Not to bury the lead: if at all possible, you should get yourself over to the Paramount Theater in Oakland next weekend (March 31 and April 1) for the final two performances of Kevin Brownlow’s 5½ hour restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 "Napoleon", accompanied by Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the performance of his score.
Presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, it’s a cinephile’s dream: a rousing, technically innovative, dramatically engaging, beautifully made epic, accompanied by a touching, evocative, equally rousing score played by an excellent, nearly 50-piece orchestra, conducted by the score’s famed composer. And, for the icing on the cake, the film is unspooling in a fabled masterpiece of an Art Deco theater, itself restored and maintained to its period glory. And for once you’re surrounded by an audience of respectful fellow film buffs, attention trained on the screen, nerves alive to every nuance, breaking into spontaneous applause when moved by a scene, a performance, or sentiment. Bonus: no popcorn!
As you can tell, I had an amazing time. Even more amazing considering that I started the screening in a rage. Last July, when the "Napoleon" event was announced at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, two pals and I ordered three hundred-dollar tickets via iPhone to insure the best possible seats. After a happy half-hour spent ogling the dazzling lobbies, staircases, and lighting fixtures of the Paramount and hanging with Kenneth Turan of the LA Times, Laura Thielen of the Aspen Film Festival, Manohla Dargis of the NY Times, and Alice Maltin (spouse Leonard was elsewhere in the theater), only when we showed our tickets to the usher did we discover that my chums were seated together in the odd-numbered section of row N, and I was alone, way the hell over in the even-numbered section of the same row. Curses, foul Ticketmaster!
As soon as the movie started, however, all was forgotten and forgiven. The film began sans intros; perhaps the over-eight-hour schedule (incorporating several twenty-minute intermissions, even at that length inadequate for getting everybody in and out of the bathrooms, and an hour-and-three-quarter dinner break) precluded such niceties. Brownlow will lecture on the restoration on Friday, March 30, at the Pacific Film Archive, with clips from the film accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano.
I hastened toward Brownlow during the first intermission, but he broke free from his acolytes and scurried away. The last time I saw him in 2007, after a PFA lecture on silent films, the perpetually boyish Brownlow was downcast and glum when he spoke of his ongoing "Napoleon" restoration, prophesying that it would never be seen by the audiences he craved. I tried to cheer him up, Pollyanna that I am, by insisting that eventually it would be. And here we were!
The magic resumed as soon as the movie started again — although section two, largely a rain-swept and somewhat confusing battle scene, is the only one that reminded me of my friend Jonathan Benair’s quip after we emerged from the gala screening of Ronald Haver’s restoration of George Cukor’s "A Star is Born": “Great movie. Could lose twenty minutes.”
Gance is the master of superimposition (sometimes seemingly five frames at once), and innovator of the moving camera (on swings, horses, pendulums). The tinted scenes are unexpectedly moving. Albert Diedonne in the title role is indeed god-given. Annabella, given a generous amount of screen time as a young girl ensorcelled by Napoleon, surprises me because she seems to belong to another Technicolor filmmaking era. (It turns out Gance discovered her at the age of 16.) Antonin Artaud, star of another silent, Dreyer’s "Passion of Joan of Arc," doesn’t evoke the same surprise.
During the dinner break, we’re lucky in our choice: Xolo, a taqueria (and sister restaurant to famed Temescal restaurant Dona Tomas) that first colonized the Uptown neighborhood surrounding the restored Paramount and Fox theaters. In fact, because we’re early in the ordering line, which stretches out the door in quick order, we nab a table upstairs with a rainswept view that includes the colorful neon sign on the 1928-vintage Fox Theater, restored and re-opened in 2009. We share pork and chicken tacos, guacamole, and a big bowl of delicious birria (goat stew), washed down with Mexican beer and horchata, while we discuss the genius of what we’ve seen.
San Francisco Silent Film Festival Executive Director Stacey Wisnia comes in to dine with her husband and NY Film Forum programmer Mike Maggiore; she stops to receive our fervent congrats and thanks. Perhaps I read too much into her reply – “Well, we’re making a lot of people happy” – because Dargis’s March 18 NY Times article reported the cost of these four performances as $720,000. How could ticket sales (from $40 — $120) cover costs?
I keep hoping that other presenters would step up to the plate. (Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein told a friend that prices for a similar production in NYC would “multiply…by five or ten.) Alas, this is it.
Dargis reveals that yet another restoration is being worked on. (A friend who recently saw some of the newly-discovered footage in the seemingly endless and still-not-fully-catalogued warehouses of the Cinematheque Francaise said it was astonishing.)
The Polyvision ending – when two extra screens are revealed at the sides of the original, permitting a triumphant This-Is-Cinerama widescreen vista unknown and seemingly impossible in its day – rouses the audience to applause once again, ending in a heartfelt and lengthy standing ovation.
I was lucky enough to see the four-hour version of Abele Gance’s "Napoleon" at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1981, with Carmine Coppola conducting his own score – its own once-in-a-lifetime event. This time I woke up the day after seeing the five-hour "Napoleon" feeling like seeing it again (or, even better, since it ends in 1797, with the triumphant Italian campaign, I would like to be able to see Gance’s proposed following five films, covering the remaining 24 years of Napoleon’s eventful life). It turns out that TCM had thoughtfully programmed Gance’s intimate but long "La Roue" that very night, in a four-and-a-half hour slot, but I need MORE.
I hope someday to see the next restoration of "Napoleon." (Three once-in-a-lifetime events.) But right now I’m considering seeing it again next weekend. Get it while it’s hot.