January 25, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Abel Gance Program

A scene from Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)

A scene from Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)

These notes accompany the Abel Gance program on January 26, 27, and 28 in Theater 3.

Over the course of film history, there have been directors who chafed at the restrictions the medium seemed to impose on itself. D. W. Griffith established a revolutionary but enduring film grammar and enjoyed enormous success, albeit tainted by its subject matter, with The Birth of a Nation (1915). This encouraged him to envision the film fugue Intolerance (1916), which was too advanced for its time, too far outside the envelope for audiences to comfortably comprehend. Griffith was wily enough to get over his bitterness and return to the kind of narrative that had worked for him before, and made most of his best films in the ensuing decade. Similarly, men like Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles started with a flourish of innovation in their mid-twenties but became somewhat tamed, although no less creative, later in their careers. Josef von Sternberg’s flame largely burned out after a decade of highly personal filmmaking, and Erich von Stroheim never quite got the hang of balancing commercial reality with his big ideas. Stanley Kubrick’s planet-shaking 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a sort of anomaly in an otherwise creditable but mixed career. Today’s “maverick” is, of course, James Cameron, whose enormous box office success with both Titanic and Avatar has made him so far immune from restraints.

Perhaps the leading exemplar of thwarted ambition is Abel Gance (1889–1981), an actor turned director who began making films in 1911. Some of his early work was in the fantastical tradition of Georges Méliès. After some two dozen films he made J’Accuse (1919), which we showed in the recent To Save and Project festival. This strange but forceful indictment of the folly that led to World War I made Gance into France’s most serious director and emboldened him to begin considering the limitations and untapped possibilities of the medium. After the prolonged shooting of La Roue (1923), Gance visited Griffith in America and then proceeded to recut his film over the course of the next year, employing Griffith’s techniques. The final film ran a reputed eight hours and anticipated the debut of Eisenstein and Soviet montage by two years. Understandably, Gance began to develop the reputation of being part genius, part madman.

A scene from Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)

A scene from Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)

His next project, Napoleon, was perhaps a peculiar subject for the ardent pacifist of J’Accuse. What survives of Gance’s masterpiece is a film that would surely make Griffith or Cameron envious. The director seems to have had unlimited resources. It is a colossal movie, embroidered with startling effects like splitting the frame into multiple facets, mobile aerial cameras not unlike those now used in television coverage of sporting events, and the famous triptych (three-screen) climax. Intended as only the first of six parts, the surviving film is a monument both to Gance’s vision and its overextension. We had hoped to show the Museum’s print of the restored Napoleon in this series, only to find that Gance’s great champion, the distinguished film historian Kevin Brownlow, is working on yet a further restoration. Having been present at the showing of Brownlow’s previous work with full orchestra at Radio City Music Hall (with Gance calling in from Paris), this is something worthy of great anticipation. (The original premiere in 1927 was held at the Paris Opera).

The two documentaries on this week’s program, by Nelly Kaplan and Brownlow, give some sense of Gance’s grandiosity and his disappointment. At the helm of Napoleon, the director was, in effect, like the general on the battlefield, and he was invoking the traditions of the great romantic artists of the 19th century. Next week, we will show the remake of J’Accuse (1937) and consider how Abel Gance fared in the sound era.

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