108 Napoléon (1927)
On April 1, I saw Abel Gance's Napoléon.
It's funny... I originally thought I was going to miss it because I was going to have work. See, at Great America, if you're a supervisor, you're sort of required to be there for the first few weekends. In the area of the park I'm at, supervisor retention was really low this year so there could only be two supervisors per area: one opens and one closes. Well, I was able to open. However, instead of staying until 5:30 to get my full eight hours, I left pretty much as soon as my partner came in. This gave me time to change into nicer clothing, drive to Oakland, find parking, and obtain the tickets at the box office. My friends weren't so lucky... they showed up over an hour late!
Kevin Brownlow.... Here's a guy who's been obsessed with the film his entire life. His efforts to restore the film came to fruition in 1979 where it premiere in Telluride. It didn't make it to America until 1981, where it had been re-edited by American Zoetrope and shown at the Radio City Music Hall to a standing room crowd. This cut wasn't perfect because the triptych sequence was shown on a single screen in black-and-white and new footage hadn't been discovered yet. However, it was the closest anyone could get at the time. Kevin Brownlow would continue restoring the film in the nineties. New footage was discovered and the triptych sequence was toned to the colors of the French flag. Brownlow's efforts culminated in the 2000 showing at the Royal Festival Hall. This cut was shown there again in 2004, and in Oakland five days ago.
See, that damn triptych sequence, in addition to the limited availability of any good film prints (let alone correct ones), makes Napoléon really hard to project. I'm not sure what they did to the Paramount Theater to have three 4:3 screens next to each other, but I imagine the process was incredibly expensive. I paid $40 for balcony seats, which is quite the bargain considering I got five and a half hours of movie and a live orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. (At the very least it was Carl Davis's score; I'm not sure if he was there. I think he was.) The vast majority of the audience stayed for the entire thing, but the couple on either side of me and my mother left before part four started. They missed the best parts! Idiots.
But yeah, the movie. Needless to say, it was awesome. It starts off with his childhood where we find out that even at a young age he was quite the leader. The film's first scene is him commanding a battalion of school boys against other school boys in a snowball fight to the death. This sequence is pretty awesome because the snow setting is well filmed and there are a lot of interesting close-ups of Napoleon. Upon winning the battle, one of the monk-professor-things (this is a military school) tells Nap-eye-ony he will go far. His pet eagle then becomes a big part of the film when a boy lets it fly out the window. Napoleon proceeds to attempt to beat the shit out of everyone because no one admits to releasing the bird. But ultimately, it comes back. Although I'm sure it's up for debate, the eagle probably represents his unwavering heritage as French-Corsican.
Then the French Revolution breaks out and shit gets crazy. I'm talking coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs. I'm talking 'bout DuckTales, a-wooo-oooo. Napoleon's like, "Fuck you, I ain't letting that Paoli fucker give Corsica to the British." And Paoli's like, "Uh, yeah I am." There are three leaders on Paoli's side, referred to as the three devils of the something or other? I don't remember exactly. Anyway, they declare Napoleon a douchebag and a national threat. After a lot of political back-and-forth, Napoleon steals a French flag, says, "It is too great for you!" and rides off on his horse - all while being pursued by jerks with pistols - until he reaches the sea and escapes on a dinghy. I'm going to let you read that sentence again. He jacks a flag, runs away from men with guns via a horse, and sails away on a boat that's not much bigger than your dining table. He gets lost at sea and caught in a storm. The storm actually felt really realistic. It felt like the main actor drowned at some point and some other guy who looked just like him had to be used. Napoleon eventually gets discovered by a French ship. He gets revived so he can go about the rest of the movie. And that's just act one. I'm not sure when it was exactly, maybe during the chase, but at one point Gance decided it was a good idea to have a camera on horseback. dfahegheruhg
During the twenty minute break between act one and act two, I convened with one of my friends who was late. While I talked to him, the projectionist rolled a reel from point A to point B. I'm not sure if it was an act one reel or act two reel, but it was cool to see it up close and personal.
