Second Gance

Left: Abel Gance, J’accuse, 1919, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 166 minutes. Right: Abel Gance, Napoléon, 1927, still from a black-and-white film in 70 mm, 235 minutes.

KEVIN BROWNLOW’S Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite gets its title from one account of the snowball fight in Gance’s Napoléon (1927)—so notable was the French silent-film pioneer’s ability to rally the troops, even in an era when spectacle was often measured in mobilized masses. Part profile and part compilation, the 1968 film is being presented, paired with Nelly Kaplan’s short 1963 doc Abel Gance: Hier et demain, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where his antiwar epic J’accuse (1938) will also screen. The program shows a filmmaker whose career sometimes seems stuck under the sign of rediscovery—from Brownlow’s seminal written history from 1968, The Parade’s Gone By (where Gance is the climactic figure), to Kaplan’s chronicles (which include a 1980s postmortem look), on through Flicker Alley’s reconstructive DVD editions of La Roue (1923) and J’accuse.

Brownlow’s presentation is the better known, part of his acclaimed efforts to restore Napoléon to its complete glory, as a panoramic portrait streaked with examples of Gance’s physically and optically acrobatic filmmaking (from mobile camerawork to three-screen montage). Narrated by Lindsay Anderson, Charm of Dynamite flourishes extensive clips and draws on interviews from Gance’s 1965 visit to the National Film Theatre. As critic, historian, and filmmaker, Brownlow is justly getting Oscar recognition for this and other projects. But Charm of Dynamite’s predecessor Hier et demain comes from equally intriguing hands; Kaplan, a filmmaker, journalist, and Surrealist, had been Gance’s assistant (and more) for years. Framed by slow zooming shots on the filmmaker’s enigmatically shifting expressions, Hier et demain feels like an autobiographical journal, narrated in first-person quotations and densely moving through life and cinema with well-chosen detail. The death of Gance’s wife, a visit to New York (where he met instant pioneer-soulmate D. W. Griffith), and a subsequent comedy with Max Linder make for one especially poignant pivot in a personally felt time line.

Gance bore the stamp of the early cinema showman-visionary, forever steeped in the twin rhetorics of lost and unlimited potential. “Look at the people coming out of our cinemas,” he says late in Hier et demain. “Their faces are heavy and sad. It’s rare that they are content. They have been cheated.” With J’accuse returning to the screen (not to mention a general minifestival of fellow silent luminaries at the Museum of the Moving Image, including Marcel L’Herbier’s equally ambitious L’argent, 1928), it’s as good a moment as any to evaluate what was and what might have been.

The Abel Gance program runs January 26–28 as part of “An Auteurist History of Film” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.