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07/30/09: Earlier this month, I read a fascinating book about the making of, and subsequent restoration of, Napoleon, a French silent film made in 1927 by Abel Gance. I saw Napoleon in 1981 or '82 at the Chicago Theater, with a full orchestra, conducted by Carmine Coppola (Francis Ford's dad) who had written a score for the restored version. I was blown away by the film, which ran for almost four hours, even even the friend I took, who had never seen a silent movie, though it seemed like much less. This book was published around that time, and was written by Kevin Brownlow, who had almost made it his life's work to get this film restored.
      The first half of the book details the making of the film. Gance used many techniques that were revolutionary at the time (many he invented himself) but have become commonplace today, like widescreen projection, extreme close-ups, hand-held cameras, and MTV-style editing. He also seemed to have pioneered going way over budget, both in money and time, and apparently made very little money for his efforts.
      The second half of the book, however, was almost more interesting to me, in which Brownlow discovers the film as a youngster by way of a severely edited version, then over time assembles it back from bits and pieces to wind up with the version that I saw on the big screen. He buys, begs, borrows, and at one point secretly copies different prints of what is basically the same movie to gather all the different scenes in order to recreate the film as close to the original version as he could get. In this age of home video, where we can just get pretty much any movie you want delivered from Deep Discount or Netfix, it is astounding to me that it took him years and the cooperation of film archivists in several countries just to be able to see a movie that may still not be exactly as it was when it was first released.
      Not that you can see it today. Film fans have been waiting patiently for a DVD release of this film, but as I understand it, worldwide there are three companies who claim to have the rights to it, and use the legal system to enforce their rights. Brownlow has done more reconstruction after the Coppola version and had a new score produced in 2000, but that version can't be shown in the US, supposedly because the Coppola's won't let it be seen. I have a VHS copy of the Coppola version that one of Stephie's friends recorded for me years ago off a cable channel that we did not have, but as I was reading the book I was looking on eBay for the laserdisc version that came out in the early '80s, which is the best we can get in the US without a DVD release. Imagine my surprise when I found it (reasonably priced!) at the Hillside Record Show a couple weeks ago. Now all I have to do is find four contiguous hours to watch it.
      And since I'm writing about silent movies, I should probably mention that the Silent Film Society of Chicago is running their Silent Summer festival every Friday through August 28 at the Portage Theater. I may be going tomorrow by myself, but Stephie and I are going on the 21st to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad. I saw it years ago on TV and can't wait to see it on the big screen, with live organ accompaniment. There are worse ways of spending a couple hours on a Friday night.

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