American auds can finally see a next-best reconstruction of pic

Some films live only in the imagination, never to be seen onscreen. Erich von Stroheim’s 10-hour version of “Greed” marks the most notorious example, closely followed by Abel Gance’s 42-reel director’s cut of “Napoleon,” which the French silent maestro Abel Gance unveiled at Paris’ Apollo theater in May 1927.

Now, through a twist many thought impossible, American audiences can finally see a next-best reconstruction of Gance’s elusive achievement, courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. This month, the Bay Area org is hosting four screenings of Kevin Brownlow’s 332-minute restoration, with Carl Davis conducting his original score (never before heard in the U.S.), across eight hours — and three screens — at Oakland’s historic Paramount Theater.

Two more shows remain this weekend, after which this version (Brownlow’s personal, color-toned print) will probably never be seen again in the U.S. The sheer expense and logistics of the endeavor explain why no American institution has previously hosted the film. There aren’t many theaters large enough to accommodate three side-by-side screens, a 48-piece orchestra and an audience of the scale that would make it worthwhile, nor many orgs adventurous enough to foot the bill — which SFSFF head Stacey Wisnia estimates at $720,000.

As “The Artist’s” admirers know all too well, the masters of silent cinema suffered a crushing blow after talkies took over in 1927, forcing an adapt-or-perish mentality among those who hoped to continue working into the sound era. In the case of Gance’s “Napoleon,” the director cut the film himself several more times over subsequent decades, adding sound and inferior new footage, while eliminating entire sections of his epic, including its spectacular three-screen finale. Like an antediluvian George Lucas, Gance bastardized his own masterpiece so often over the years that no definitive “version integrale” exists.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about “Napoleon,” but I will never forget the exhilarating experience of finally being able to see it last weekend, perched in the front row of the Paramount balcony overlooking both the film and Davis’ orchestra during its Friday-afternoon dress rehearsal. Without question, this ranks as the most extravagant moviegoing experience of my life. It’s certainly the most I’ve ever spent to see a single film, making the pilgrimage from Los Angeles to San Francisco to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Given the fleeting nature of this experience, I returned the next night to see it again. This time, I was surrounded by 3,000 like-minded cinephiles who were so transfixed by “Napoleon” that their collective applause and laughter (for the film is surprisingly comical, especially in the courtship of Napoleon and Josephine) carried through to the end. Brownlow, recipient of a 2010 Governors Award from the Academy for his efforts in introducing lost directors and films to new generations, was on hand, giddy as a parent on opening night of his child’s first school play.

Of course, there have been numerous other opportunites to see “Napoleon” over the years, though none as complete as the version now showing in Oakland (which has shown publicly only twice before, both times in London). In 1979, Gance himself attended a screening at the Telluride Film Festival, watching the film from the window of his hotel room across the courtyard from the open-air cinema that now bears his name. Then, in 1981, Francis Ford Coppola made it a personal crusade to introduce the film to American auds, debuting a shorter, four-hour cut at Radio City Music Hall featuring a score written and conducted by his father, Carmine Coppola, who had met Gance in the ’70s to discuss the project.

Because Coppola holds world rights to “Napoleon” (along with the Film Preserve’s Robert Harris), it is this four-hour version that most have seen over the past three decades, most recently screening a few years back for 9,000 people outside the Colosseum in Rome. But few have heard Davis’ score, which was commissioned for British television in 1980 and later expanded after Brownlow uncovered more material in 2000.

According to Coppola’s archivist James Mockoski, “What’s exciting about Brownlow’s version is that it hadn’t been seen in the U.S.” But even this magnificent restoration is by no means definitive, he points out, but instead represents the best that Brownlow could manage according to the material available in 2000. “Things open up, and things spill out of the archive.”

Mockoski can’t comment on the particulars of their find, but says the Cinematheque Francaise (which still holds the French rights, courtesy of Claude Lelouche) has unearthed more material, and a multi-national effort is already under way between Coppola’s Zoetrope and partners in France and the U.K. to expand the film.

“No one’s really seen ‘Napoleon’ since it debuted in Paris in 1927, and we are hoping with our work and the great researchers in Paris that we now have the ability to give you the Apollo version,” he says.

Though Harris has already completed a 4K digital scan of Brownlow’s print, the next restoration could be many years — and countless dollars — down the road. In the meantime, the SFSFF offers U.S. auds a rare opportunity to witness Gance’s genius.

Whatever interest “The Artist” rekindled in silent filmmaking, the thing it failed to convey was how, in 1927, the art form had reached a peak still unsurpassed by sound cinema. To watch “Napoleon” is to rediscover where cinema might have gone had directors continued to experiment with the sort of techniques innovated by Gance and such contemporaries as F.W. Murnau (“Sunrise”), Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”) and King Vidor (“The Crowd”). Quick cuts, moving cameras, superimpositions and split screens became difficult in the early days of synchronized sound, but they keep the work of these visionaries feeling avant-garde today.

In the opening scene of “Napoleon,” Gance gives insight into his hero’s potential by staging a boarding-school snowball fight that introduces double-, triple- and even quadruple-exposure tricks, climaxing in a flurry of one-frame cuts that show the young Bonaparte triumphantly overseeing an underdog victory — an expression that recurs in the final triptych some five hours later, as the now-adult Napoleon looks down on his outmatched troops succeeding in Italy.

Over the span of five and half hours, “Napoleon” reveals itself as a versatile and ever-changing experience, maneuvering from one genre to another. At one point, Gance defies the presumed limitations of silent cinema by orchestrating a key scene around a around a piece of music, as Danton unveils the new French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” to an ecstatic room full of revolutionaries (at the Paris screenings, Gance actually had its star Alexandre Koubitzky sing the anthem in person while the film projected images of Jesus’ crucifixion and Lady Liberty over his counterpart onscreen). Later, he spins a captivating two-hour melodrama around Bonaparte’s courtship of Josephine — both condemned as traitors under the new government — that could stand as a feature unto itself.

Although the long running time suggests a comprehensive overview of Napoleon’s career, the film ends with one of Napoleon’s early military victories. As if Gance’s undertaking were not already ambitious enough, he actually intended the film to serve as the first installment in an eventual six-part series which would have carried the story through to his defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile.

To contemporary eyes, the film hardly feels incomplete. If the current craze of superhero movies has taught us nothing else, it’s that origin stories are often compelling in their own right, and “Napoleon” lays the foundation for one of history’s most epic personalities.

When the curtains parted to reveal the film’s three-screen finale, the Oakland aud burst into applause (Gance’s original widescreen format, dubbed Polyvision, was a precursor to Cinerama, alternating between complementary visuals and virtually seamless panoramas). There, staring out from a central panel flanked by screens tinted blue and red to suggest the French tricolor, was Napoleon — not only larger than life, but larger than cinema itself could accommodate — resurrected for this rarest of screenings.

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