Friday, March 23, 2012

Napoléonic Canon

"It isn't every week that one has the opportunity to critique a film like Napoléon. Not every month, either... nor, alas, every year." François Truffaut wrote this in 1955 while he was still a critic and not yet a filmmaker. It was translated by Leonard Mayhew and republished in the anthology The Films In My Life in 1975. (I've taken the liberty of reverting to Truffaut's original "critique" because Mayhew's translation "criticize" doesn't quite capture the full meaning of this oft-borrowed French word.) His observation may be no less true today. I'm not the one to ask, as I've not yet seen Gance's Napoléon. Yet. I can still hardly believe that I'll soon be able to do so thanks to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which brings the film to Oakland this weekend and next. The festival is amply recording much of the preparation and press for the screenings on the organization's blog. I can't but notice that most articles on the event focus on the audacity of Gance the innovative filmmaker, of Kevin Brownlow the persistent restorationist, and of the festival itself for mounting such an elaborate and ambitious screening. It's the repetition of a pattern that goes back quite a long time; even Truffaut devotes most of his 1955 review to the incredible accounts of its creation, as if there is little or no need to remark on its aesthetic merits.

But 'elaborate' and 'ambitious' are no substitutes for 'artistic' or even 'entertaining'. I would not be so excited to see Napoléon for the sake of audacity alone. It's because I strongly suspect I will find it to be an immensely enjoyable film. There are very few films so canonized by cinephlies, filmmakers, and critics, that I have yet to see. For instance, I've seen all but only one other film listed among the top 125 of the website They Shoot Pictures Don't They list of the "1,000 Greatest Films" as determined by a tabulation of lists from a wide swathe of film professionals and influential amateurs. With mentions on more than 75 tabulated lists, Napoléon sits at #108 (just behind King Kong and L'Âge D'or, and just ahead of Hiroshima Mon Amour and The Lady Eve) on the current TSPDT list. One wonders how much higher it might be ranked if it were more widely seen.

Just last week, Nick James of the British film magazine Sight & Sound mentioned on twitter that he'd begun soliciting top-ten-of-all-time lists from 900 or more film critics from around the world, for what is probably the most influential ongoing determination of the "great film" canon. Every ten years, starting in 1952, the publication has collected and aggregated hundreds of lists from international critics (and, since 1992, filmmakers) to create the Sight & Sound Top Ten List. The first time around, Bicycle Thieves was the consensus #1 pick, but starting with the 1962 poll, Citizen Kane has been unassailable in this ranking, followed by L'Avventura, The Rules Of The Game or, most recently in the 2002 poll, Vertigo in the #2 slot. Even with the top slot static for half a century, the shifts in these top ten rankings that do occur are interesting, especially for a budding cinephile. Early in my own movie mania I made a mission of seeing every film ever ranked in the top ten of any of the decade-polls, and was exposed to wonderful films like Brief Encounter, L'Atalante, and Ugetsu Monogatari as a result. But for a more experienced film connoisseur, the real value in the Sight & Sound poll is that the magazine publishes the individual contributors' lists in full. Perusing these personal choices can be a wonderful way to learn about critics and about films one might never have otherwise heard of. To me, any title mentioned by even an unknown critic is worth considering; if someone who has seen and analyzed vast numbers of films considers an otherwise-obscure title to be one of the ten best ever made, it must have something going for it.

Napoléon has never cracked a Sight & Sound collective top ten (or even twenty) but it has been mentioned on individual lists from the very beginning. Well, it was mentioned by one critic in the 1952 poll, two years before Kevin Brownlow saw his first couple reels of Gance's epic and began his still-incomplete quest to reconstruct it in its entirety. Belgian critic Frances Bolen ranked it at #5 on his list, after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom Carriage, The Gold Rush and Nanook Of The North, and ahead of Gustav Machatý's Erotikon, Jean Painlevé's short nature film The Sea Horse, Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane and finally Claude Autant-Lara's Devil In The Flesh which, like the Gance, I have not yet seen. Not much information on Bolen is found on the English-language internet, but his French wikipedia page indicates he was born in 1908. This makes him old enough to have been able to form a critical opinion on Napoléon even if he had seen it upon its original release. Brownlow's book on the film lists 15 different versions of Napoléon of various length, shown between 1927 and 1935; some silent and some with a Gance-added soundtrack, some with the triple-projection finale and some without. One wonders which version(s) Bolen might have seen.

