What's 2700 miles among movie-mad friends? That's roughly the distance between Boston and Oakland, where this Saturday and Sunday (March 24-25), and the Saturday and Sunday following (March 31-April 1) the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be screening the US premiere of Kevin Brownlow's 5 1/2-hour restoration of Abel Gance's "Napoleon." The screenings will be at the 3000-seat Paramount Theatre, a setting worthy of Gance's epic. Manohla Dargis has this article in the Times Arts & Leisure section about "Napoleon."
Gance (1889-1981) was one of the great mad visionaries of cinema, and "Napoleon" stands with "Intolerance" and "Metropolis" as one of cinema's great mad visions. How mad? Instead of saying "Action!" to start a take, he'd discharge a revolver. Bang! "Napoleon" is easily the most colossal biopic ever made (unless, speaking of great mad visions, you consider Hans-Jurgen Syberg's "Our Hitler: A Film from Germany" a biopic).
Those screenings were at Radio City Music Hall, with a full orchestra on the premises, conducted by Coppola pere. The Radio City run was that rare thing in movie history: an honest-to-goodness event. (Even rarer: It was a movie event that was a triumph rather than a debacle.) So much of the wonder of moviegoing -- and this is something that utterly differentiates the movies from the stage -- has to do with extension. What's on the screen in front of you is being shared not just with those in that theater but so many other theaters in so many other places, perhaps even simultaneously: the multiplex as metaphor for the world. Yet part of what made seeing "Napoleon" so amazing was specific to that moment in that place. As Pauline Kael wrote in her New Yorker review, "At Radio City there were as many people in the audience as there were on the screen, and for a spectacle film designed to work on mass emotions a big screen and a crowd make an enormous difference."
"Napoleon" came back to Radio City ten months later, in October. That's when I saw it. Last week I wrote a post about Christian Marclay's "The Clock." Maybe that's the best way to get across the impact of seeing "Napoleon" at Radio City that night. Watching 14 hours of "The Clock" (admittedly, spread over five viewings) is only the second-greatest moviegoing experience of my life. Not that "The Clock" is just "a movie" -- but then neither is "Napoleon." It's at once the greatest novel Victor Hugo never photographed and absolute "visual Berlioz" (as the Globe's Richard Buell wrote when it was shown at what is now the Citi Center's Wang Theatre, in November 1981). Part of the wonder of "Napoleon" is how something so shamelessly, magniloquently 19th century in content and sensibility should take the form of state-of-the-art 20th-century technology (as it then was).
When people talk about how technically innovative "Napoleon" was they invariably mean its use of Polyvision. That was Gance's term for a process whereby the screen becomes a triptych at the movie's climax, when Bonaparte leads his army into Italy. What's even more startling -- it's flat-out overwhelming -- is when Gance superimposes on a close-up of Napoleon in the center panel a speeded-up, double-exposed image of the conquest of Italy that awaits. Forget visual Berlioz. This is visual William James, visual James Joyce: filmed stream of consciousness. There'd be nothing like it in a movie, at least not that I can think of, until that light show toward the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey," 40 years later -- and Kubrick did it with a gratuitousness quite unlike Gance. "Napoleon" as a whole is my greatest moviegoing experience (the snowball fight! the unfurling of the tricolor as Bonaparte escapes Nelson!) -- but the most thrilling is that visualization of stream of consciousness. It's like the Eroica played on airplane propellers -- and sounding even better than Furtwangler conducting it. The actor Gance cast as Napoleon is named Albert Dieudonne. In English, that surname means "God given." Watching the movie Dieudonne stars in, it seems as though those words could be interchangeable with "Gance given." You say that sounds far-fetched? Make it to one of those screenings in Oakland, then let's talk.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Glenn Yoder is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
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