Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…
Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016
If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.
Best silent film theatrical release of 2016
Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.
Best modern silent of 2016
Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.
Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”
I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.
There are silent movies and then there is Napoléon (1927). Abel Gance’s legendary biopic is ambitious in scope, style, technique, length and even breadth. And while there are competing scores and restorations, for us only the Napoléon recreated by Kevin and Brownlow and Carl Davis will do. You can see this version of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall this November, with the Philharmonia orchestra playing Davis’s monumental music, and in a cinema (probably) near you too. Plus, you will be able to take the film home too. This wonderful film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this year – a release from the BFI, which promises to come laden with lots of tempting extras.
Ahead of the Napoléon-fest that awaits us, I wanted to share something rather special with you. Last time Napoléon played in London, I interviewed Brownlow and Davis for the Guardian. Necessarily, the conversation was truncated and edited for publication, but I still have the transcripts. So here, only a little tidied-up, is Davis and Brownlow on Napoléon, full-width.
The film flies by, when I am conducting. Conducting the score requires a lot of concentration, so you forget the time. It is very long but I’m getting better at it, because when this was proposed and we did it in 1980, no one was doing this, this was something that was dead by about 1929. It was all over, so there was no one to turn to say: “How do you do it? How do you organise yourself to do it? How do you create a score that’s going to run for five hours? What should its structure be?” I had to reinvent the process for myself and Napoléon was the first. Fortunately, a whole career and a whole library followed, so now I have a very defined technique for how to create the score, which I did not have in 1980. The difficulties stop when you know how to do it, and then I didn’t know how to do it at all. I just threw things together.
There is a prehistory to Napoléon and a very important collaboration with Kevin Brownlow before Napoléon: a Thames television series called Hollywood, which was based on a book of Kevin’s called The Parade’s Gone By. My relationship with him and the whole question of silent film started in the mid 1970s, around 1976. I then had the opportunity to meet survivors of the silent period. There still were people, y’know, very old then, but who were young at the time. The two really key people I met were still working. They were still playing for silent film but mostly on the big organ in LA and the most interesting person was a lovely little woman who lived in a house just behind the Hollywood sign. And I asked her: “How do you build up a long score for a film, for your own performances on the organ?” Her name was Ann Leaf and she was known as the last organist of the Paramount Theater in New York, the last cinema organist.
Anyway, she still did shows, you see, so she went to a big cupboard she had, which was full of music, and she would start pulling pieces out. She would say: “You know this is very good for chase sequences, and here’s this piece by Grieg, this is very scary music and this is a very, very nice piece to play for a love scene and this is Roman orgies.” I remember the Roman orgy moment! They felt that world music was absolutely at their disposal. You went very, very far. And the film companies established music publishers who would provide mood music, There’s a vast amount of rather anonymous pieces written specifically for different moods you see. And every cinema musician of that period would have a big library to draw on, depending on what kind of film it was.
So that conversation was really very, very critical. One could be very broad in one’s thinking. And then we came to Napoléon, Kevin and I and a man named David Gill. When we came to the end of the series and the series was broadcast in 1980 and was a very successful and well-thought-of and sold like mad around the world, I said very loudly at a celebration party: “Now that I’ve written about 300 clips, why don’t we try to do a whole film?” And then Kevin and David came up with Napoléon – probably the longest film ever made and that ever will be made, and that was never finished anyway. It keeps growing as more of it keeps being found. The original performance, which I think was just under five, is now five and a half hours, it’s grown by half an hour. And you have to revise the score, open out the score. Because it wasn’t as if, “Oh, we’ve found this one scene,” it was “Well we’ve found this little bit and that little bit.” And that shot and that whatever. So I’m in terror, you know, that as archives open, y’know, and as people find things in attics, forgotten drawers that suddenly …
What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.
It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.
However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.
