Thursday, April 19, 2012


On April 1, I attended what I have heard called "the cinematic event of a lifetime." I am referring to the long anticipated screening of Napoléon at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.

Napoléon starring Albert Dieudonné; directed by Abel Gance; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony conducted by Carl Davis; (1927)

There are many published accounts of the film and the making of the film. The version screened in Oakland was the result of a lifetime's work by noted film historian Kevin Brownlow. In preparation for the screening, I read Brownlow's Napoleon: Abel Gance's Classic Film (1983). I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the making of the film, Brownlow's association with Gance and Bronwlow's reconstruction of the film. Subsequent to publication, Brownlow edited a version of the film with approximately 20 more minutes of material which was screened in Oakland.

Originally, Gance was going to make a hexalogy on Napoleon Bonaparte's life. He spent all the money on the first film and never made the other five. In many ways, the first film is like three films in one. Presented with three intermissions, Napoléon consisted four acts of 2:00, 1:00, 1:50 and 0:45 in length, totaling to 5 hours, 35 minutes in runtime. The intermissions totaled 2 hours, 35 minutes. The entire event took over 8 hours.

Napoléon was epic if ever there was an epic film. Armed with the knowledge glommed from Brownlow's book, I was on the lookout for many of the innovations pioneered by Gance. There was the snowball fight when Napoleon was a boy which caused the children so many discomforts during filming. Apparently, Gance filmed or was prepared to film a shot from the perspective of the snowball which has been lost. There was a scene above the assembly during which Gance mounted the camera to a swing or trapeze to get the camera motion to match the swells on the ocean which Napoleon was floundering upon. There was a scene where the camera is in front of Napoleon as he gallops on a horse. I assume the camera was mounted to a truck bed but I didn't seen any dust being kicked up by it. Of course, there is the finale in Polyvision where three projectors are use to show synchronized images on three full size screens. At the Paramount, the left & right screens appeared as curtains opened to the cheers of the audience. It was supremely impressive.

Napoléon was a supremely impressive film. Even if I had not read the book, the technical advances in filmmaking techniques by Gance would be obvious. Gance and/or his assistant director had a talent in managing crowd scene. On the battlefield, schoolyard, assembly hall, military camp, etc. the chaos through which Napoleon found clarity is richly presented.

The film assumed the audience had a knowledge of the French Revolution and Napoleon's life which was beyond me. I probably lost some of the meaning of certain events. More knowledge on Robespierre's life would have been helpful. For the most part, Napoléon was historically accurate. The only character who I'm certain was fictionalized was Violine (Annabella), an innkeeper's daughter and house servant who becomes obsessed with Napoleon.

My admiration for the film is not blind though. Gance was terribly self-indulgent in making the film. Some scenes drag on for too long as if Gance wanted the audience to see his genius on display. In particular, the Siege of Toulon could have been edited.

During the dinner break, the hordes of filmgoers (the Paramount can seat 3,000 and it was sold out) descended onto Broadway. I wasn't sure if we could be seated, dine and return in time for Act 3. We decided on Mua which was staffed for the crowd. At the foot of Webster St. where Webster, Broadway & 25th St converge, Mua was quite a find. The large space has a warehouse feel and was playing Beatles songs in the background. The owner even looked a little like John Lennon. Scanning the crowd of diners, I spotted Czar of Noir Eddie Muller three tables away.

While walking back to the Paramount, I noticed Mua it is close to the proposed location of the New Parkway Theater on 24th between Broadway and Telegraph. With any luck, I'll be returning to Mua when I go to the New Parkway which I think they are calling the Uptown Parkway now.

I appreciated the grandeur of Napoléon and feel fortunate to have seen the film with full orchestral accompaniment, with Carl Davis conducting and full Polyvision projection. Given the size of the audience, several other people took advantage of the opportunity.

Napoléon has crossed into the realm of myth and legend. Gance's first version of the film ran over 9 hours (not including intermissions if there were any). Even when the film was being made, it seems to have been destined for greatness. How much of my (or the 2012 audience's) reaction to the film was conditioned by what I've heard and read vs. what I actually saw? I suspect a fair amount.

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