Thursday, June 21, 2007

Stuff From the MySpace Archive - Review of Abel Gance's 'Napoleon'

I'm going to post most of my old MySpace stuff here, unless it's completely irrelevant (I guess that means I'm not going to post anything). I wrote this review of Napoleon, because I wanted to appear more intelligent than you. Well, I actually wrote it because it's an amazing film that very few people will see in this generation, and I hope one or two of you might check it out:

Back in the early 80s, Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope studio seemed to have a major 'event picture' coming out every year. There was Apocalypse Now, The Black Stallion and then the movie that destroyed it all, One From The Heart (here's to directorial excess!). In between those, though, Coppola devoted a ton of energy to releasing a restoration of the last great silent film epic, Abel Gance's Napoleon.

Gance was a maverick director who had the great misfortune to unleash this epic on the world at the same time that a horrible little gimmick movie called The Jazz Singer changed the sonic landscape of motion pictures forever. Suddenly, this 6 hour epic of Napoleon's early life and rise to power in post-revolutionary France did not appeal to the masses as much as hearing Al Jolson sing "Mammy", and it was a huge financial disaster (think Ishtar/Waterworld/Poseidon). The studio eviscerated the original cut and then tried to release it in multiple expurgated versions (much like MGM did with "Once Upon A Time In America - an amazingly complex and nuanced 3.5 hour film that was cut down to an incoherent 1 hr 45 min version); nothing worked, Gance's career was seriously damaged and he was so despondent that he destroyed portions of the film himself. Although Gance would later try to add sound elements to later reissues (including an early attempt at stereophonic sound), the film was ultimately forgotten by all but the most astute film scholars. One of these people was Kevin Brownlow, who would become the person most responsible for ensuring that Napoleon would finally be seen by modern audiences.

There's a long complex history behind the restoration, but essentially, Brownlow located every element of the film he could find over a 20 year span, and working closely with Abel Gance, he was able to piece together a 4.5 hour version of the film. Francis Ford Coppola, who had enormous love for Gance's film, bought the rights and funded much of the restoration. His father Carmine composed a new score for the US reissue, and over several years, the film was restored into a print of unmistakable beauty and power. I remember the grand premiere of the new print at the Cinerama Dome, where Carmine Coppola would conduct a live orchestra performance of the score. Unfortunately, being too young to go down to Hollywood myself, I never got a chance to see the reissue (I think I missed the weeklong engagement at the Mustang Drive-In). So, 25 years later, imagine my excitement as I found myself at the New Beverly Cinema watching a rare re-release of the Coppola print. It had been so long since the original reissue that I had no idea of what I was going to see - running time, film quality, zilch. This was fun considering I've probably seen or read most of the plot points of modern films due to the internet, movie trailers on TV, etc. It was almost a virgin experience, one almost as fun as the first time engaging in the activity that we associate with that term (hey, at least I was sober this time).

I knew I was in for a long night, as the New Beverly usually runs double features and Napoleon was the only film on the program. The film started at 8PM, and the intermission was at 10:15; ultimately, I didn't leave the theater until just after 12:30AM. From the start, I was enthralled. The film began with Napoleon's youth in a boy's school, and the first half hour focused on a showcase of his already evident skills as a military leader - in a great snowball war between two groups of classmates. Gance also takes his time in showing the traits that would lead Napoleon to greatness and also lead to his downfall - strong will, great capacity for fierce rage and most unfortunately, an excessive amount of hubris. From here, the film moves to the early 1790s and spends a great deal of time relating the events of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. While this may seem a boring exercise in European History, the filmmaking and amazingly expressive performances of the cast never bogged things down (the big three of Robespierre, Danton and Marat were portrayed so vividly that I was sad to see the Reign of Terror end). Gance paralleled the decay of the Jacobins with Napoleon's great success in Toulon, and his romance of Josephine and triumphant rise to power in the Italian campaign filled out the remainder of the film. As strange as it sounds, I was sad to realize the film was ending. I could have watched another four hours. This is not to say that the film is not without its weaknesses. Some of the story elements were a little too slapsticky and comical and contrasted too sharply with the gravity of the events being shown. The romance with Josephine was a little too much for me, as the viewer was subjected to a few mundane domestic moments too many. Also, the actress playing Josephine was not up to the task of convincing the viewer that she was the emotional match of Napoleon; his performance and presence were much too strong for her, and it was the least successful aspect of the film for me. These are really minor quibbles, though, as the positives outweighed the negatives tenfold.

As solid as the storytelling was, where the film really stands out is in the technical arena. The cinematography was magnificent, especially in the war sequences and in the French Assembly during the revolution. Gance essentially invented the technique that would later be adopted for 50s Cinemascope; he used three cameras for several panoramic shots and then projected them next to each other (he called it "Polyvision"). The effect was breathtaking; the shot of the grand army of the republic staged on the Italian border was the greatest I've seen in a film made before Gone With The Wind. Gance also made tryptiches during certain scenes, using 6, 8 and even 12 different squares to show different aspects of the action (the snowball battle at the start of the film used this to great effect). Gance also tinted different sections of the film; as the French army marched triumphantly into Piedmont, the picture was divided into three segments, each colored with the Blue, White and Red of the French flag. Finally, the editing was groundbreaking; Gance used many new techniqes for the transitions between scenes that I had never seen in films of this era; one example is a spiraling inward wipe that would then spiral back with the new scene appearing. Also, there is a scene toward the end where Napoleon visits the empty Assembly in Paris, and the ghosts of the Revolution begin to appear to him. What was so impressive about this was that the ghosts didn't materialize all at once but instead gradually. This is a difficult feat, as multiple exposures would have been needed. I can't imagine how he did this, but it blew me away.

In the end, I am so glad that I forced myself to drive down for a 4.5 hour film on a worknight. I'd appreciate it if the New Beverly would schedule films like this on the weekend, as I am now completely fried. But, I really appreciate that this great theater still exists in this DVD generation, as I seem to be one of the few people left who prefers to see films on the big screen. I am also thankful that there are people like Kevin Brownlow and Francis Coppola who believe in preserving the history of the cinema and aren't just interested in the latest films in the Best Buy New Release section. Sadly, Coppola and Brownlow are now at odds over the rights to the film and what constitutes a definitive version - Brownlow has continued to add new elements to the print since the 1980s release but Coppola won't allow any version to be seen in the US except his cut. Hopefully, they will work out these issues and a new, definitive version will be released someday. I would recommend this film to anyone who has the patience to sit through it, but you should definitely see it in a theater. Much like the great 70mm epics of the 50s-70s, a film like this just doesn't translate to television.

No comments: