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Experiential Art: Musical performance, live cinema, and Abel Gance’s Napoléon

Written by Paul Cuff.

Photo from the article The Presence of Music

This article is about the relationship between music and cinema, exploring the shift from live performance at the start of the twentieth century to digital broadcasting in the twenty-first. Despite the fact that all interpretation is heavily influenced by the evolving circumstances in which films are seen, the context of exhibition does not often intrude on criticism. This is especially the case in discussions of silent cinema and of the film that is at the centre of this article: Napoléon, vu par Abel Gance (1927), the perfect example of an audio-visual creation which must be understood as an experiential work of art.

Before examining its cinematic implications, I want to offer some thoughts on musical performance and how technological mediation shapes our critical perception of sound beyond the confines of the studio or auditorium. In his 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin wrote that all reproductions of art lack their original’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. Thus, photographic reproductions of objects/events lose the “aura” of traditional works of art. I would argue that this is also the difference between live and recorded music. The latter of which, though immaterial in its existence as sound, is nevertheless founded in material creation - the context of its performance. At the moment of its taking place, music exists in time and in space; once captured and reproduced, the relationship between it and the listener changes radically.

Consciously or not, we are always negotiating this issue when evaluating our experience of music. Throughout my early life, I accessed the world of classical music solely through recordings on cassette tape and on CD, with occasional forays into LPs owned by older relatives. My young mind tended to use sound quality, and therefore media, in order to determine a hierarchy of recordings. I came to learn the difference between the warm background hiss of tapes and the digital cleanliness of CDs, between the tactile crispness of analogue mono and the acoustic immateriality of digital stereo. As my collection grew, I also came to understand that live recordings tended to feature ancillary noises (from the crowd, the stage, the recording technology itself), whilst studio recordings could more completely shape and refine the sound-world for the listener. My younger self always preferred the “purer” sound of studio recordings; it seemed to me that I might better become absorbed in the music when all trace of its material origins were sidelined in favour of untainted sound. Accordingly, I never bought multiple recordings of the same work - I stuck to whatever sounded best and moved on to the next composer whose name or reputation intrigued me.

These habits and assumptions were challenged when I began collecting the operas of Richard Wagner. My starting point was Georg Solti’s famous studio account of the Ring Cycle tetralogy, recorded in stereo between 1958 and 1965. I knew this vast set was of staggering significance in the history of recorded music, but it left me strangely indifferent. I never really understood what the work was about - I couldn’t grasp its overall shape and meaning. Listening to rival recordings of the component operas (and reading endless reviews), I came to understand that many studio recordings were far less atmospheric, and musically effective, than live performances. Indeed, many conductors were famed for their inability to replicate in the studio those qualities that made their interpretations so great when heard live. The differences between the recorded legacies of my two favourite conductors, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, were not only articulated through their style of performance, but through sound quality. Furtwängler is principally known for his live recordings of the 1940s and 1950s; I always associate him with the raw directness of mono that capture his organic, spontaneous, sometimes ragged style - mellow in the depths of his strings, harsh to the point of aural disintegration for his brass and timpani. By contrast, Karajan’s studio recordings of the 1960s and 1970s are recognised for the cohesive warmth of orchestral texture and stereo sound: luxurious strings and rounded brass, soupy bass and humming treble. Listening to their respective recordings of Wagner, one becomes aware of the differences between musicians playing for a microphone and for an audience. Music is reborn each time it is performed, and a single work of art can sound infinitely different depending on the context of its recording.

Hans Knappertsbusch, whose craggy monumentalism and workmanlike disregard for detail made for some of the most thrilling live accounts of the Ring Cycle, was often stodgy in the studio. His work is best heard in the broadcast recordings of the 1950s, when he was the most regular conductor at the Wagner festival at Bayreuth. Only when I heard Knappertsbusch’s live 1951 account did I finally “get” Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Wagner’s cycle. From its opening chord, the doom-laden gravitas of this work was articulated with absolute conviction; the mono sound rendered the orchestra’s growling brass and crystalline strings with concentrated precision; the stubborn, weighty, and deliberate tempi adopted by Knappertsbusch made absolute sense: the performance possessed an internal logic and sense of scale that made for utterly compelling listening. When I revisited Solti’s studio recording, I found much of it bombastic and empty; it provided exciting extracts, but it did not possess the cohesion of theatrical integrity. The stamp of individual interpretation, the organic sense of structure and performative logic - these are what made the live account by Knappertsbusch so great.

<i>Tristan und Isolde</i>
Tristan und Isolde

The first time I experienced Wagner live on stage was at the Birmingham Symphony Hall in September 2010, where I attended a performance of Tristan und Isolde. The leads were sung by Gary Lehmann and Violeta Urmana, and the Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I had heard several acclaimed accounts on CD, from historic live versions of the 1930s to modern studio recordings, but the performance in Birmingham blew them all away. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra were exceptionally good on that night - and Salonen’s conducting was exemplary. I might say this of numerous other recordings I had heard, but the gap between the sound of these documents and the presence of this live performance was immeasurable.

The Birmingham Tristan was a partially-staged production, where a huge screen relayed a visual accompaniment designed by the artist Bill Viola. However, what struck me most about the staging of this performance was its use of the full space of the hall. At the climax of Act One, the chorus and off-stage horns performed from the uppermost level at the very back of the auditorium. Throughout this final scene, the houselights gradually rose in conjunction with the immense crescendo of music across stage, pit, and balcony. The audience was surrounded by sound, placed at the centre of the drama, bombarded with music. A massive fanfare of sound filled the dazzling space of the hall and 2,000 spectators leapt to their feet and roared with delight the instant it ceased. It was as thrilling a moment of art as I had ever experienced. The same experimentation occurred in different form later in the opera. At various times in Act Two, Isolde and Tristan interact with characters who sing from the circle tier overlooking either end of the stage. The prelude of Act Three ends with a lengthy shepherd’s tune for the English horn, and at Birmingham the soloist was again positioned somewhere above the stage among the audience (so beautiful was the acoustic effect that I couldn’t work out where exactly the instrument was placed). More than just the effect of Wagner’s remarkable score, I found the sheer sound of the music being produced by real performers incomparably moving. Sitting in the dark, I felt as never before the almost imperceptible pulse of the Act Three prelude hanging in the air, its disquieting melancholy and deep uncertainty seeking me out far above the orchestra pit and pulling me down into space. I had listened to this music dozens of times, but had never understood its true impact. Experiencing Wagner in an auditorium enabled me to feel the music, to be subject to that peculiar and irreproducible physical sensation of music reaching out and enveloping me. Equally, the hustle and bustle, the sweat and energy of musical creation was a dimension I had never grasped before; sitting above the pit and watching the actions of the performers, I now felt that this element was also essential to reaching an appreciation of the score. I remained in a state of spellbound rapture for the duration of Tristan, and was emotionally exhausted at its conclusion.

After this revelation, I felt afraid that I might never be moved by my most cherished recordings in the way that I had previously. Even the most carefully recorded live performance could never capture the presence of music as felt in the theatre, whilst studio recordings were somehow isolated from the reality of their material origins. Transcending the purely aural dimension of recorded sound, the experience of live music is also physical and spatial - if there is no “aura” for something immaterial, there is certainly “presence”. Appreciating this relationship between live and recorded performance is crucial to our understanding of the theory and practice of film exhibition in early cinema.

Musical Performance in the Silent Era

Between the late nineteenth century and the universal adoption of sound in the 1930s, live performance was standard practice in film venues. The nature of this accompaniment varied hugely, both in scale and in quality: bands and orchestras, soloists and singers, narrators and showmen. Even in those theatres that lacked any form of music, there was the presence of the audience itself - often far from passive in its involvement with the drama on screen. Any account of early cinema should consider the atmosphere of the cheap, popular theatres (known as nickelodeons) in the 1900s: from the ballyhoo in the street outside, to the clatter and whir of projection booths in confined interiors, as well as the noise of boisterous viewers.


