34. Napoléon

Napoleon
April 7, 1927
Gaumont
Directed by Abel Gance

No, that’s not a picture of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. Let me explain.

This movie, running five hours long, relying heavily on French patriotism, and playing loose with history, was not easy to watch. Even without considering the triple-screen climax, Napoleon is not a movie that translates well to video. But just after the intermission, there is a fascinating moment of enunciation worth discussing.

The term “enunciation” refers to the moment in a narrative when the author of the work steps in and makes his presence known. This can be either through a stylistic device, signifying mark, or in a film, by the literal presence of the director on the screen.

Sometimes the enunciating act will simply remind the viewer that the film is not simply the product of her own dreaming libido,  but is actually a product of someone else’s imagination. Another effect can be to privilege one particular point of view within the story by identifying it with the point of view of the author.

Now remember that by “author”, I do not necessarily mean the literal person of the usually male director, who is in this case Abel Gance. A director himself has limited control over a million-dollar film-making enterprise, but neverless the concept of “author” is constructed for the viewer. This “author” is understood in the moment of enunciation when the idea is put into the viewer’s mind that she is watching a tale told by a distinct voice, by a creator who acts like a character both in and outside his own movie.

In this film, director Abel Gance takes the form of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who is the youngest, most radical revolutionary in France. He originally fancied himself an author, but after his first book failed to have any literary impact, he decided to be the author of a nation instead. Now at the beginning of the second half of the movie, Maximilien Robespierre has taken control of the Committee of Public Safety and with that, the entire Republic. He accomplished this by executing the rival Hebertists, and Saint-Just has played the role of executioner.

We zip through the Terror and arrive at the final day before the Thermidorian Reaction: July 27, 1794. Instead of focusing on Robespierre’s last stand, which would be expected in a movie about the Revolution, we instead hear Saint-Just’s final impassioned speech, where he defends the Terror as the next necessary step in the Revolution and denounces anyone who would stand in the way of revolutionary progress.

By delivering Saint-Just’s speech, Gance makes himself the great villain who has thrown the Revolution into a chaos. Napoleon will need to swoop in and restore order without losing what has been gained by removing the monarch and creating a Republic. He enters his narrative to personally set up his main character with a conflict to solve.

But Gance’s speech is also directed to the viewer, for Gance is himself an artistic Saint-Just. For him cinema is the revolution of art which promises to change the way people saw, felt, and lived. As in 1794, the Revolution had only gotten started but was already facing  ruin. In early 1927 the Age of Sound was making its inexorable march toward the border. Gance gave his epic Napoleon everything he had, as he watched his ability to fulfill the promise of artistic genius sliced by the guillotine of commerce. In his Thermidor speech, he makes his defense of the Revolution directly to his audience, knowing it is his final chance. Because though Gance would continue to make movies for forty more years, and even complete one more segment of the Napoleon story, 1959’s Austerlitz, none of these movies would make good on the avant-garde promise of La Roue or Napoléon. The vision would remain unfulfilled, because the Revolution was over.

 

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22. The Navigator

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October 13, 1924
Metro-Goldwyn
Directed by Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp

Having proved himself in the mountains, against the waterfall, as well as in the relations of society, and even within his own psyche, the Navigator strands Keaton in the sea. That immortal adversary of man. But now he is set with a woman, who this time plays an actual partner. In Sherlock, Jr., the woman may have solved the mystery and closed the narrative, but in this movie she is right there at his side in the struggle, as the Kid was for Chaplin. And it’s a perfect parody of the explicitly socialist Kid, because this time it’s two rich individuals, male and female, who find themselves with a ship equipped with provisions meant to provide for the many. In a reverse fish-and-loaves scenario, the two individuals must somehow find a way to make use of the the food and shelter of the masses. How will they do it? Turns out it’s comically easy. When you’re rich, things fall into place for you. The deus ex machina is your lived experience.

The ship itself, the USAT Buford, has an interesting history. It was used for transport during the Spanish-American War and the Great War, and then after that it was used during the Red Scare to deport anarchists, communists, and other subversives. Among these esteemed passengers was American citizen Emma Goldman, who was handed over to the Soviet Union in 1920. She immediately began agitating there, fleeing west after the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921, publishing her story under the title “My Disillusionment in Russia.” Fred Gabourie, Keaton’s technical director, meaning he helped cinematically realize Keaton’s gags and stunts, was offered the ship for $2500, a deal he immediately took, and the entire movie was then built around this singular prop.

It’s not as immediately hilarious as the previous two features, but the gags are still fantastic, and one deserves special attention. The first night after our hero and the woman have boarded the ship and found themselves alone with each other, drifting aimless and clueless through the sea, they set off to their cabins for the night. After donning sailor uniforms as pajamas, the woman discovers that she shares her cabin with a frightening portrait of the captain that interferes with her ability to sleep. The only thing to do is throw it overboard, where it gets caught and dangles in front of Buster’s porthole. The portrait swings into and out of view and casts a menacing aspect through the dark at Keaton. The captain in the portrait is none other than Donald Crisp, who played Battlin’ Burrows in Broken Blossoms and is co-director of this film. It’s a marvelous moment of enunciation, where the co-director literally invades the space between Keaton and the woman he desires, frightens both of them, and provokes them into a higher pitch of comic tension.