Hold on to your three-cornered hats. This may well be the news you have been waiting for since … ooh 1980 or thereabouts. BFI and the Photoplay have announced jointly that Napoléon, Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece, is coming to a screen near you – whether that is a concert hall, cinema, TV or computer. We all have three-screen TVs right?
So you can see Napoléon (1927) with the Philharmonia orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall this autumn – and many of us know what a treat that can be – but it will also be available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray, to stream on the BFIplayer and theatrically released in cinemas too. And make no mistake, this is the Kevin Brownlow restoration with Carl Davis’s epic score – the definitive five-and-a-half hour version of Napoléon that you really need in your life.
And while the live and cinema screenings will be magical experiences, I am getting a little thrill from the idea of being able to rewind sequences from the film and look at them again, and more closely. The snowball fight, for example! As that occurs at the the beginning of the movie, it could take me some time to get right to the end …
I won’t say too much more now, as we will no doubt be talking about Napoléon all year, which I am hugely looking forward to. But I do want to share some details about the restoration, and the people who made it possible. For example, we have been told that the digital process of restoration has cleaned up some damage in the 35mm print and allowed for greater capacity to recapture the tinting and toning of the original film.
This project has been achieved thanks to major work undertaken by the experts of the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions working with Dragon DI post-production in Wales, and to the generosity of Carl Davis and Jean Boht, who have made possible the recording of the score by the Philharmonia. The original restoration of the 35mm film elements in 2000 was funded by the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen charity, with the support of many archives around the world but especially the Cinémathèque Française and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie in Paris.
The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up throughout, all of which offers significant improvements in overall picture quality. This is the most complete version of the film available, compiled by Academy Award™-winning film-maker, archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent over 50 years tracking down surviving prints from archives around the world since he first saw a 9.5mm version as a schoolboy in 1954. Brownlow and his colleagues at Photoplay, initially the late David Gill, and then Patrick Stanbury, worked with the BFI National Archive on a series of restorations. The film version has been screened only 4 times in the UK since the year 2000 at memorable events with full orchestra performing the original score by composer Carl Davis.
I’m proud to be bringing people back to the cinema, in an age when people will happily watch Lawrence of Arabia on their mobile phones. Napoleon is pure cinema, and cinema was designed for sharing. There’s something about the way it was shot that makes it like no other. I can’t tell you how many people, having seen our restoration, have said: “That was the greatest experience I have ever had in a motion picture theatre.” Kevin Brownlow, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com
My eyes and ears are still adjusting back to normality. Yesterday’s screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon at the Royal Festival bombarded the senses and befuddled the brain. It was not, as you may have been warned, a marathon. The five-hours-forty-minutes running time appears to go by in a flash, powered along by Carl Davis’s invigorating orchestral score. I would happily watch it all again tomorrow and the next day, and for as many times as it took to get to the bottom of its many mysteries.
Right then, six hours of Abel Gance's Napoleon with live orchestra, Here I Come.
Because despite the pleasures it offers, this is not an easily digestible film. Napoléon’s open-ended structure, which closes just as Bonaparte’s career takes flight, doesn’t help. It’s also a film of unexpected variety, and yes, unevenness, if only because its very best sequences are impossible to match. Immense but not immaculate, Napoléon is at times a masterpiece and at others a sketchbook of enthralling, intricate designs. The magic is that Gance’s ambition is every bit as exciting as his achievements. After just one, eagerly anticipated screening, I may be addicted.
I’m not going to attempt to write a review proper this morning, but I did want to give a flavour of the film, the event and the audience’s reaction to it.
Napoléon is a biopic that pairs the grandeur of its subject’s work and vision with its own cinematic innovations. You will have read about the triptychs that close the movie (more of which later) but perhaps you’ve also heard about the flash cuts, superimpositions, multiple exposures and the cameras thrown, whirled, mounted on horseback. The first act of the film, in this restoration by Kevin Brownlow, contains much of its experimentation and bravado. It follows Napoléon as an unhappy alienated schoolboy, and his disastrous return as a young man to his native Corsica. The snowball fight that opens the film, in which Bonaparte and nine chums strategise their way to a crucial victory over 40 of their peers, led by a particularly unscrupulous pair of urchin villains, is a beauty – staged as if were the culmination of a bloody war. Likewise the frenzy of a pillow fight in the dorm. Vladimir Roudenko as the young Bonaparte is marvellous too – showing far more pluck and passion than Albert Dieudonné in the adult role. There is pathos and humour here, as throughout the film, but Napoléon excels at bombast, exemplified by the sequence that closes the act: Bonaparte, lost at sea in a boat with a Tricolour sail, thrillingly cross-cut with uprisings at the Paris Convention.
So far, so much like what I expected from Napoléon, although more exhilarating that I hoped it could be. What I wasn’t prepared for was a sudden shift in tone, as the second act lingered on the battlefield – crowded, red-tinted frames of bloody combat. Memorable details: a drowning man’s hand thrashing the in the mud, a cannon-cart rolling over a fallen soldier’s ankle. This typifies the movie’s take on history: grim faces, skewiff hairdos, grit and squalor. The film punctuates Bonaparte’s moody middle-distance staring and eloquent intertitle speeches with a mode one might call grotesque realism – whether it’s the exposed flesh of dancers at a ball, the tattered foot bindings of the Italian army or Napoleon’s cardboard boots disintegrating in the gutter, this is visceral stuff. And a note on realism: Napoléon footnotes all bona fide incidents and quotations with a “(Historical)” label on the relevant title. Not quite as clunky as it sounds, several “based on a true story” films would benefit from a similar device. Who knew that a clerk ate Josephine’s accusatory dossier to save her from the guillotine? Or that Nelson wanted to sink Napoléon’s “suspicious” boat on his return from Corsica, decades before Trafalgar?
After the long dinner interval, and much inevitable analysis and debate, the third act proved the most controversial. While the sequences exploring the Reign of Terror, from the ructions in the Convention, to brutality of the authorities (including Gance himself as a rather glamorous Saint-Just) were universally admired, many audience members I spoke to were of the “Not tonight, Josephine” persuasion. The courtship between Bonaparte and Josephine is strange, truncated and slightly unsettling. An impressionistic montage of their previous meetings suggest Napoléon’s passion for his lady, but a queasy sequence in which he embraces a globe superimposed with her face shows that his motivations may not be entirely romantic, with Josephine just another territory to be conquered as he builds his empire. The shadow of this bizarre love story is Violine, the young girl infatuated with Napoléon, who insinuates her way into Josephine’s household, imitates her dress and keeps a shrine to the General above her bed. Hardly edifying, but I found these glimpses of the warrior’s homelife fascinating, and enjoyed the tension between these awkward scenes and the single-mindedness of his military strategies.
The morning after #Napoleon. Really, everything pales after seeing Brits weep openly during the finale last night.
Seven hours after first taking our seats, we assembled for the finale. I freely admit that my lower lip had already wobbled as the titles rolled at the start of the film (“This is it! I’m watching Napoléon!”) but according to my sources, Napoléon was at its most most Napoléon in its last 20 minutes. Not long to wait. In fact, the final hour breezes by, as Napoléon sets out to conquer Italy (writing passionate love letters to the missus in his carriage even while he dispatches orders to his riders). The troops are dilapidated, and morale is as low as funds, but the mountain landscapes are incredible. So, as Napoléon rallies his men with more fine words, it’s just a matter of time before the screen grows, the orchestra soars and Gance’s Polyvision finale kicks in. The panorama shots, after five and a half hours of Academy Ratio, are enough to send anyone into a spin, but when Gance designs each frame individually, multiplying his montage techniques, using colour and superimposition and animation, the the effect is truly astonishing. And at the centre of it all, Dieudonné’s graven face, beneath that famous hat, surveying his own triumph. It’s a monument to patriotism of course, but in the RFH last night, our awe at the work of Gance, of Brownlow and of Davis, rekindled our devotion not to a country but to the cinematic arts. A magnificent monstrosity, Napoléon offers refined beauty, raw thrills and a thousand and one reasons to adore the cinema.
“There’s nothing that matches the experience of going along to see it. It’s incredible. Word has gotten round: this is fun, this is extraordinary.” Carl Davis, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com
It’s podcast o’clock once more. This time I’m joined in the studio by the marvellous Pete Baran, and in the pub by Lucie Dutton, who tells us all about British silent film director Maurice Elvey. All that, plus a guest appearance by Otto Kylmälä, film-maker and festival organiser, praising the “subtle brilliance and mature beauty” of his favourite silent movie, Chaplin’s City Lights.
Controversially, I have been known to say that London is the centre of the silent film universe. You may think I’m biased – and you would be right. But this November, I will be feeling pretty smug. The most audacious of all silents, Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s epic Napoléon, will screen at the Royal Festival Hall in London – accompanied by the Philharmonia orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis as they play his masterful score.
It couldn’t be more convenient for me. I’ll hop on the tube for 25 minutes, grab a coffee and spend all day absorbed in a cinematic masterpiece. But I’ve already heard whispers from fellow silent film fans in the States, in Canada, in continental Europe and yes, even places-in-Britain-that-are-not-London, that they may want to sample the Napoléonexperience too. It’s a dream come true – a world of silent cinema aficionados in this fair city, under one roof.
This video, advertising last year’s California screenings of Napoléon, should help you to understand why it’s worth the airfare.
You’re tempted, aren’t you? Therefore, in the spirit of welcome, for those of you who haven’t been to the Big Smoke before, or at least not since Napoléon last played here in 2004, here’s my 10-point guide to making the most of your trip, Silent London-style.
If you are travelling from the continent, bear in mind that it’s no longer the place where the Eurostar arrives though – that’s Kings Cross St Pancras (take the Victoria line southbound and change on to the Bakerloo line at Oxford Circus).
The Southbank is really quite a groovy part of London, so if you’re around for a few more days, you may want to explore further – stroll along the front, and visit the amazing Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre or the Hayward Gallery. There’s lots of sleek but brutal concrete, gangs of youthful tousle-haired skateboarders and pop-up artisanal food markets to admire also. And those daft living-statue things. They give me the creeps.
Of course, the BFI Southbank, formerly known as the National Film Theatre, is another neighbour. Pop in here to watch a film, visit the library, browse the museum displays, shop in the filmstore (DVDs, books, magazines, T-shirts) or just lounge in one of the trendy cafés with a cappuccino. If you’re wearing the film-buff uniform of black polo neck and chunky glasses while carrying a copy of Film as Art, you’ll fit right in.
The best thing about the Southbank for many film fans is that it’s a stone’s throw from where a little-known film-maker called Charlie Chaplin grew up. Feel the vibe, take a detour into Lambeth, commune with his spirit, and if you are feeling flush, take a trip to the London Film Museum further down the river where you can browse their permanent exhibition on the Great Londoner.
Happily, seats for Napoléon start at a very affordable £11, but they do go up to £60 for a “premium experience”, which may tempt you to push the boat out. Tickets are available here, and you’ll be able to pick and choose where you want to sit. For more information, especially if you have not been to the RFH before, try the very useful website TheatreMonkey, which will explain where the best (and worst) bargains are to be had.
You’ll probably need somewhere to stay: Napoléon begins at 1.30pm and doesn’t finish until 9.30pm, which means you can probably get a late train home, but you’ll more than likely be a bit dazed and in need of a liedown. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, which means that hotels are not cheap, I’m afraid. So, if your budget doesn’t stretch to the Ritz or the Savoy, check out one of the economical chains such as Travelodge, Premier Inn or Holiday Inn; book in advance and look for a location that is handy for public transport rather than dead central. If you’re watching the pennies, commuting in as a tourist from Zone 3 or 4 of the tube network really doesn’t take very long and needn’t be stressful in off-peak hours. Cast your eyes eastwards, where hotels that sprang up in time for the London 2012 Olympics may be looking to fill up their empty rooms. Alternatively try the YHA, or Couchsurfing. You know about lastminute.com too, right?
You’ll want to eat before Napoléon, during Napoléon, or after Napoléon. Possibly all three. There is a 100-minute interval for a reason and a person can’t live on coffee and cinematography alone. Not a problem though. There are cafés and bars in the Southbank Centre, and quite-posh restaurant called Canteen too (book ahead). There’s also a pizza place opposite and all kinds of food from sandwiches to noodles to burgers available nearby on the Southbank. The RFH itself is licensed too, if you want to accompany your viewing of a French cinema classic with un petit vin rouge.
Some of the nearby bars will open late, if you want to party like it’s 1927 after the movie, and the tubes run until around 1am, with nightbuses and black cabs to scoop up the wilder ones among you.
We’ve all read Oliver Twist and learned that London is crammed with grubby-faced urchins with their eyes on your pocket watch. Sort of. Pickpocketing and other crime does happen, but not really as often as you may think. Keep hold of your valuables in crowds, think twice before walking home somewhere quiet late at night, and don’t jump into an unlicensed minicab. Just like you’d do at home.
English innit. Just like what the Queen talks. But if you want to mingle with ease among the British silent film crew, just drop in a few references to “Porders”, the carrier-bag rustlers in NFT2, your intimate friendship with Kevin Brownlow, the LFF archive gala, that time you got lost on the way to the Cinema Museum/inside the Barbican, the latest issue of Sight & Sound, where you think next year’s BSFF should be held and, of course, your devotion to a certain marvellous silent cinema website, whose name briefly escapes me.
Seriously, this should be a very social occasion, and hopefully between this site, the Bristol Silents site, Nitrateville and the wider world of Twitter and Facebook, we should be able to make quite a party of it and meet lots of new and old faces. Don’t be a stranger.
Obviously, this is another popular topic of conversation. If you’ve not been to the UK before, you need to know that London in November will be cold. Not properly cold, not Norway cold, but definitely nippy. Bring your coat and your umbrella too, because the English skies love to rain. Unfortunately, however, you have been lied to by the movies and there is very little chance of you being caught in a “right old pea-souper”. That’s a good thing, really, as the views down the Thames from the Southbank are gorgeous.
7. Being a tourist
Apparently there is more to do in London than just watching old movies. News to me. If you’re staying for a few days, and you have exhausted all the possibilities here, then you’ll want to look further afield for entertainment. An official tourism website such as this one should keep you busy with palaces, museums, West End shows, abbeys and graveyards, but for something a little more quirky, cultural or off the beaten track, try the dispatches from Londonist or the listings from Time Out. The Vintage Guide to London may well be your cup of char too.
And to get you in the mood for the big show in November, anyone based closer to London should book now for Modern Times in March and The Thief of Bagdad in June – both Photoplay presentations with Carl Davis and the Philharmonia, just like Napoléon, and showing at RFH too.
Your loved ones will no doubt be delighted that you went all the way to London just before Christmas and brought back lots of Region 2 DVDs from the BFI shop for their stockings. I can just imagine their happy faces now. On the off-chance that that isn’t true, London has lots more to offer shops-wise. Covent Garden, Camden Market, Marylebone High Street and the gift shop at any of the big museums should sort you out and keep your rellies happy. The London Transport Museum gift shop in Covent Garden is particularly good for retro souvenirs of Laaaahndan Town. Alternatively, you can buy some Edinburgh shortbread at the airport. No one will know the difference.
