Saturday, March 15, 2008

Forgotten VHS #8- Abel Gance's "Napoleon"


Not only is Abel Gance’s 1927 historical epic, Napoleon, a forgotten VHS – it may very well be the most unjustly forgotten film in the history of cinema. The hallucinatory masterpiece is the pinnacle of French Impressionism and is certainly Gance’s magnum opus. Using a dazzling array of inventive visual techniques, Napoleon anticipates the work of the cinematic surrealists and the American Avant-Garde of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, all while maintaining an involving and clear narrative.

Gance’s visual innovation in Napoleon is astonishing. The writer, director, and editor combines lightning fast editing (predating Brakhage by many years), beautifully orchestrated montage sequences (yep, better than Eisenstein), jarringly effective superimpositions (at one point there
are 40 in a single shot), multiple aspect ratios (including 4:1, having three cameras shoot footage side-by-side with the intention of having the three film reels projected on three screens), split screens (by having discontinuous shots juxtaposed in the three screen format), and beautiful tinting (particularly during the film’s final scenes where the three screens are split and tinted to appear in the pattern of the French flag). In addition to these impressive aspects, the film features breathtaking camera work, including brilliant use of tracking shots, handheld shots, and once scene where the camera is attached to a swing and looms back and forth over a crowd.

Napoleon is an incredible film, but it is noticeably absent from the Sight & Sound polls and many canonical lists, even though it blows most films completely out of the water. Most appallingly, Gance’s genius film is absent in the DVD format. Hopefully, once the film is given a proper DVD treatment (please, Criterion, please!), it will be rediscovered and given its proper due. Currently, the film can be acquired on VHS for around $40 from Amazon Marketplace. It may seem pricey, but trust me, it’s worth it – unless you want to wait around for Turner Classic Movies to show it again.


by Brandon Colvin

7 comments:

Tony said...

The next time you plan on watching something so obscure and important give me a call. I may just have to drop everything.

James Hansen said...

I have a friend who go to see this on 70mm. I will kill him and steal his memories so that I can see it in that format. I've been worried about it translating to VHS very well, but it's surely worth a view on any format. A worthy addition for sure!

James Hansen said...

That was supposed to be "got to see..." This keyboard at my work is broken and frequently is weird...

Brandon Colvin said...

Tony,

You can borrow it from Dr. Hovet. I'll be returning the copy I watched to him sometime this week

Tony said...

No VCR. :(

chuck williamson said...

Damn. I need to borrow this from Teddy Ho, next time I see him.

I might even try to convert the film into DVD format -- and then, if I'm crazy enough, put it up on YouTube. I am in the process of buying a VHS/DVD recorder, and it wouldn't be a problem -- but trying to break that movie down into digestible, ten minute chunks sounds arduous.

Brandon Colvin said...

"Arduous" might be an understatement.