Reviews by Ken Burke Napoleon
Abel Gance’s 1927 silent (at times multi-screen) masterpiece biography of the early years of the infamous French dictator, presented here as the popular conquering hero.
21 Jump Street
Maybe I could get into this one better if I had been a fan of the original TV series but let’s just say that in this case nostalgia (and narrative interest) is a limited pleasure.
Friends with Kids
Contemporary couples complicate their lives with children and romantic missteps in a mildly amusing story that you’ve seen done by Woody Allen and Nora Ephron.
If you take a quick glace at the photo on your left you might first think that I’m way overdue in writing a review of this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Artist, assuming that this a shot of Best Actor Oscar winner Jean Dujardin and everyone’s new favorite dog, Uggie, but that’s wrong because I already posted that review here on January 4. Instead this is a portrait of French film master Abel Gance (and an unidentified pooch), the indulgent but rightfully celebrated auteur of one of the silent era’s masterpieces, the 1927 mini-biography of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. I say mini-biography ironically in regard to this maxi-film, now restored to 5 ½ hours, close to some versions of its full original length, because it deals with only a short amount of Napoleon’s life: a bit of his childhood, his early military days, his passion for the goals of the French Revolution, and his successful invasion of Italy. Gance makes ample screen events of these few years in the life of one of the great figures of history (the boys’ school snowball fight in 1783, then the early years of the revolution from 1789 to 1796) rather than exploring his later career and conquest of most of Europe because those topics were originally planned to be covered in five subsequent films, which never happened because Gance poured all of his resources into this first one, sealing his cinematic reputation but essentially ending the upward arc of his active career, although he continued making other works and restructuring versions of Napoleon for years thereafter.
Gance died in 1981 but not before seeing a substantial refurbishment of his triumph, overseen by British film historian, archivist, and preservationist Kevin Brownlow in 1979, which was then shortened into a “mere” 4 hours and toured the country with backing from Francis Ford Coppola and live music from a new score by Coppola’s father, Carmine, in 1980. Since then, though, it’s been impossible to see even this version in the U.S. (although you can buy a used VHS of it from Amazon if you have an extra $300 to invest) until now when Brownlow and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival have provided possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see as much of the original as can be located, shown in probably the closest approximation as can be imagined to the original Paris debut on a large screen with a live orchestra at Oakland, CA’s splendid art deco Paramount Theatre. The problem is that it’s only a 4-showing run—March 24-25, 31, April 1—with 2 already done so for the benefit of those who might even consider seeing this treasure after reading this review let me move on into the specifics.
After the initial sequence at the military academy (seemingly run by priests; now there’s a combination that Jon Stewart and other comic political commentators could have a field day with), where the boy general shows his “fiercely proud” skill at imperial attitude, courage, and battle maneuvers but is constantly taunted by his classmates because of his “coarse” Corsican heritage leading to an academic life of seclusion and true companionship only with his pet eagle, we jump into Napoleon’s early military career where he brings his sister back to Corsica for a visit, only to be run off the island in a daring escape (where he uses a French flag as a sail for his tiny boat) from locals who would prefer to cast their lot with the English, although Bonaparte stands up to them in a defiant manner even when outnumbered (in a manner that recalled to me Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in the equally-marvelous Unforgiven [Eastwood, 1992]). After being rescued he returns to Corsica to protect other members of his family, but then we shift into the French Revolution with its glorious ideals and over-zealous butchery of anyone suspected of being oppositional. After this backfires and brings about the deaths of former leaders Marat, Danton, and Robespierre, Napoleon has a mystical meeting