In the 1910s, larger and more permanent theatres began to be built to accommodate the industry’s expanding infrastructure, whilst the length of films was also growing with the rise of the feature presentation. In these circumstances, increasing importance was put on providing music that could support and enhance the drama on screen (as well as trying to silence audiences to concentrate their attention on the film). Premieres became chances to show off the commercial heft and cultural importance of cinema, which still struggled to be taken as a serious art form by many commentators; producers engaged composers to arrange or compose appropriate music for films, and the resulting scores would be played by orchestras (and even choirs). For general distribution, most major towns and cities would be able to provide substantial groups of musicians to perform music in theatres, whilst some films would even tour with an orchestra to play a set score. Such was the case with D. W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance (1916), for which the director travelled across America, transforming the space of each successive theatre into an ideal audio-visual environment for audiences to experience the film. When such obsessive personal effort, or the corporate clout of studios, could not provide orchestral backing, films were nevertheless rarely left unaccompanied. Even the humblest cinema establishment sought to offer a small ensemble or soloist. There were also those individual exhibitors who travelled through rural regions with a projector and screen; they would bring to life the films they showed by narrating the action in their own dramatic fashion. All of this is not to say that the music was uniformly great, or even adequately performed (the problem of inappropriate accompaniment was a common topic of debate in the contemporary trade press), but that there was invariably a live element to cinematic exhibition - even if that element was the collective presence of an audience. In the silent era, the experience of film went beyond the frame and into the auditorium itself.

By the 1920s, the biggest cinemas could seat thousands (rather than hundreds) of people in conditions that matched even the most established of theatres or opera houses. Just as cinema was undergoing physical and commercial expansion, so the theoretical and aesthetic dimensions of film were also developing. Fin-de-siècle Paris had attracted an international circle of creative minds, and the city was a melting pot into which an incredible array of artistic ideas mingled and multiplied. A generation of artists and intellectuals born in the last decades of the nineteenth century had become obsessed by cinema at the start of the twentieth. The impulses of Romanticism and Modernism converged in the new medium, and an outpouring of visionary ideas came from the pens of luminaries like the Italian musicologist Ricciotto Canudo, French art historian Élie Faure, and Swiss author Blaise Cendrars. In France, filmmakers like Marcel L’Herbier, Jean Epstein, and Abel Gance began to realize the far-reaching possibilities of cinema. Gance in particular sought to produce work that was both artistically meaningful and commercially accessible to international audiences. Pursuing this ambition, Gance and his circle were deeply indebted to the work of Wagner. The composer’s conception of the “Art of the Future” had been “music-drama”, the creative synthesis of all the arts. In his autobiography Prisme (1930), Gance envisioned cinema as “the second stage of the Art of the Future” - the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk.

Perhaps the main reason why Wagnerian music-drama was so widely discussed in the early 1900s, and so pertinent to the theorisation of filmmaking, was its insistence on the ritualistic aspect of art. Wagner believed in the redemptive power of music to transform human conscience and human society. Opera was to provide an immersive and all-encompassing spiritual experience for audiences. Such an effect could not be achieved in existing theatres, which emphasised the glamour and luxury of the setting as much as the world on stage: seating tiers were a visible reminder of the divisions of class and wealth, whilst houselights remained up during performances for the audience members to gossip and gaze at one another. In French “grand opera”, even the coherence and continuity of the music was interrupted by the elaborate ballet sequences composers were forced to include; these provided erotic enticement for male patrons, many of whom were busy having dinner during the first act and only turned up in time to see the young female dancers in the second. Wagner reformed both the text of operatic music and the context in which it was seen, realising his ambitions in the construction of a purpose-built theatre at Bayreuth in southern Germany. The Festspielhaus was completed in 1876 and featured a radical new design: Wagner removed all boxes and galleries to provide a classless seating arrangement and consistent views, he insisted upon absolute darkness in the auditorium during the performance, and he concealed the orchestra’s pit beneath the stage. Thus, all barriers between audience and art were abolished, all aesthetic and social distractions suppressed in order to privilege the drama and enable the crowd to become totally absorbed in the world on stage. In virtually every respect, therefore, the theatre at Bayreuth is the perfect design for a cinema.

