Sunday, March 25, 2012

Napoleon at The Paramount

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."

Fish continues:
"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.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Brownlow and Coppola are evidently at least talking right now. Take a loot at this Times article

Civic Center said...

thanks, Lisa, for the link. The major point Manohla Dargis makes is that we are coming to the end of the age of film, so it's sort of a double whammy, the end of silent film and film itself becoming a rare, archival object. To have a theater like the Paramount where they actually have three different projection booths at the back of the theater is just amazing, not to mention an orchestra pit for a full orchestra.

Hope you have a good time today.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I am, alas AT HOME owing to having had an upset stomach in the middle of the night. But I'm feeling well enough that I'll probably try to make Parts III & IV starting at 6:30.

Axel Feldheim said...

I'm not surprised you were at the Paramount this weekend, but I am surprised I did not run into you! I heard Kevin Brownlow speak at the SF Silent Film last year, & he talked about the dueling restorations. He did imply that a source of the conflict was Coppola's desire to have the film released only with his father's score. He also said that, because of the cost, there is only one print of this latest restoration. So it is entirely possible that this may be one of the last times to see Napoleon as a projected film.

Do we know if Patrick survived 2 screenings this weekend?

Civic Center said...

Dear Axel: Well, there were so many people on Saturday that it's not surprising we didn't run into each other, though I did run into the director of "Kung Fu Panda," not to mention Patrick Vaz in his customary close-to-front-row seat. I'm curious to see how he survived the two-days-in-a-row showing myself.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Patrick did survive, or at least he was still breathing at the end of Act III last night, and was alive enough to reply to email this morning.

I dragged myself to Acts III and IV and am terribly sorry to have missed the afternoon portions.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I only regret not having tickets for a third and fourth viewing. . . .

Civic Center said...

Dear Patrick: We are not worthy, Iron Man.

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