with their ghosts in the empty hall of the Directory, the chamber of the new government, where he pledges to uphold their original ideals. In this portion of Gance’s cinematic biography Bonaparte then heads off to command the army which will subdue Italy and begin his long march to mastery of most of Europe. You certainly couldn’t ask for a more praiseworthy presentation of a glorified future monarch unless you don’t share Gance’s veneration of Napoleon, evident from the opening frames and rising to a massive crescendo several hours later. If this guy had taken himself any more seriously he would have had to start building his own statues when he was still in military school because he never seems to have a moment of self-doubt, only anger and frustration when others fail to share his unclouded vision.Vision is something that Gance gleefully plays with throughout this film so that even a 21st century audience can appreciate this Artist precursor (which was first released in the actual year that our most recent Best Picture Oscar winner is set), even in its black and white “silent” reality—which is never silent thanks to the magnificent score created and conducted by Carl Davis leading the talented Oakland East Bay Symphony. In keeping with traditions that date back to the earliest narrative silent films (such as those of George Méliès, also recently celebrated in today’s cinema in Hugo [Martin Scorsese, 2011]) Gance enhances the fundamental dimensions of the old format film image with frequent use of soft-edge irising to change the squarish shape on screen to more of an oval and changes the monochrome of the older film stock with segments dyed in the colors of red, blue, and a golden-toned sepia. But you could see colorized film stock in the early turn-of-the-20th century fantasies of Méliès or Edwin S. Porter’s more naturalistic The Great Train Robbery (1903) and irising in many of the first-decade 1900s films of D.W. Griffith. Where Gance ups the ante considerably is in creating great energy within scenes through the occasional use of: (1) a subjective camera point of view as we see the world through the eyes of a character as the camera is carried through action or mounted on horseback, (2) a frantic editing pace where each shot is mere seconds (or less) in length, intensifying the movement already inherent within each frame, (3) superimpositions of two or sometimes many more images within a single frame that gives a sense of Cubistic multi-perspective but without the constant angle-changing cutaways used by Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian master contemporary with Gance, or (4) multiple images contained in their personal frames within the larger film frame, breaking the master image up into 4 or 9 quadrants (see example three photos below) as well as a few shots that divide the image into diptych-or-triptych-type juxtapositions within the traditional 1.33:1 frame.
Building upon this last visual strategy, Gance breaks the cinematic bank—especially for 1927—with his three-screen Polyvision process in the last 20 minutes of Napoleon where footage shot with 3 cameras is projected onto 3 side-by-side screens (with the wing screens covered by black curtains not revealed until their climatic moment in the Oakland presentation) to produce either reasonably synchronized panoramic vistas as with Napoleon surveying his troops prior to the Italian campaign as seen in this photo or intentional juxtapositions of separate images to provide simultaneous montage, either with mirror-image wing shots flanking a different subject in the center or a few instances of 3 completely different shots working in combination. (This type of multi-image artistry would go on to be used in magnificent World’s Fair pavilions and business presentations, as well as the spectacular multi-screen visual ballets of Josef Svoboda’s Laterna Magika theatre in Prague, from the 1950s into the present. I was privileged to travel the world and see thousands of the gorgeous descendants of Napoleon’s finale in my role as Head Judge and/or President of the Association for Multi-Image International, 1981-1996). While we’ve become conditioned to wide-screen single projector images in movie theatres since the 1950s, there are few current opportunities today outside of business meetings and expensive but exclusive car launches to see independent images interact on a long horizontal canvas so I encourage anyone who can to seek these out at the occasional World’s Fair or the even less occasional screening of an ancestor of these multiple-image beauties in Napoleon.