This dream of ritualistic art was picked up with unbounded enthusiasm by Gance during the 1910s and 1920s. In the wake of the Great War, the need to overcome cultural division seemed paramount to the future of mankind. Expanding the Wagnerian notion of music’s ability to express ideas otherwise incommunicable through language, Gance saw cinema as “the music of light” and capable of universal communion. As he said in 1973, light was both a literal and metaphorical agent - a living, alchemical force that endowed every frame of celluloid with “the power of a sun”. Gance saw cinema as nothing less than a religion, but a religion that was inclusive rather than exclusive. Its freedom from written text allowed cinema to transcend national, social, and political barriers and the dogmas and prejudices of traditional faiths. Cinema was not merely escapism, but a vital force for the reconfiguration of human interaction. Fundamental to Gance’s belief was film’s ability to escape the material limitations of theatre: cinema was as physically unencumbered as music and, thanks to modern technology, films were mechanically reproducible for the mass market. Works of celluloid art could travel the globe and their message be brought to life through the performative element of music and the presence of an audience. Furthermore, film images possessed both the capacity for representation and for abstraction, for subjective interiority and objective exteriority. Through their capacity to let viewers access an infinite variety of perspectives, films would break down the boundaries between audiences and the world on screen, between animate and inanimate objects, between individual consciousness and collective experience. In 1919, Cendrars proclaimed that “a new synthesis of the human spirit” would soon result in the appearance of “a race of new men” whose “language will be the cinema”. The greatest exemplar of these ideas is Napoléon, a work that marks the apogee of intellectual and aesthetic experimentation in silent cinema.

Gance planned his film as the first of six episodes chronicling the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, but he spent the budget for the entire series without even reaching the end of his initial screenplay - and he had consumed 400,000 metres of celluloid (equating to 290 hours of footage). After months of editing, Napoléon was released in early 1927 in two distinct editions: a shorter version of 5,600m (four hours) featuring two triple-screen sequences and a longer single-screen version of 12,800m (over nine hours). Thanks to the technical and logistical problems its format created, the film never achieved general distribution and disappeared from screens without having established a solid critical reputation. After decades of obscurity, Napoléon was rereleased in the early 1980s after extensive restoration work by Kevin Brownlow, accompanied by a new orchestral score by American composer Carl Davis. (The latest version of this edition runs to 7,500m and includes the final triptych sequence.)

From its first scenes, Napoléon marks a dramatic departure from earlier cinematic depictions of reality. The Lumière film

Bataille de neige (1897) places its camera at a road junction in order to capture a snow-fight. A row of bare trees lining the street recedes into the distance, creating a diagonal line that is heightened by the depth of focus and contrast between snowy ground and dark branches. In the foreground, two rows of people on either side of the road throw snowballs at each other; a cyclist approaches from the distance and, when he arrives, both sides pelt him. The Lumière camera is static, relying upon composition in depth and careful framing to provide viewers with a coherent on-screen world and a continuous record of space/time. The opening scene of Napoléon depicts a similar subject: a snow-fight amongst the young cadets of Brienne College. The young Napoleon (Nicholas Roudenko) becomes outraged by his enemies putting stones in their snowballs, and runs across the snow to attack them single-handed. Instead of maintaining the single, fixed viewpoint of the Lumière scene, Gance picks up his camera and hurls it into the midst of the ensuing action. Mobile camerawork enables us to follow the tussle blow-by-blow. The opposing teams suddenly rush at one another; cameras run alongside them, behind them, in front of them, above them, below them; we track and pan with dizzying speed; the two sides clash and we are among the frenetic rhythm of bodies; we see feet, arms, legs, faces, fists; the camera is in one instant being punched by a boy on the ground and in the next being hurled to the ground from the side; we are suddenly tumbling under the sky as the horizon tips madly back and forth; we crouch behind the coattails of a cadet clambering up a snowy redoubt, then unsteadily slide down the parapet; the camera simultaneously turns its head around 360° from right to left and from left to right; superimposition doubles, trebles, quadruples, quintuples, sextuples the image of Napoleon over the fight; the cutting between shots becomes faster and faster, continuing to increase until there is a final burst of images at the rate of one-per-frame; in the space of a second, we see abstract clashes of light and dark, shadow and sun, and the triumphant smile of Napoleon flickering among the luminous fragments of space and time.


Through handheld camerawork, rapid-cutting, and multiple-superimposition, this scene offers not merely first-person perspective, but multiple-subjectivity: we see the snow-fight from the viewpoint of everyone in the fight, even from the viewpoint of the space in which it is taking place. This proliferation of perspective is enhanced by the stunning pictorial quality of the print itself; seen on a big screen, with the emotive brilliance of Davis’ music, the effect is breathtaking. At the November 2013 performance in London’s Royal Festival Hall, I was particularly struck by a shot in which the camera hurtles towards a standing figure. This was likely created by a camera that Gance mounted on a specially-designed guillotine device, which was itself mounted on a sled. Pushing this contraption over the snow, the technical team of Napoléon enabled the camera to simultaneously dive and swoop. The bizarre physical set-up of the shot is transformed into an astonishing sense of propulsive movement on screen; it only lasts for a single second, but in the cinema I was nearly jerked out of my seat by its power - it was as if I was being hurled through space like a snowball, a feeling that was both a bodily sensation and an out-of-body experience. In this sequence, as so often in the film, the camera is unlimited in its exploration of the physical and temporal environment; the viewer crosses space and time with the leaping mobility of thought and the immaterial flight of music.

Similarly, the “Double Tempest” sequence depicts the adult Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné) battling a storm at sea whilst the Convention (France’s Revolutionary parliament) erupts in political division. The dramatic intercutting of these two spaces is heightened by the evocative camerawork: the camera lurches, ducks, and spins amid the fighting of the Convention; it bobs, oscillates, and sways over Napoleon’s boat at sea; it is pummelled directly by waves; it is mounted on an extraordinary pendulum device that enables it to sweep over the Convention as if the audience were itself a tumbling wave. Finally, these two spaces are welded over one another in a series of pulsing, seething superimpositions that convulse in irresolute union.

Yet as well as this experiential connection with its characters and world, Napoléon also offers audiences the chance for more distanced contemplation. It is a film obsessed with pre-determined destiny and its narrative structure is loaded with dramatic irony. The film’s emotional pertinence is often a result of the contrast between scenes of involvement and moments of fatalistic reflection. Immediately after the present-tense reality of the snow-fight, the young Napoleon is symbolically shown the place of his exile and death in the geography lesson. In this scene, a map of the island of St Helena suddenly acknowledges the historical gulf between character and audience: we know its significance, but he does not. In such instances, Gance self-consciously uses the nature of the filmic image to explore the tensions between past and present, presence and absence, artifice and reality. Again, Davis’ poignant score transmits the emotional significance of the moment - a live orchestra bridges 200 years of historical distance.

In a scene much later in the film, Napoleon is confronted by the ghosts of the Convention, those political figures who have been destroyed by the turmoil of Revolution. The sequence establishes the ideals to which Napoleon aspires whilst simultaneously reminding us of his ultimate failure. In a beautifully self-reflexive moment, the character of Saint-Just (played by Gance himself) threatens the general with destruction should he betray the Revolution; we may be stirred by Napoleon’s promise of creating a nationless “Universal Republic”, but we know he will never succeed and the omen of defeat will be fulfilled. Throughout, Napoleon and the spirits never appear in the same shot: they are separated by editing and by different coloured tints. In a similar scene in Gance’s war film J’accuse! (1919), the poet Jean Diaz leads the dead from the battlefield to their hometown in order to confront the civilian survivors and determine if their sacrifice has been worthwhile. Here, too, the living and the dead are never united in the same shot and are demarcated by different tinting. Through summoning and narrating this hallucinatory imagery, Diaz becomes a surrogate filmmaker and the distinction between on- and off-screen audiences is dissolved. Diaz’s viewers are shaken by the power of a vision that is at once terrifyingly real and poignantly immaterial/untouchable. If there is a moment of contact between the living and the dead in J’accuse, it occurs off-screen - a narrative ellipsis provides an escape from the metaphysical transgression that takes place. By breaking the ultimate taboo of reanimating the dead, Diaz enables his audience to experience something we know to be impossible. These sequences in J’accuse and Napoléon suggest the photographic image embodies the tension between life and death. For Gance, the ultimate power of cinema lies in its magical transgression of finite materiality; film announced the unchaining of mankind from its moral and physical limitations. In Prisme, he spoke of his belief that “the spirit pulls the body in its wake”; the immaterial experience of cinema could provoke change in the material world.

Gance’s greatest attempt to reveal an alternate reality to spectators was his use of “Polyvision” in the final scenes of Napoléon, depicting the general and his army gathered in the mountains on the Italian border prior to their invasion. This multi-screen effect is achieved by three projectors providing a triple-sized image, stretching across the entire width of the cinema. After a rushing sound as the curtains are parted, the revelation of the triptych across the three screens is one of the greatest moments in all of cinema.

To film these sequences, Gance placed three cameras one on top of the other, each angled so that their combined span would produce a panorama of the scene. The result of this awkward set-up is a minor disparity in visual continuity between the three images of the united screens. Whilst some might find such a glitch distracting, I found this “parallax problem” deeply moving when I saw it live in 2013. The presence of seams across Gance’s huge canvas is the most marvellous evidence of workmanship. Just as the texture of paint proves the presence of the artist’s brush and hand, so the parallax borders reveal the physical processes of art and the imprint of human creation through which it is realized. Similarly, the difficulty with which Gance’s aligned triptych panoramas move demonstrates the tension between the materiality of film production and the immateriality of its visible signature. When all three cameras tilt upwards to reveal the skyline of the mountaintop, soldiers scattered across this immense terrain to provide a sense of scale and demarcate the depth of space on screen, I felt as if I were watching an entirely new medium raise its eyes from the ground for the first time. The slowness of this vertical movement, the heaviness it suggests of the mechanism through which the tilt is achieved, made me think of a newborn creature testing the strength of its legs before it learns to walk. The experience of the triptych in the cinema reveals not only the power of projected images, but also their fragility. Knowing that this vision was the result of three strips of celluloid hurtling through three projectors, linked by a miracle of technical synchronicity, I became terrified for its continuation. At any moment, the effort of sustaining such imagery might become too much - the whole system would surely break, fall apart, fly to pieces, ripping the celluloid to shreds and so bring the edifice of images tumbling down.

Then the three panels become independent of one another, able to flicker back and forth across space and time; close-ups jostle with extreme long-shots; reaction shots coincide with their reversed perspective; we are at once everywhere, behind and in front and among those figures and objects on screen. Napoleon opens out his arms into the sky; the general’s gesture is carried through successive jump-cuts into the mid- and far-distance whilst we see the clouds above and about him turn into the thousand faces of his army on the flanking screens; a horse and rider are silhouetted against the mountain-top whilst we simultaneously gaze up into the sun in the depths of the sky, gathering two ribbons of vapour into its brightness; the army marches, the two outward panels mirroring one another; the crowd has become a river flowing between two banks, gathering momentum in the central image which tumbles towards us. This extraordinary ubiquity dispels all doubt regarding the viability of Polyvision - I was no longer afraid that the body of cinema might collapse in on itself, but drawn up into the marvels of the world of the screens. I forgot myself sitting in the cinema and was somewhere else entirely.