Act two starts with a friggin' stabbing. This movie's crazy. Most of act two, though, is composed of a lot of battle footage that's pretty intense. Most of it, if not all of it, was filmed in the rain so the chaotic nature is emphasized by that alone. It is further emphasized by a lot of quick cuts and cross-cutting between various battles and Napoleon being all contemplative in strategy mode. The eagle makes another appearance around the time Napoleon gets promoted to brigadier general, not quite filling in for General Carteaux who was declared incompetent but close enough. On Carteaux via Wikipedia: "He is notable chiefly for being the young Napoleon Bonaparte's incompetent commander at the siege of Toulon in 1793." Yeah. In his only scene, Carteaux laughs off one of Napoleon's battle plans until an enemy's artillery shell lands right in front of him, breaking the table that he was schmoozing on. He then dismisses himself. Napoleon stays to study the area's map. At this time, Violine is introduced as Napoleon's secret admirer. Her role will become more important in act three. Also at some point in act two is a series of shots seen from the point-of-view of a trapeze artist. There were no trapeze artist to be found; Gance just thought it'd be cool to include those shots. kaghargfrhaerohfuerwgg
During the dinner break, I went to Ike's Lair and got an overpriced sandwich. I almost left my ticket at the cash register. Thankfully, no one took it, else I wouldn't have been let back into the theater.
If there's a weak segment in Napoléon, it's act three. I don't know if it's weak, though. It's just... different. By different, I mean it turns into a fucking comedy, funnier than your funny best friend. So tonally it's a definite shift, but it's not bad filmmaking. It's just so odd. I mean, there's a scene where two clerks eat dossiers so that imprisoned folk (including Napoleon) are released. Even the film's intertitles are sarcastic about that, claiming that one of them was gifted with the ability to ingest paper. So odd. Act three also features the development of the love story. One of the prisoners is this bitch Josephine, there essentially because she's too sexy. Eventually she and our fearless leader meet and hit it off and probably have sexy time. Meanwhile, Violine still pines after Napoleon and is sad she can't have him. By the way, Napoleon and Josephine meet at a ball. At the ball, I guess the guests got a little too sippy-sippy and let it all hang out. By let it all hang out, I mean there let their boobies and asses hang out. Seriously, Gance turns into a pervy wanker for, like, a full minute. Act three's just... agheurhbgwuefegEWgwfwguergffw
I stayed in my seat for the final intermission. This is when I found out that there's an Angry Birds that takes place in space. Good lord.
Anyway, act four is easily the most awesome part of the film. Napoleon, almost out of the blue, decides he wants to take Italy. He gets married in less than forty-eight hours and then skips across the land to prepare his troops for battle. This is when the shit gets real. Oh man. Let me tell you, it was pretty cool when the entire theater clapped when Abel Gance appeared as a character in the film. It was pretty cool when Napoleon wanted to build a canal to Suez and the theater laughed like madmen when his suggestion was dismissed. But the coolest moment was when the theater gave a standing ovation to the curtains being drawn to reveal the triptych of screens to present the finale. And it was glorious. Leave it to a filmmaker like Gance to think, "Hmmm, one camera's just not enough." The shots of all those troops, the juxtaposition of Napoleon with the sky and the eagle, the color tinting of France's flag colors... this is epic, sirs. This is epic. The level of imagination on display in the final twenty minutes, putting aside the rest of the film, isn't quite unparalleled but man is it something special. rkgharefhuWIEGHerwjbgfiAGWEIeRUGFRAUWuerwfagufawgfgood
So yeah, Napoléon's a 5/5 if there ever was one. Some parts are pretty kooky, though... like act three! There's also a moment where an intertitle pops up and reads, "Then Napoleon went to go talk to his friend, the sea." .....what in God's green...???????? Napoléon's essentially a five and a half hour experimental film and it's really a miracle it all works and works well. It's also a miracle that I was able to see it when I did, at this particular time in my life. I hope you guys will check it out if there's ever another screening, regardless of whether or not it's near you. It's well worth it.