The versions of Napoléon available to see in the 1960s and early 1970s were by all accounts compromised, so perhaps it's no slight that no critics contributing to the 1962 & 1972 Sight & Sound polls chose to include the film in their top ten lists. By 1982, Brownlow's restoration had played several cities and Francis Ford Coppola's presentation of a somewhat shortened version of that restoration had toured to quite a few more. And Gance's film began appearing on Sight & Sound lists once more. UK-based critics Mari Kuttna and Frances Wyndham included it on their submissions, and American Susan Sontag did as well. Sontag's alphabetical list also included 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, Europa 51, High And Low, Hitler: A Film From Germany, Le Mépris (Contempt), The Rules Of The Game, Storm Over Asia, Tokyo Story, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sontag had in 1973 contributed to the New Yorker an article on playwright & poet Antonin Artaud, who had performed in several of Gance's films including Napoléon, where he played Marat. He is also well-known to cinephiles for his turn in The Passion of Joan Of Arc, which screened at Oakland's Paramount in 2010 and will return to the East bay on March 31st. Silent film diehards may want to pick another day to see Napoléon if they want to be able to compare his two best-known screen appearances back-to-back.

By 1992 the "Coppola cut" of Napoléon was available on VHS and LaserDisc. The only critic choosing it this time around was Belgrade's Goran Gocić, but this was also the year that Sight & Sound began soliciting lists from film directors for a parallel poll. Raoul Coutard, known as the cinematographer for many of both Truffaut's and Jean_luc Godard's most successful films (including Jules And Jim and Breathless) but also a director in his own right, placed Napoléon second behind The Passion of Joan of Arc, ahead of Blow-Up, The Birth Of A Nation, A Trip To The Moon, Fellini's Intervista, Jules And Jim, something called A Lost Valley (perhaps James Clavell's The Last Valley?) and Out Of Africa. Quite an eclectic list, including films from an 83-year time span, and even one the listmaker himself worked on!

In 2002 Napoléon had its strongest showing on the Sight And Sound poll thus far. The results of the first world-wide-web-era poll are archived online, so I won't bother to mention all the other selections of any of the seven respondents who cited Napoléon ten years ago; they're just a click away. But I will give more detail on the citers. Of the critics, Belgian Patrick Duynslaegher was recently made director of the Ghent Film Festival. Ramallah-born Ibrahim Fawal was involved in filming Lawrence Of Arabia (also on his list) and more recently authored a book on Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Academic Yomota Inuhiko has a very wide expertise as detailed in this interview; one of his accomplishments is translating the autobiography of silent star Louise Brooks into Japanese. And British David Robinson is well-known as biographer of Charlie Chaplin and all-around silent cinema expert.

All three of the directors who included Napoléon on their 2002 Sight & Sound ballots are also British. Lewis Gilbert made three films in the James Bond series in the 1960s and 70s, as well as the original Alfie and Educating Rita. Ronald Neame began his career as a writer, producer and cinematographer for David Lean and others, and then directed 1972's The Poseidon Adventure and two dozen other features, including 3 Criterion titles. But the best-known of the three is surely Terry Jones of Monty Python's Flying Circus, who co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam, and helmed Life of Brian and The Meaning Of Life more or less on his own. I wonder if he managed to view Napoléon before making these spoofs on historical epics (and other things), or after completing them.

What unifies these figures besides their admiration of Abel Gance's Napoléon? Probably nothing. Few top ten lists are set into stone by their makers and none should be taken too seriously even if they're fun to dissect. Susan Sontag would later submit an all-time top-10 list for publication in the Facets Video catalog, which bumped Gance's film and a few others for films by Béla Tarr, Fassbinder, etc. (Frisco Bay critic Jeffrey Anderson collects lists from Facets and elsewhere here; entries from Tom Luddy and Jay Scott are worth noting for the purposes of this post.) Does that mean her opinion of Napoléon faded? We'll probably never know. But the diverse range of experiences, aesthetics, ages, nationalities, and fellow favorite films of these individuals who all at one point decided to record their appreciation for Gance's epic for posterity, is striking. I'm sure that after its Oakland screenings Napoléon will become a new all-time favorite film for quite a few members of the audience. Will I be among them? Will any 2012 Sight & Sound Poll voters be among them? Stay tuned...


  1. Larry Chadbourne3/24/12, 10:11 AM

    Brian: I love the way you bring all
    this info together. Coutard,s choice A Lost Valley could be the obscure 1934 German "Das Verlorene
    Tal."? If you haven,t found yet,you
    and other Napoleoners might enjoy
    Bunuel,s short pan from Cahiers d,Art #3, ,27, reprinted in translation in Kyrou,s Bunuel book
    Larry Chadbourne

  2. Great comment, Larry! I went to read Buñuel's Napoléon pan, and though he doesn't say much about the film or its making, it's at least very clear what he thinks of it! I wonder about the film he recommends viewing instead. He says it's an American film, but the it's left untranslated from the French title, L'ingenue in the edition I read.