Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Re-Discovering Abel Gance

Few filmmakers can claim such innovation over such a short period of time as Abel Gance. Born to working class parents in Paris in 1889, he later shed his working class roots, marking himself as a true artist of the cinema. For many years, his filmography served only to tantalize film buffs, as so many of his titles are either lost or unavailable. Following the reconstruction of his 1927 masterpiece "Napoleon" in 1981, Gance returned to his position as one of the cinema's foremost innovators.

But what of his other films? Among his silent films, perhaps the two most well-known titles are "J'accuse", his 1919 pacifist epic, and "La Roue", a melodrama taking place in the trainyards. For many years it has been difficult to obtain copies of either of these films for viewing, and even then, only in poor prints that did not do justice to the original. Thanks to the restoration efforts of David Shepard, the films are now available on DVD in splendidly restored editions. These two films were shown on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday April 27th, 2008.

I will write separate reviews of the films as soon as I have the chance to see them.

The evening's lineup of films also included a 1968 documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow titled "The Charm of Dynamite", a fascinating look into Gance's career and the making of his films. It featured large amounts of behind-the-scenes footage taken on the set of his films, showing the elaborate camera operations that had to take place in order to achieve the distinct moving camera style that Gance perfected.

"La Roue" was a hugely innovative film in its time, causing Jean Cocteau to write "There is filmmaking before and after 'La Roue' just as there is painting before and after Picasso". It was clearly influential in its editing style, which the Soviets would borrow to develop their theories of montage. Akira Kurosawa claims he was inspired to go into filmmaking after seeing "La Roue".

Gance was a huge admirer of D.W. Griffith, and like Griffith, was an artist who was perhaps too big for the medium at that time. His ideas, the scope of his productions, practically seemed beyond the capabilities of the medium. He did, as Kevin Brownlow said, grab the infant medium by the hand and give it a breathless rush through life. It would be at least thirty years after "Napoleon" before the cinema had caught up with Gance's ideas from a purely technical standpoint.

The opportunity to see these two films is an excellent way to begin re-discovering the work of this master, and to examine more closely the films that display his genius.

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