This brings me to the urgency in promoting the final two screenings of this spectacular event, on Saturday, March 31 and Sunday, April 1 (no foolin’) because after this coming weekend there aren’t any more options in the foreseeable future to see Gance’s ultimate accomplishment. Kevin Brownlow (to the left in the photo on the right, along with his longtime cinematic companion) effectively devoted decades of his life to this project and has only this rare opportunity to showcase his dedication and devotion to Gange’s triumph (along with the great pleasure for the audience to hear the great Carl Davis score performed with excellent gusto by wonderful musicians who never miss a beat throughout their multi-hour marathon). The only problems you might have with taking advantage of this opportunity are: (1) location, because if you’re not in the San Francisco Bay Area then travel here on short notice might be unlikely (obviously not a limitation for well-known critic Leonard Maltin whom I saw in the lobby last Saturday), (2) time, because the screenings start at 1:30 each day but with intermissions and dinner break you won’t be done until 9:40 (and just because the dinner break is generous—almost 2 hours, with lots of quality eateries within walking distance—doesn’t mean you can afford to lose track of time; I didn’t make a reservation anywhere so with the wait for a table I literally just got back to the theatre and sat down as Part 3 began because the screening is very precise in its schedule) plus whatever time it takes you to travel to 19th and Broadway in downtown Oakland, and (3) cost, with the rear balcony seats at $40 up through front orchestra at $120, purchased either at the Paramount box office if you can travel to it or through Ticketmaster with additional processing fee (and if you plan on doing Will Call for the tickets be sure to bring the credit card you bought them with because you have to put it into a machine that prints out your entry passes; hold on to those tickets because you’ll need to show them to re-enter after dinner).One alternative would have been to attend a more affordable lecture by Brownlow at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive at 7pm on Friday night, March 30, but I just found out that it’s now sold out. If by chance you already have a ticket for that event, he’s going to talk about his restoration process and show clips from the film accompanied by pianist extraordinaire Judy Rosenberg, who frequently provides music for silent film screenings in the SF Bay Area. Otherwise, you’re back to viewing the real film either now or at some other performance somewhere some other day, or there's the hope that this marvelous restoration will be available on DVD in the future although to get the proper impact of the triptych at the conclusion you’ll have to give up a lot of video screen display for the several previous hours of old format 4x3 ratio (like the analogue TV set that you likely replaced a few years ago). Bottom line: attend the film screening this weekend if you can. (If you can’t and still want a similar bombastic spectacle I guess you can pay about as much as you would for a balcony seat and watch WWE’s annual Wrestlemania and decide for yourself whether John Cena or The Rock [Dwayne Johnson in his movie credits] is more Napoleonic; that extravaganza starts at 4pm on Sunday if you’re interested so check your local pay-per-view options and pick up a keg or two of beer.)
As much as I’m praising this unique performance of Napoleon, though, I have to admit that as a film which you might see someday on DVD I can’t agree with Brownlow that it may be the greatest one ever made; it’s grandiose but not fully as grand as it might be, even in Gance's conception. Certainly it’s one of the longest and most spectacular of all films, but there are sections of it—about an hour’s worth, especially Napoleon’s siege of the French port of Toulon to reclaim it from English interlopers trying to take advantage of a country in disarray after its revolution, and the events leading up to Napoleon’s marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais—that are there, in my opinion, more to present a complete restoration than to provide the best edited narrative of the events being depicted, especially when compared to the magnificent passion created by the scenes of the early days of the Revolution, the chaos that ensues during the Reign of Terror, the visit to Napoleon in the empty government chamber by the ghosts of the executed revolutionary leaders (including Gance himself playing the fierce guillotine-happy Louis Saint-Just), and the swelling final multi-image moments of the Italian campaign, when shots of the screaming eagle reappear to hasten the finale. Further, given the inspiration that Gance had in making this film from other monumental, multi-hour precedents (especially Griffith’s Intolerance —also with lots of tinted footage, active editing among its four historically-distinct stories [but no superimpositions or multi-image work; Gance truly is the master of this approach], and immense full-scale stagings [including Griffith’s reconstruction of the grand palaces of Babylon]—and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis  with its full-scale mammoth depictions of underground workers in a dystopian futuristic sci-fi setting that’s even grimmer than the social structure of The Hunger Games [Gary Ross—review will be posted next week]) and the frantic montage inspiration from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, I just can’t put Napoleon in my all-time Top 10 (below) because, despite its innovations and impact when seen as intended thanks to Brownlow and Davis, I just think it had too many almost-immediate direct antecedents compared to the others that I still—arguably, I admit—feel exceed it, if only by a small amount. (And I’d love to see Intolerance, Potemkin, and The Passion of Joan of Arc presented in such a grand-theatrical-live-orchestral environment [or Metropolis for that matter—even though all of them have excellent DVD versions, but if given the Napoleon-ic treatment I think I’d continue to rate them higher than Gance’s tour-de-force, as I note here with my 1 to 10:
My all-time #1 is Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941]; followed by Persona [Ingmar Bergman, 1966]; Rules of the Game [Jean Renoir, 1939]; Intolerance [D.W. Griffith, 1916]; Battleship Potemkin [Sergei Eisenstein, 1925]; Blow-Up [Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966]; The Bicycle Thief [Vittorio De Sica, 1948]; 2001 [Stanley Kubrick, 1968]; City Lights [Charlie Chaplin, 1931]; and The Passion of Joan of Arc [Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928], each chosen in regard to what it achieved when it was produced with the technology and influences available at those times.)
