes after being edited and re-released in butchered forms only to be re-discovered, restored and re-released, Rules of the Game and Metropolis come immediately to mind.

With Napoleon, Gance was not just ahead of its time but ahead of any time. But even in the late 1920's it wasn't commercially viable for cinemas to show marathon films and next to none had the wherewithal for the triple screen, polyvision. Most audiences don't have the stamina for 300 minutes of movie.

In the U.S. a three hour version was shown and audiences were not impressed. Napoleon the film met its Waterloo much sooner than Napoleon the historical figure. I will provide links to fuller tellings of the film's history, but suffice to say that Napoleon languished in obscurity for decades. Enter our hero, Kevin Brownlow. He is a film historian, documentarian and author who received an honorary Oscar in 2010 for his role in preserving films, such as Napoleon.

In 1980 Francis Ford Coppola toured a four hour version of the film with a score by his father Carmine. Brownlow's edit restores some scenes Coppola left out in addition to some recently discovered. It is widely believed that this version is as close as we'll ever come to seeing Gance's full vision.

There is an inherent difficulty in describing works of art that are deeply moving. Mere descriptions are perforce insufficient. Cluttering writing with laudatory adjectives can trivialize the experience and frustrate the reader. And with Napoleon it's not as if you can run out and see it next weekend or put it on your Netflix queue. Fortunately a DVD is currently in the works, unfortunately this is a movie, more than any other I've seen, that begs to be seen on the big screen. Make that screens.

Great art elevates the human spirit and can create a desire in the viewer to do more. I wanted to run home and read great novels, read the history of the French Revolution and Napoleon. I had to write the great American novel, write epic poems. I had to be part of the spirit of the world that contributes artistic expression, ideas and knowledge. The world is truly a wonderful place when works of art like Gance's Napoleon can be seen and appreciated.

Abel Gance's Napoleon is  stirring film making because it is unafraid to use any and every means at the director's disposal to tell a story. Indeed, it incorporates even methods that are not, or at least certainly weren't in 1927, available. Except, somehow this cinematic visionary. There are split screens, screens in two, four, eight and sixteen. There are camera shots from well above the action giving perspective, and right directly within revealing the true excitement of a child's snowball fight and the frenzied joy of a wild party. Gance used his cameras masterfully, showing the biggest and smallest of moments with variously the heaviest and lightest of touches. There is drama aplenty, humor, tragedy, misery, joy, pathos and well any other component of human experience you care to name.

There are so many moments from the film that I'll not soon forget. Scenes of the convention during the French Revolution captured the passion of people walking the fine line between creators of a republic and creators of mob rule. (The scene in which the La Marseille is introduced was moving to me, thanks in great part to the orchestra but also to Gance's diretion.) Battle scenes where a hand, just a hand, sticks out of the mud. The drum that mysteriously moves on its own volition (why spoil it telling more, you'll see it after all, somehow). The faces. Like any great director, Gance used the faces of his characters as an emotional framework. And what faces he had to work with! Albert Dieudonne and Vladimir Roudenko as the adult and young Napoleon respectively were born for their roles. They only serve to highlight an exceptional cast.

Everything was highlighted by the magnificent performance by the Oakland East Bay Symphony under the direction of Carl Davis. Seeing a film accompanied by an orchestra is a treat any cinemaphile should get to experience.

Experience. That's what it was. In a classic art deco theater with fellow patrons from literally all over the world. Beholding a rarely scene masterpiece. How the devil do I follow this up?

Links and pics:
Official website, check out the video.
Wikipedia page on the film.
About the film and its restoration.

Closing screen shot of Josephine, Napoleon and Gance in the middle.

Photo I took from my seat.

Photo I took in the lobby of the theater.

No comments: