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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Silent Classic Napoleon on the Big Screen

Although the actual festival doesn’t take place until mid July at the city’s Castro Theatre, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is hosting a special four day event over two weekends at the Art Deco Paramount Theatre in honor of the restoration of director Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece, Napoleon. The film's run at the Paramount in Oakland, California begins the weekend of March 24 & 25, and will screen again the following weekend of March 31 and April 1. If ever there was a once in a lifetime event this is it. Don’t miss out on what is certainly to be the rarest film event of the year, if not the decade.

In case you didn’t know it, this is a big deal. Why? Because Gance’s Napoleon is considered by film aficionados as the Holy Grail of silent cinema. This is due in large part to its extraordinary use of multiple film innovations in what was still the very early days of cinema. After all, it was only 1927 and Gance was experimenting with widescreen (a device that wouldn’t be fully developed until 1953), handheld cameras (not regularly used until the 1970s) and used color almost a decade before the first full color film, Becky Sharp. To top it off the film’s final twenty-minutes uses multiple-image montages projected simultaneously on three separate side by side screens. And then there’s the film’s extreme length of nearly six hours. Because of age, damage and lost reels, the duration has varied over the years, falling far short of Gance’s original vision. Until now.

Fortunately, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is finally presenting renown film preservationist, and Academy Award recipient Brownlow’s complete five and a half (that’s right 5 and 1/2) hour restoration. In addition, the film will be accompanied by the American premiere of a score by composer Carl Davis, who is well known for creating music to accompany many silent films. Brownlow himself will be on hand to introduce the result of his hard labor, and Davis will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony in a performance of his original score.

It all sounds like a modern art installation in celebration of the silver screen. And in a way that’s exactly what it is, because the exclusive engagement of the famed film (all 17 reels of it!) required the building of a special projection booth and the construction of a mammoth screen. Due to the subsequent expense and obvious technical challenges, not to mention the complicated rights issues, no other screenings are planned any where else in the US. That’s why this monumental event is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions and BFI. It’s amazing the camaraderie that results when fine cinema is on the line.

More info about this very special event, as well as remaining ticket availability, can be found by going to www.silent, the society’s official website. The’s listing of Napoleon provides a complete description of the film and some interesting bits of background and trivia. I hope it inspires you to take the leap and commit to what should be a long, but fulfilling movie experience.

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