For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, which runs from Sunday, May 13 through Friday, May 18, 2012, is dedicated to helping the National Film Preservation Foundation raise money to score and stream the recently unearthed reels of The White Shadow, a silent film from director Graham Cutts that young Alfred Hitchcock worked on as screenwriter, production designer, editor, and assistant director, for all to enjoy. The blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, and you can make your donations to that effort at the NFPF website here.
To my mind, there is no story restoration story as glorious as that of Kevin Brownlow’s personal mission to reconstruct the glories of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a masterpiece on a scale almost without comparison. He began the project as a teenager, after he sampled a taste of its grandeur in a digest version prepared for 9.5mm home movie projectors, and sixty years later it’s hard to say if he’s done.
I wrote briefly about his odyssey for Parallax View here, but for the full story, you can’t do better than his 1983 book “Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film” (out of print but still fairly easy to find; his updated 2008 edition is much more elusive), which both an illuminating memoir of film history and an often critical look at the sometimes competitive and self-defensive culture of cinematheques and film preservation in the 1950s and 1960s.
The definitive version we have today was completed in 2000. It has played only handful of times since then, due to a number of factors, not the least being the expense and technical demands of mounting a screening. According to Brownlow, it screened only four times before its American premiere in Oakland, where four shows played to rapt audiences over two weekends in March and April of 2012. That’s only eight showings of a film that has been called by some the greatest silent film every made. Whether or not you agree with that claim, the screenings I attended (I’ve seen three of the eight screenings) were an experience like no other: magnificent presentation, painstakingly exacting projection, live orchestra booming a dramatic score compiled, arranged, and conducted by Carl Davis.
Sunrise may the most perfect and poetic of silent films, or you might nominate The Docks of New York or The General or even Gance’s own La Roue as greater, richer, more profound films, but Napoleon has a scope and a sprawl and an ambition that is unmatched. The density of Gance’s ideas, the frisson of his images and experiments in cinematic expression, and the complicated perspectives on the legacy of Napoleon have a weight that is undeniable. And watching the full 5 ½ Napoleon with a live orchestra in a magnificent theater elevates the film to a cinematic experience without parallel, and that experience electrifies the storytelling and imagery.