Thursday, May 21, 2015

Cult Movie Project #10 (of 200) :: Beyond the Boundaries of the Medium: Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927).

As a friend of mine once said: I really wished I liked silent movies more than I do. And it's not that I don't like them. I've been scratching my head for the past ten minutes counting off the pitifully small list I can recall seeing and found nary a clunker in the bunch -- The General (1926), Ben-Hur (1925), Metropolis (1927), The Bat (1926), The Cat and the Canary (1927), Nosferatu (1922), a ton of Keaton and Chaplin vehicles, and that completely mental The Perils of Pauline serial (1914). A lack of exposure, then, might be the true culprit because I seldom, if ever, actively seek these non-talkies out. And so, it was with some trepidation that I plopped down in front of the TV to watch Abel Gance's fabled silent version of Napoleon (1927) -- all five hours of it.

Apparently, there are, like, 19 different cuts of this film out there, ranging from the director's own seven hour version (though this appears to be lost), to the severely truncated 87 minute version MGM whittled down and released when they imported it back in the 1920s. The most standard restored version runs 235 minutes, painstakingly put back together by several rivaling factions -- most notably Keven Brownlow and Francis Ford Coppola. (And the story of that pissing contest I will leave to you to seek out on your own.)

Now, the main reason I watched the five hour cut (311 minutes to be exact) is because it was the only copy I could get my hands on for this retrospective. And somewhat ironically, the print streamed via Vimeo was letterboxed in reverse; meaning the top and bottom of the square were cut off to form a rectangle -- including shaving off the inserted dialogue plates. *sigh* Still, I'd rather see that than the forced fit junk with everyone and everything squished and stretched. Anyways, about the movie...

Five years in the making and extremely ambitious in both scope and pomp and pageantry and chaos, Gance spent more than 17,000 francs, utilized 150 sets, and used 40 different stars and nearly 6000 extras for his film, which covers Napoleon's life from his boarding school days (focusing on two spectacularly shot sequences involving fights with snowballs and pillows with much higher stakes than those choice of weapons would imply); then his rise in military rank, beginning with the French Revolution through the Siege of Toulon (another series of mind-boggling battle sequences), where his victory first gained him national notoriety; to his arrest and imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, to the fall of Robespierre, to his own ascension as the savior of the Revolution; followed by his (one-sided) courtship with Josephine de Beauharnais, and then ends with him leading a rag-tag army to victory in Italy, planting the seeds for the emperor and empire to come.

Wow. *whew* I know that seems like a lot to cover even for that kinda time frame but, honestly, the flickering images were so fascinating and engaging the film just breezed by. And the ending didn't really feel like one -- more of a beginning, begging for the next sequence. Incomplete, basically. And apparently, that is exactly what the director had originally intended. Seems Gance had planned further installments (-- a trilogy according to some, five or six films to others --) on the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte, but the financing always eluded him. Sadly, Gance's eventual depression over this failure led to him destroying a lot of the original negatives and materials, making the restoration process even harder and a complete version impossible.

But, from what I saw from what was left, this film still and should be rightfully championed for its technical innovations. For his grand vision, Gance experimented with hand-held cameras (-- giving it a documentary feel and a ton of verisimilitude), and slathered the film with POV-shots, montages, split-screens, trick-shots with multiple overlapping exposures, dollies, zooms, tracking-shots, crash-cut editing, brazen F/X, colored gels, and he even invented a new three camera technique, "Polyvision", for some sequences to be projected by three synched projectors as kind of a proto-CinemaScope experience. 

Even without the triptychs this looks like no silent movie I have ever seen; and while watching all of this unfold, if I didn't know any better, I'd have sworn on my stack of Cult Movie books I was watching an experimental French New Wave film from the 1960s.

However, as much rightful praise is heaped on Gance the film does have some glaring faults. While his battle scenes are ambitiously staged, the execution lacks discipline; it's such pure bedlam one cannot tell what is going on or who we're looking at half the time. (To be fair, this could be attributed to the print I watched.) Sadly, this lack of control while filming led to the deaths of two extras, who fell off horses, and the star was nearly drowned while filming near Corsica; 42 more extras were injured during the Toulon sequence; and even Gance himself and several of his crew members were severely burned when a magnesium pyrotechnic misfired and covered them in molten metal. His subject matter also suffers a bit from the designated hero conundrum. And while the visual metaphors are wonderfully staged and cut together, they tend to tarry and verge on drowning themselves out.

It still looked incredible, though. And as amazing as all that righteous (or misguided) tonnerre et éclair were, the quieter moments were just as powerful. I especially dug the "Watching the Revolution through a Window" sequence, where Napoleon sees a woman's face outside his apartment window but closer examination finds a dismembered head on a pike; riots and a lynching follows through this limited view-scape.

I honestly wish the whole film had lived up to that opening act at the school with young Napoleon (Roudenko). Thirty minutes in and you can easily see why filmmakers and cinema scholars have wet themselves over the years. Truly mesmerizing stuff. Again, the film never quite loses this momentum but, after the "Ball of the Damned" (another fantastic interlude), hour four really slows down for some melodrama, where a completely twitter-pated Napoleon (Dieudonné) pines for the unrequited love of Joséphine (Manès). Thankfully, that doesn't last too long and Napoleon is soon on the march again.

But, you say, if this filmmaker was so great, why haven't more people heard of him? Well, one of the reasons Gance's visual innovations never caught on (at least no yet back in 1927) was bad timing. With the release of The Jazz Singer the very same year, studios and theaters focused on a conversion to sound instead of widening their lenses and screens. Too bad, really. Also, with the death of silent films and Gance's own self-destructive behavior, the film basically disappeared for nearly fifty years.

At some point I might take another run at this film through one of the shorter cuts and (hopefully) a better print. Having said that, I do not regret the amount of time spent on what I watched already. That was one helluva an experience that I will not soon forget. 

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"Certainly no other silent films, not even those of D.W. Griffith or the great Russian and German directors of the twenties, are as visually spectacular as Gance's Napoleon. It went beyond the boundaries of the medium. He strapped cameras and cameramen to horses; he attached one camera to a guillotine, and placed another underwater; he placed a camera on a pendulum and swung it through a set. His intention was to make viewers feel a part of the action. Each sequence will stun you with it's technical brilliance and directorial bravura, the pageantry and poetry, the authentic recreation of a time gone by, and the aggressive energy of all the interesting looking actors and beautiful actresses Gance crowds into his frame." 

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The Fine Print: Napoleon was watched via Vimeo's streaming service in one sitting with a twenty minute intermission after hour three so the viewer could go to the bathroom and execute a quick burrito run. What's the Cult Movie Project? That's ten down, with 190 to go.  

Napoleon (1927) Ciné France :: Films Abel Gance :: Isepa-Wengeroff Film GmbH :: Pathé Consortium Cinéma :: Société générale des films / P: Abel Gance / W: Abel Gance / C: Léonce-Henri Burel, Jules Kruger, Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, Nikolai Toporkoff / E: Abel Gance / S: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daële, Alexandre Koubitzky, Antonin Artaud

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