If you have been feeling ambivalent about attending the five-and-a-half-hour version of Abel Gance's 1927 silent film Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, here is the news.
Buy a ticket now (click here) for today's performance at 1:30 PM or one one of the showings next weekend on March 31st and April 1st. For a number of reasons, and particularly because of a fight over performing versions, this may be your only chance in this lifetime to see this historic film shown so perfectly.
The tickets are expensive, ranging from $40 to $120, and for once they are worth every penny.
The 3,476-seat theater is "one of the finest remaining examples of Art Deco design in the United States. Designed by renowned San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger and completed in late 1931, it was one of the first Depression-era buildings to incorporate and integrate the work of numerous creative artists into its architecture and is particularly noteworthy for its successful orchestration of the various artistic disciplines into an original and harmonious whole."
The restoration of Abel Gance's hero-worshiping 1927 epic about the young Napoleon Bonaparte has been the lifework of British film historian Kevin Brownlow, starting in his teens (he's now 73). In the early 1980s, he collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola in distributing the film in a roadshow version with a live orchestra playing a score conducted and composed by Coppola's father, Carmine.
Film blogger Allan Fish at "Wonders in the Dark" (click here) describes the history:
"Brownlow was nearing the end of his journey, and doubtless thought he was on to a good thing when enlisting the help of Francis Ford Coppola in promoting his baby to a generation of film fans who were to be blown away by the film. Two versions were prepared; one running just under four hours and speeded up from 20 to 24 fps, would be isued in the US and have a score by Coppola’s dad, Carmine. The other, proper version, running five hours, would be accompanied by a score by Carl Davis, incorporating not only portions of Arthur Honegger’s original score, but snippets of Mozart’s 25th Symphony, Beethoven’s 7th and numerous other classical mainstays. The film was a hit around the world in the early eighties, and Gance himself lived long enough to see his baby reborn again."
"In 2000, following further footage findings courtesy of the Cinématheque Française, Brownlow again showed a new restoration, now running 5½ hours and with the added footage restored and given a new added score by Davis. Coppola threatened to sue...
So where does that leave Napoleon? In the worst kind of cinematic limbo. As long as there are Coppolas on the earth, it will never be released. I often think what Martin Scorsese would think of his friend Coppola committing an act that goes against everything he himself feels about film restoration and preservataion. Come on Marty, if anyone can persuade Francis that he’s being a fascist – Kevin Brownlow even said at the last public showing his actions were worthy of Joseph Goebbels, though I think perhaps Il Duce might be more apt."
The rumor from one Hollywood insider we met in the lobby was that these were the only performances of this version that were going to be allowed in the world, period, until Coppola changes his mind. I don't know how true that rumor might be, but it's certainly a possibility.
The 50-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony is being conducted by the composer of this version's score, the 75-year-old Carl Davis above, who has had a long career in music for film and television, with his most impressive work being new scores for restored silent films that were meant to be shown with a live orchestra. The five-and-a-half hours plus of music in Napoleon is mostly variations on themes from Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, with additional Beethoven and Mozart flitting in between fantasias on La Marseillaise. The endurance test performance by the Oakland East Bay Symphony was heroic by any measurement and they received a deserved standing ovation at the end.
The movie itself, in Pauline Kael's words, "is both avant-garde and old-fashioned. In Gance's view, Nepoleon is a Man of Destiny. Before that, when he's still a boy, he's a Boy of Destiny...[in the opening snowball fight] Gance cuts from the long shots to closeups, and adds superimpositions, and then the cutting becomes fast and rhythmic, with Napoleon's face flashing by in one frame of every four, and you realize that the principal purpose of this jazzy blinking is to give you a feeling for speed and movement--and for the possibilities of the medium. Gance doesn't dawdle, he starts off with pinwheels, sparks and madness."
The showings at the Paramount all start at 1:30 PM and end close to 10PM, with a two-hour dinner break and a pair of intermissions between.
The single screen doesn't turn into three screens with three projectors until the last thirty minutes of the movie, but the effect is so startling and Beyond Cinerama that the audience was jolted viscerally. At this point, the orchestra really lets loose as The Italian Campaign Begins, the organ starts pounding, and I am still vibrating from the experience the next day.
Like I said before, get a seat, and The Ugly Bug Ball agrees.