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Abel Gance’s Napoleon

Wed, Apr 11, 2012

“How was it?”

I have to confess I haven’t felt up to the challenge of properly describing the experience of seeing the US premiere of Napoleon in Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration of the Abel Gance silent-era epic at Oakland’s Paramount Theater on March 24.

Sure, it was unforgettable. Hyperbole only goes so far, however, because in trying to sum up the experience one realizes there really isn’t anything to compare it to.

It’s hard to image a better setting for such an event. The gorgeously restored, 3,000-seat art deco Paramount Theater felt like it had been sitting there on Broadway in Oakland’s theater district all of these years waiting for this film—and this point in film history—to come along. Adding to the once-in-a-lifetime sensation was the Oakland Symphony’s equally memorable performance of Carl Davis’s score, conducted by the composer himself in its American premiere. The accompaniment transported me back to the 1920s, as I imagined what it must have been like to experience films in this manner on a regular basis. It also left me worrying about Davis’s right arm…not everyone has the stamina to conduct a 5-1/2 hour score, breaks or no breaks. (Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum Director of Repertory Programming, told me he tried to get to get Guinness to consider the music to be the world’s longest continuous film score but to no avail.)

And then the film. First, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s unlikely that Napoleon will ever be presented in the United State in a similar manner in most of our lifetimes. The film screened March 24, 25, and 31, and April 1, and those shows are likely it for the foreseeable future. The costs involved with an orchestral score performed live are by themselves so prohibitive that it’s doubtful that any group will display the moxie and courage summoned by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to organize an event on this scale again. (Read Manohla Dargis’s New York Times article on staging the film here).

So, “How was it?”

Epic. Incredible. Jaw-dropping. Transformative. A story about the film on NPR (I believe) quoted one expert as saying that the film was on par with Citizen Kane as one of the greatest in film history. Trying to rank it is really a pointless exercise: I wouldn’t quibble with anyone who said it was one of the greatest films ever made nor with someone who thinks that it isn’t even one of the top 10 of the silent era. There really isn’t anything to compare it to, especially when one considers the theater, the live score, and the audience primed to burst into generous rounds of applause in response to any of Gance’s stylistic flourishes. Gance took everything available to a filmmaker of the era and more and put it to use. The handheld camera provided wondrous surprises throughout the film, putting the spectator in the middle of a snowball fight led by the young Bonaparte at its outset and creating moments of unexpected intimacy, as in a scene in which Josephine discovers Violine’s shrine to her husband. The camera movements in that sequence would be as home in a John Cassavetes or George Kuchar film as they are in Napoleon.

Gance’s Polyvision is, of course, the most famous innovation associated with Napoleon, and the moment when all three of the Paramount’s specially-installed screens came alive brought the most joyous applause of the evening from the crowd. Many mistakenly believe that the entire film features Gance’s three-camera/projector/screen technique, but it actually only appears in the last movement, roughly the last 25 minutes. In those final moments Gance, unbridled, throws everything at the audience in a dizzying flurry of triptych images—hand-held, super-imposed, landscapes, close-ups—that give one the sense of a filmmaker with one foot over the line of cinema’s frontier. And that  only brings us up to the start of the first Italian campaign in the life of Napoleon.

As wondrous and unforgettable as the screening was, I found myself lamenting the fact that I may well never have another cinematic experience even close to this one. For one thing, it’s difficult to imagine myself getting worked up enough to fly cross-country for a screening of—you name it—in a digital format.

I encourage anyone with an interest in silent film to consider attending the 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held at the Castro Theater July 12–15. It’s sure to be a great time!

PARKING UPDATE: Construction at 15th and High. For more information click here.

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