I have no trouble giving this rendition of Napoleon my rare 5-star rating, a designation that it deserves because the film is truly a singular classic and a treasure that has been happily restored to our contemporary awareness through the invaluable work of Brownlow, but for me it occupies a high place in cinematic heaven but just not in the uppermost regions of the pantheon. Dispute that as you like, but even with my minor reservations I still say that if you have a chance to see Napoleon in its final two days in Oakland please avail yourself of the opportunity because the experience is well worth your time and effort despite the seemingly-offputting age of the film; you'll likely be amazed at what a sense of contemporary cinematic attitudes it has in many of its parts.
In addition to the first poster I used from Friends with Kids (that one to show the large, recognizable cast, including new-but-not-quite right lovers for Jason—Mary Jane [Megan Fox]—and Julie—Kurt [Edward Burns]), I’ll finish with this one which says that at least in this crowd it seems that you have to pick no more than 2 options from love, happiness, and kids. By the end of the movie most of our characters have found a way to check all 3 boxes, although Leslie had to find a new partner to finish her form and we’ll never know if Ben was able to have it all or not. Julie and Jason confirmed what we assumed all along, that close friendship will eventually lead to romance (as was the previous case with Harry and Sally, but not with either of Woody Allen’s characters as his films probed depths of both relationships and storytelling that neither of these descendents are able to match), which this genre will tell us is necessary for social maintenance as long as the “right” couples (the ones we see together in one form or another the most on screen, rather than Allen’s Alvie and Isaac who wander off with others too long, later regretting their actions and trying to fix the past—Alvie’s play with a new, happier ending; Isaac’s attempt to convince Tracy [Mariel Hemingway] that she should overlook their 2-decades+ age difference and give it another try) find each other after rejecting other futile distractions. Throughout Friends with Kids Julie and Jason play this “which one?” game about death scenarios (a game that doesn’t resonate with otherwise-dreamboat Kurt, just as Alvie’s funny problems with live lobsters on a date with Annie are relived in an unsatisfying manner with another woman [demonstrating her unsuitability for him] in Annie Hall; I’m afraid the comparisons could go on all night), with the choices forcing each of them to reveal core values (or fears). If my choices were to watch Westfeldt’s movie again or rewatch some of my Woody Allen collection, I’d have to go with the latter. I gave this one 3 stars because the writing is very engaging and the large cast is handled well so that it’s a delight watching all of these talented people be put through the wringer and still come out sympathetic (even Hamm’s Ben, with the understanding that he’s the one most damaged by his own actions and most in need of redirection), but, as I’ll explore with The Hunger Games next week, when something is as derivative as Friends with Kids I just can’t get fully on board with it, even as much as I’d like to.
If you’d like to know more about Napoleon here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMlnRP3qOYE (interview with Napoleon restorer Kevin Brownlow)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yn_FoNvC-Ec (composer Carl Davis discusses his new score for Napoleon; you can also look up Part 2 of this interview if you like)
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/napoleon1927/ (reviews from various dates referring to various releases and versions of this film)
If you’d like to know more about 21 Jump Street here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsquyM_QCKg (trailer intercut with interviews with Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, and others)
If you’d like to know more about Friends with Kids here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFYcTEYc6js (interview with director-writer-star Jennifer Westfeldt and John Hamm, producer, star, and off-screen partner with Westfeldt)
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