This weekend, something momentous is happing in California. Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth restoration of Abel Gance’s legendary epic film Napoléon is screening at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra playing the US premiere of Carl Davis’s wonderful score. Wow. That’s five-and-a-half hours of majestic, groundbreaking silent cinema with fantastic live music, and it’s not an opportunity that comes along very often. If you want to be there, you need to know that there will be two screenings this weekend, and two the next: tickets are available here, starting from around $50 and going up to $550 for a premium seat including a gourmet dinner and reception with Brownlow and Davis.
Unfortunately, it’s not a cheap proposition for us Silent Londoners if you throw in the cost of flights, hotels and taking leave from work. While a few friends of the blog are making the trip west for Napoléon, most of us will be sitting at home, trying not to let the jealousy get the better of us.
But there’s no need to succumb to the green-eyed monster. Napoléon last played in London in 2004 and although Brownlow is adding new footage all the time (the original film ran at around nine hours) so the California screenings will technically be an advance on those shows, it’s only a matter of time before Gance’s masterpiece makes its way back to us. What I’m hearing, from reputable sources, is November 2013, at the Royal Festival Hall.
However, if that still seems like a long way away, and you’re suffering from FOMO (otherwise known as the Fear Of Missing Out), here is a five-point guide to help you pass the time, and overcome the Napoléon blues.
The story of how Abel Gance struggled to make his masterpiece, how it was shredded and how Kevin Brownlow pieced Napoléon back together starting with the 9.5mm snippets he bought as a schoolboy is worthy of a film adaptation itself. You can read all about it in Brownlow’s book, which is available to buy here with a sampler CD of Davis’s score. Napoléon has been all over the American media recently too, in the runup to the Oakland shows, so there’s plenty more to devour. You can read Martin Scorsese in Vanity Fair, or this neat MUBI post, which tells the story of the film via its many posters. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both printed heavyweight features about the film, Gance and Brownlow’s restoration. If your French is up to the task, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival blog has posted some original articles from the French press about the making of the movie. I also enjoyed this Smithsonian blog that pushes The Artist to one side to say that this restoration is the silent film event of the year. And who can argue with that?
3 See the bigger picture
Of Gance’s many extraordinary technical and artisitic innovations in Napoléon, the most famous must surely be the film’s climactic triptychs: a way of creating an early form of widescreen that required three cameras on set and three projectors in the cinema. This Polyvision effect is also one of the reasons why the film is so rarely shown. Intrigued? On 29 April, more or less fresh from the Oakland screenings, Kevin Brownlow is speaking at the Widescreen Weekend festival in Bradford, and it’s a fair bet that he will mention Napoléon. The subject of his lecture is: ‘From Biograph to Fox Grandeur. Early Experiments in Large Format Presentations’. It strikes me that if you want to learn more about Polyvision from the man who knows more than most, that’s the place to be. If you’re lucky, he may even screen a clip or two.
4 Gen up on Gance
Of course, Napoléon wasn’t Gance’s only film. It wasn’t even his only great film. If you have the technology to play Region 1 discs, Gance’s anti-war film J’Accuse (1919) and his impressionistic railway melodrama La Roue (1923) are both available on very nice DVDs, courtesy of Flicker Alley. At around four-and-a-half hours long each, they are ambitious by any standard, although they can only hint at the scope of Napoléon, and they’re well worth devoting a clear afternoon and a coffee pot to. If you’re shopping around for import DVDs, you may well find the four-hour cut of Napoléon, with Carmine Coppola’s score. It’s not quite the real deal, of course, but still fascinating.
5 Clear out your attics
Brownlow’s restoration of Napoléon is magnificent, but it’s still not complete. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was more waiting to be discovered? And unearthing the final reels of a film this important is surely every silent cinema geek’s number one fantasy. Apart from the ones that involve a close encounter with Buster Keaton/Louise Brooks (delete as applicable), that is.