Monday, March 26, 2012

Once in a Lifetime

I'm going to join in the chorus of Axel Feldheim and SF Mike to tell you that yes, you really do need to go see Abel Gance's Napoleon at the Paramount in Oakland this coming weekend. What a film: a mix of history, fiction, old-style acting, new-style cinematography.  Because it's a silent film, the narrative can't be moved forward by what people say to each other; it's fascinating to watch how Gance generates narrative without dialog. The acting is broad and stagey, as is the case in most silent films. Gance himself has a role, as St. Just, and carries it off nobly.

While the camera is often fixed in place, just as often it moves, often spectacularly, such as the sequence where you see Napoleon in his carriage, signing and handing off orders to subordinates on horses. Sometimes you're inside the carriage, sometimes outside, sometimes ahead of the horses watching them gallop towards you, sometimes to the side. And I can only say "holy cow!" to the long sequences after the film opens up from one screen to three.

You also get to listen to the Oakland East Bay Symphony playing its heart out for the entire five and a half hours of film. They're really good! And of course the Paramount is an absolutely wonderful theater.

UPDATE: Patrick points out that the program says he "created" the score, which I'll buy. From the reviews, I gather Davis composed lots of connective tissue, and that "creating" is the standard nomenclature for situations such as making the score for a silent film.

Now, I am curious about how Carl Davis gets credit for "composing" the score. As far as I can tell, he "assembled" the score, from larger works written by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, and others. I heard a whole lot from the Eroica, from the Eroica's source material, the incidental music to The Creatures of Prometheus; from Beethoven's 7th and 8th symphonies (and maybe one of the earlier); from a late Haydn symphony; from Le Nozze di Figaro, and what else? Presumably Mr. Davis wrote some connecting material and did a whole lot of arranging and orchestrating. He did a fine job of conducting a long score and keeping it tracked properly with the movie. But composing? Maybe not.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

What the program actually says is that Carl Davis "created" the score -- I think that's a legitimate way to describe what he did, which required a lot of inventiveness and imaginative sympathy. It was common practice during the silent film era to incorporate already existing music (DW Griffith famously used the Ride of the Valkyries for the Klan ride at the end of Birth of a Nation), so what Davis did is certainly appropriate to the style and period of the film.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Argh, never got a copy of the program. I agree, that's totally reasonable.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I have an extra copy of the program, if you'd like it -- I always save my programs, not sure if you do.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I would like to read it! And would then return it to you. I don't keep most programs.