The greatest film experience of my life was watching Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon in 2001. It was the closing night film at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (often called the Pordenone Silent Film Festival), shown at the Udine Opera House with a full orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis, who prepared and arranged the compilation score, and it ran for a mighty 5 1/2 hours, not including three intermissions (including a dinner break).
We won’t be seeing this anytime soon on video – Francis Ford Coppola has the distribution rights in the US and stands by the version of the film he edited into a shorter presentation to be shown with a score written by his father – but this week another Gance restoration debuts on DVD. The recently restored La Roue (1923) premiered on TCM a week ago at a running time of 4 1/2 hours, not as long as its original 32 reel version that premiered in France in a special two-night event, but at 20 reels certainly the most complete version seen since, as it was edited down for distribution across France and even further for U.S. distribution.
The plot is simple: A compassionate railroad engineer, Sisif (Séverin-Mars), saves an orphaned girl from a flaming train wreck and raises her alongside his young son, only to slide into guilt and self-hatred when she grows into a young woman (played by Gabriel de Gravone) and he falls in love with her. The film, however, is a working-class melodrama with grand swathes of tragedy, intense scenes of destruction (the aftermath of a train wreck is an inferno suggested by bold silhouettes against burning orange tints), and devastating moments of loss and redemption directed with delicate grace. Shot during the course of three years on location at the train yards in Nice and in the French Alps, the film was released in 1923 and was years ahead of its time, influencing filmmakers all over the world (the rhythmic editing, building to a staccato fury, was appropriated by Sergei Eisenstein, among others).
There really is no other director like Gance. He draws upon the full range of graphic effects, from irises to dramatic masking, double exposures to composites, and unleashes his arsenal within the first few minutes. But his technical mastery is in the service of the story, and he transforms the story of La Roue into an emotional epic. He is a master conductor who plays scenes like symphonies of feelings, continuing long past the narrative point has been established to express the emotional intensity of the characters and situations, and to add moments of pure grace to the mighty drama.
The performances are as dramatic as the effects, a little too dramatic and uncontrolled, to be honest. Séverin-Mars, as Sisif, the engineer, opens the film with a wild-eyed performance, young and intense and passionate, and quickly sinks into sad-sack pathos with just as much exaggeration. Ivy Close, the British actress who plays his adopted daughter, Norma (saved from a flaming train wreck in the blast of an opening scene) overplays the childlike dottiness of a teenage girl, playing the unbridled adolescent while all the men of the train yard eye her with desire. And Gabriel de Gravone, as Sisif’s son, is the tortured artist and the doting older brother from the first scene. Griffith would have tamped these actors down, at least a degree or two. Gance waits until the second half of the film, when it becomes a chamber drama set against the drama of the French alps, to pull his actors back from the brink.
It becomes a kind of visual opera by the end, the performances calming down as the images become more magnificent.
The restoration is quite beautiful and its clarity is thrown into relief when the film resorts (for brief passages) to 9.5mm footage for otherwise lost footage. And the orchestral score by Robert Israel is lovely, often drawing only upon small sections of the orchestra for character themes and quiet movements, then drawing upon the power of the full orchestra in other scenes.
Read my review on MSN here.
Also new and notable on DVD this week is Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There:
This is a freewheeling Bob Dylan portrait in which his name is never spoken and his life and career are represented by six actors representing various personae: Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), the early folk-singer icon who burst from the coffee-house scene into the national spotlight; Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), the electric, weird, wired-on-amphetamines Dylan who riffs and fidgets through interviews; an actor (Heath Ledger) who once played Jack Rollins in a biopic; an 11-year-old hobo (Marcus Carl Franklin) who spins tales of his past; an aging cowboy (Richard Gere) in a town populated by characters from Dylan songs; and a poet () who calls himself Arthur Rimbaud. Faced with an artist defined more by his lyrics than his life story, Haynes delivers a song-cycle of a movie: vivid, exaggerated, contradictory impressions of a man who confounds a culture looking to peg him with a definition.
New TV on DVD this week is Crossing Jordan: Season One:
Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessy) is a coroner with authority issues, which has caused her to bounce around from job to job. As “Crossing Jordan” opens (with Cavanaugh in an anger management class in Los Angeles), she’s offered a chance to land back in her home town of Boston and start again with her dad (Ken Howard), a cop in forced retirement, and her old colleague, Dr. Garret Macy (Miguel Ferrer), who put his own position on the line to get her hired back. Created by Tim Kring (“Heroes”), this is a forensic crime show with a sense of humor and a distinct lack of glamour. The team here isn’t nearly as talky as the “CSI” squad, they don’t have all those high-tech toys, and the cops actually get a little bent out of shape when the forensic guys muscle in on investigations. Which doesn’t stop Cavanaugh from hustling her way through red tape and sharing her opinions (not always tactfully) with the police. “I’ve got no editor in my brain,” she confesses at one point, which might explain her rather disastrous, even self-destructive, romantic life.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column.
Christophe Honoré’s comic drama about two brothers co-existing in a Paris apartment with their gentle curmudgeon of a father () is a tribute to the freewheeling energy and youth of the French New Wave. The brooding elder ( ) has come home to recover from a painful breakup, taking over the bedroom of happy-go-lucky younger ( ), a student who spends his days using his easy charm and cheerful irresponsibility to bed practically every young beauty he comes across. Garrel narrates his brother’s story in direct address to the camera (with a brief detour to acknowledge the fact that he’s talking to the camera), and then slips away to play through the streets as Honore plays with the story, bouncing between the sorrow of Duris and the impish joy of Garrel.
TV: The 4400: The Fourth Season (and, as of this writing, apparently the final season):
Corporate millionaire turned visionary guru Gordon Collier (Billy Campbell) is disseminating a drug that can give everyone a unique power (if it doesn’t kill them) and offering sanctuary for the gifted, taking on not only Homeland Security but his own protégé (Patrick Flueger). The ground between the good guys and the bad guys is still shifting, thanks to a conspiracy from the future and the messianic zeal of Collier, encouraged by the visions of the newly-turned Kyle (Chad Faust).
Special Releases: John Waters’ Serial Mom: Collector’s Edition and The Films of Morris Engel with Ruth Orkin, a two-disc set that pays tribute to the pioneering godparents of modern American independent filmmaking:
Rediscover the work of an early American independent husband-and-wife filmmaking team and the intimate films they shot on location in New York with the three films on this two-disc set. The Oscar-nominated(1953), the adventures of a young boy who flees to Coney Island after a cruel practical joke, is their most famous, a leisurely paced tale less concerned with story than character and the flavor of its locations. While Little Fugitive runs largely on charm, their second film (1955), the story of a little girl struggling to come to terms with her widowed mother’s new boyfriend, is more sophisticated and mature. Engel and Orkin capture the range of emotions and the complicated evolution as each member of the triangle adjusts to new situations and relationships, finding the right balance between playfulness, selfishness, anger, need and fear of change.
Weddings and Babies (1960) with Viveca Lindfors completes the collection.
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