Let's see, I can't get away with just repeating "wow" a thousand times for a blog post, can I?
Let me start by saying there are two more screenings, tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday, March 31 and April 1. Get tickets if you can. If you can't, just go there early, beat someone up in line and steal his ticket. Wait, don't do that, I'm just kidding. But it would be worth it (including the jail time.)
Okay, so I got there and I had my normal seat, front row center. Actually, slightly off-center, as the center of the Paramount is an aisle. I should've brought a folding chair and actually sat in the center, but I was just to the right instead. I was about an arms length away from Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and that was pretty amazing. The orchestra was fantastic, and I suppose decorum should prevent me from mentioning the hot bassoonist I ogled occasionally. (To be fair, my unnamed friend ogled her more, and he was there with his girlfriend)
Let's get on with the movie, shall we? It's an amazing epic, the faster 5 1/2 hours I've ever spent, which is amazing because with three intermissions and a dinner break, it was actually 8 1/4 hours. The story opens with Napoleon as a little child, at school in France. He shows budding battlefield tactical expertise and an iron will as he leads his rag-tag army of only 10 children in a victorious snowball fight against an army of 40. Still, neither the students nor the teachers really respect him. His foes he vanquished on the field of snowy battle break in and release his beloved pet eagle. I really, really want a pet eagle now. But not one I keep in a cage, one that flies free but returns to me at dramatically appropriate times!
As a grown man, he returns to his home in Corsica [Author's note: An earlier version said Sicily, which is because I'm an idiot who confuses islands...also, I'm perpetually drunk] where he finds the island is torn by political forces who want to align with England, Spain, Italy, or France. Napoleon, of course, is the champion of the French cause. He barely escapes the turmoil in Corsica, and joins the French army in the artillery. And then let me not get bogged down in details of the plot. We see his struggles and triumphs during the Revolution. The director Abel Gance appears as Saint-Just, the most feared figure of The Terror. Then a bunny shows up randomly. It was really weird to be sitting in the beautiful Paramount, watching such a great film, and then reflexively shout-whisper, "bunny!" and have my friends (who know my little bunny obsession) stifle their giggles. If anyone else heard that and was annoyed, I'm really really sorry. I just have a thing about bunnies.
Anyway, we see Napoleon almost sent to the guillotine (same for Josephine.) We see him go from that to becoming the hero of France. We see his obsession for Josephine. And we see him go off and conquer Italy. And that we see in Polyvision. Two side screens open up (there's a gasp and then cheer from the audience) and we see three synchronized projectors show the final 20 minutes in an amazing, awesome technical achievement that pre-dates Cinerama by a quarter century. And then, just to crown everything perfectly, his eagle returns once more! The end.
Oh yeah, it ends with his victory in Italy, none of the rest of his life. Nothing more of Josephine. No Elba. No Waterloo. Dammit, I want a sequel, this 5 1/2 hour movie wasn't long enough!
As a side note, I know a lot of people who say they'll wait and see it when it comes to Los Angeles or New York or...wherever else they are. I'd never say never, but I think I have about as much of a chance of seeing zombie Abel Gance direct a sequel to Napoleon as you have of seeing this somewhere else. I know it's last-minute, but just get a ticket, fly the red-eye into OAK, and go see it. You won't regret it.
So that's the story, and I haven't even talked about the technical brilliance of the film, other than Polyvision and some hints about the recurring eagle. Well, here goes. Abel Gance's use of multiple exposures was masterful--all throughout the movie but particularly when the ghosts in parliament appear to Napoleon and plead with him to be the hero of France. Same with his rapid editing and early use of handheld cameras. Napoleon is cast perfectly, both as a child (Vladimir Roudenko) and an adult (Albert Dieudonné.) In particular, their iron-willed stares are excellent. My friends and eye ended up joking about "eagle-facing" each other during the dinner break.
Now, just a couple of hints for people who are planning to see it this weekend:
- During the 20 minute intermissions, have a plan of action. You can go to the concession stand and get a drink and/or snack. Or you can buy a souvenir (poster, larger program guide) and maybe get it signed. Or you can go to the bathroom. You won't have time to do more than one, the lines will be too long.
- Related, the concession stands to serve alcohol, and you are allowed to bring it back to your seat. So if you want to have a bit of bubbly to aid in the French-ness of the day, you can.
- During the dinner break, have reservations at a nearby restaurant already. It might be too late, and all of them are booked now. We had reservations and it still took nearly an hour and a half to get there, order, eat, pay, and return to the theater. If we had to wait 20 minutes for a table somewhere, we would've been screwed.
- Just enjoy. Don't be afraid of the long running time. Seriously, it's the quickest 5 1/2 hours of your life.
Running Time: 330 minutes (that really throws off my average minutes/movie)
My Total Minutes: 275,330