The triptychs mobilize a visual language that has been carefully developed throughout the film in a series of leitmotifs. Gance’s images are not merely abstract symbols, but possess a living presence within the world on screen. In the Cordeliers sequence early in the film, we see Rouget de Lisle and Danton teach the crowd the “Marseillaise”, a scene which climaxes in a hundred close-ups of faces in an electrifying montage of single-frame shots. As the “Marseillaise” is sung for the first time in the former Cordeliers church, the sunlight bursts through the window and Gance tints the remainder of the scene a dazzling gold. After this, a gust of wind breaks into the hall and brings to life the tricolour draped behind the pulpit, which in turns lifts to reveal a huge crucifix; this is followed by a superimposed vision of the personified Marseillaise, fluttering flags, and a huge erupting flame. In this scene, the “wind of the Revolution” is a metaphor for social change as well as a literal agent in provoking movement; it will later propel Napoleon’s boat across the seas of the Double Tempest and animate the captured flags in the final scene of the Battle of Toulon. Similarly, light is symbolic of spiritual progress as well as possessing a tangible presence within the mise-en-scène through sun and fire; this motif is further developed through the image of Napoleon’s halo, as well as several significant scenes set at sunrise and sunset. Thus, by their repetition and variation, the visual symbolism comes to possess a cumulative weight of significance by the film’s final scenes. We first see Napoleon’s pet eagle at Brienne, when its resilient independence was a mirror for that of the isolated child; the bird reappears throughout the narrative, each time reinforcing the destiny of man and nation. In the final minutes of the film, we see its shadow hover over the ground in front of the marching army before an intertitle announces: “And in the sky, a strange conductor beats out the rhythm of the army”. The orchestra swells into Davis’ “eagle of destiny” theme just as we see the bird stretch its wings across all three panels of the screen. It is an image of absolute sublimity, not because it is one of seamless perfection (its wings are broken by the parallax problem), but because it embodies both the entire drama of the film and of the cinematic frame.

Finally, the screens are tinted blue, white, and red - the colours of the tricolour. Davis blends and converges the themes for Napoleon and Josephine with the “Marseillaise”, and Gance simultaneously rewinds, fast-forwards, and suspends time; we see shots of Napoleon as a child and as an adult, of his army marching into Italy and the ghosts of future legions spreading over Europe, of flames and suns and breaking waves. After this incalculable horde of images flies across their breadth, each of the three screens bears an identical close-up of rushing water. This is an image we first saw during the Double Tempest when Napoleon sets out to confront his destiny - there, the water churns in the path of his vessel, borne by a sail fashioned from a huge tricolour; now, the screen itself has become a flag: the fluttering surge of the ocean is the spirit of the Revolution and of the cinema. The triptych held this form just long enough for me to lose any sense of the world beyond it, then vanished with heart-wrenching suddenness. The elation of flight I had felt was followed by the sensation that I had fallen to earth.

In the days that followed the 2013 screening of Napoléon, I often found myself sunk in a state of melancholy. Despite the depth of feeling the film inspired, I was never able to cry during the performance; only afterwards was I moved to tears at the thought that I should have to wait many months or years before I sat down to watch it again. Those hours that I had spent under the spell of Gance’s images and Davis’ score were among the happiest of my life. Much of the joy I felt throughout that day was in sharing such an occasion with a large group of friends and 2,500 strangers alike in the Royal Festival Hall. It is no wonder that commentators have noted the “cultural camaraderie” common to audiences that attend the cinema of Gance and the opera of Wagner. Part of the pleasure of such events is to wander amongst the crowds during intervals and hear groups of people enthusiastically sharing their impressions. This atmosphere, with the buzz of expectation and chatter, isn’t an accessory to the cinematic experience, but an intrinsic part of it. The presence of the crowd is essential to reaffirming a film’s meaning and encouraging one’s own emotional expression; during Napoléon, I was surrounded by thousands of other people who gasped, laughed, and applauded, and I reacted with them - this is not something one does when at home.

Cinema is not merely the image or the soundtrack, but the environment beyond the frame of the screen. It is in this sense that Napoléon is a communal experience, one that is shared by an audience gathered in an immersive space; in its narrative and in its performance, the film is about the magic of the crowd and the transformative power of collective enthusiasm. The same experiential gap that I found between hearing Tristan on CD and seeing it live in Birmingham was replicated when I watched Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) at the same location. I had seen the film multiple times on laserdisc with Carl Davis’ score, but only when the orchestra was present beneath the screen and the music filled the space in which I sat did I truly understand the emotional rhythm and significance of the narrative. Gance sought to cinematise his audiences, an effect that I certainly experienced during Napoléon. In 1974, he said: “For me, a spectator who maintains his critical sense is not a spectator. I wanted the audience to come out of the theatre amazed victims, completely won over, emerging from paradise to find, alas, the hell of the street. That is cinema!”

