March 27th, 2021

Vive Abel Gance!

I've been watching Abel Gance's Napoleon- all five hours of it, spread across two afternoons. It's the Lawrence of Arabia of the silent era- and then some; an intelligent historical epic that pushed the art of cinema as far as it would go- and, barring sound, colour and stereoscopy- as far as it would ever go. Gance did split screen, he did superimposition, he put his camera on pendulums, on galloping horses- in all sorts of places it wasn't used to being- and at the climax of the action- as Napoleon addresses his army on the eve of leading it into Italy- invented cinemascope by having three cameras running side by side in synch. This last is a classic case of artistic vision outrunning the available technology, because the resulting widescreen image could only be shown using three screens and three projectors- which meant the film was hardly seen- except in mutilated versions- and was kicked to the side of the path and largely forgotten. It still causes problems. In most contemporary prints and digitized versions the image goes letterbox instead of tripling in size- and the original coup de cinema can only be imagined- (but I did what I could to recapture it by moving my armchair up close to the screen.) I think I must have been French in a previous life (perhaps several) because my heart soars at numerous French things- and specifically here when the Marseillaise is sung in the Convention and the image of Marianne waving her sword is superimposed on the roaring assembly- and again when the ghost of St Just (played by Gance himself) speaks of taking the revolution out into Europe- and finally at the very end when Gance's widescreen triptych- three images of marching soldiers placed side by side- turns blue, white and red.