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Brownlow Restoration of Abel Gance’s 'Napoleon' Triumphs at Oakland’s Paramount Theater

Thompson on Hollywood By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood March 26, 2012 at 7:02PM

If at all possible, you should get yourself over to the Paramount Theater in Oakland next weekend (March 31 and April 1) for the final two performances of Kevin Brownlow’s 5½ hour restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 "Napoleon," accompanied by Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the performance of his score.
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As soon as the movie started, however, all was forgotten and forgiven. The film began sans intros; perhaps the over-eight-hour schedule (incorporating several twenty-minute intermissions, even at that length inadequate for getting everybody in and out of the bathrooms, and an hour-and-three-quarter dinner break) precluded such niceties. Brownlow will lecture on the restoration on Friday, March 30, at the Pacific Film Archive, with clips from the film accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano.

I hastened toward Brownlow during the first intermission, but he broke free from his acolytes and scurried away. The last time I saw him in 2007, after a PFA lecture on silent films, the perpetually boyish Brownlow was downcast and glum when he spoke of his ongoing "Napoleon" restoration, prophesying that it would never be seen by the audiences he craved. I tried to cheer him up, Pollyanna that I am, by insisting that eventually it would be. And here we were!

The magic resumed as soon as the movie started again -- although section two, largely a rain-swept and somewhat confusing battle scene, is the only one that reminded me of my friend Jonathan Benair’s quip after we emerged from the gala screening of Ronald Haver’s restoration of George Cukor’s "A Star is Born": “Great movie. Could lose twenty minutes.”

Gance is the master of superimposition (sometimes seemingly five frames at once), and innovator of the moving camera (on swings, horses, pendulums). The tinted scenes are unexpectedly moving.  Albert Diedonne in the title role is indeed god-given. Annabella, given a generous amount of screen time as a young girl ensorcelled by Napoleon, surprises me because she seems to belong to another Technicolor filmmaking era. (It turns out Gance discovered her at the age of 16.) Antonin Artaud, star of another silent, Dreyer’s "Passion of Joan of Arc," doesn’t evoke the same surprise.

During the dinner break, we’re lucky in our choice: Xolo, a taqueria (and sister restaurant to famed Temescal restaurant Dona Tomas) that first colonized the Uptown neighborhood surrounding the restored Paramount and Fox theaters. In fact, because we’re early in the ordering line, which stretches out the door in quick order, we nab a table upstairs with a rainswept view that includes the colorful neon sign on the 1928-vintage Fox Theater, restored and re-opened in 2009. We share pork and chicken tacos, guacamole, and a big bowl of delicious birria (goat stew), washed down with Mexican beer and horchata, while we discuss the genius of what we’ve seen.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Executive Director Stacey Wisnia comes in to dine with her husband and NY Film Forum programmer Mike Maggiore; she stops to receive our fervent congrats and thanks. Perhaps I read too much into her reply – “Well, we’re making a lot of people happy” – because Dargis’s March 18 NY Times article reported the cost of these four performances as $720,000. How could ticket sales (from $40 -- $120) cover costs?

I keep hoping that other presenters would step up to the plate. (Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein told a friend that prices for a similar production in NYC would “multiply…by five or ten.) Alas, this is it.

Dargis reveals that yet another restoration is being worked on. (A friend who recently saw some of the newly-discovered footage in the seemingly endless and still-not-fully-catalogued warehouses of the Cinematheque Francaise said it was astonishing.)

This article is related to: Classics, Genres, Guest Blogger, Features, Reviews, Reviews, Festivals, Festivals, San Francisco


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.