Musical performance in the digital era

I now want to examine what is perhaps the most visible evidence of the relationship between modern technology and musical exhibition: the broadcast of live opera in digital cinemas. I first became aware of this trend when I saw a trailer for the Royal Opera House production of Bizet’s Carmen in 2011. The music threw itself into the cinema as if I had been sitting in the middle of the orchestra pit, whilst my view of the stage was not limited by the position of my seat. What I did not fully consider at the time was that this trailer was not choreographed for the stage, nor a direct result of theatrical presentation - the production was performed specifically for filming in 3D. Carmen had been cinematically organized: the volume and quality of its sound resulted from it being pre-recorded, the rhythmic power of its images resulted from post-production montage. A more recent trailer for a theatrical ROH performance of Parsifal went even further: its scenes were not filmed on a stage, but in the depths of a real forest. These were cinematic trailers, and highlighted the tension between the theatrical performance they represented and the cinematic audience to which they appealed - an issue equally apparent in the broadcasts themselves.

The ROH transmission of Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes in November 2013 was preceded by cinematic trailers for forthcoming broadcasts, but the presentation of the event itself was distinctly televisual. After an image of the interior of the opera house appeared and a voice welcomed us to Covent Garden, a close-up introduced us to our host: Kasper Holten, director of opera at the ROH. He was standing with his back to the venue’s main bar, welcoming his worldwide audience in a trans-continental accent. The setting and content of Kasper’s speech emphasised the live nature of the experience we were about to share, but the on-screen subtitles pre-empting his words revealed the invisible presence of an autocue and a more accurate impression of the event’s mediated nature.

Kasper provided a synopsis of the first act of the opera, in the exact same way that continuity announcers do for radio broadcasts. However, radio announcers provide synopses because there is no way of following the action on stage or reading printed programmes/ surtitles in theatres. For Les Vêpres siciliennes, we were not only to have the benefit of seeing (as well as merely hearing) the performance, but of having subtitles displayed on the screen to provide us with synchronized translations. Kasper’s synopsis was therefore superfluous, as well as undermining any sense of dramatic tension. His subsequent narration of the build-up to the performance was as intrusive and redundant as those commentators who feel obliged to occupy every spare moment of air-time during sports matches with inane chatter. Despite the illusion of being inside a theatre, the broadcast gave no space for private expectation before the curtain rose, nor time for silence before the music began.

Even more disruptive to the cinematic replication of the “live” experience of Les Vêpres siciliennes was the back-stage documentary footage, an aspect that was used even more extensively in the ROH broadcast of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in December 2013. In the latter instance, Darcey Bussell’s saccharine tones introduced a lengthy behind-the-scenes segment before the ballet began. In fifteen minutes, the documentary concisely and systematically spoiled almost every aspect of what we were about to experience: the construction of the ROH sets, the performers’ costumes, the production’s special effects, the ballet’s choreography, the score’s most significant moments. Why show us the secret behind the magic before we’ve seen the trick? It would be unthinkable for a film producer to force an audience to watch a revealing “making of” documentary immediately prior to their presentation of the film itself. Such a mode of exhibition would break the illusion of the world on screen, precisely that quality which allows us to become emotionally invested in the film. Yet The Nutcracker documentary seemed to go out of its way to emphasiae the mundane materiality behind the illusion on stage; there was even a scene in which the director discussed how tattered the sets had become in the thirty years since the production was first mounted!

Kasper and Darcey reappeared during their respective intervals, either in person or as a live voiceover to accompany pre-recorded footage of back-stage areas. After having shown the singers/dancers without make-up and the stage undressed before the performances began, the broadcasters conducted live interviews during the subsequent breaks. Kasper talked to the conductor, Darcey talked to an instrumental soloist - both musicians ended the conversations by rushing off camera in order to resume the performance. These interviews struck me as being even more redundant than those stilted questions posed to sports players prior to the match; at least with sport, the outcome of the event is not predetermined and there is some point to ongoing discussion. Here, the musicians were asked their opinion of the music and even made to comment on the content of the next Act! Also displayed on screen during the intervals were Tweets from viewers across the globe, presumably in an effort to connect remote audiences and emphasise the shared nature of their experience. Yet, as with Kasper’s subtitled enthusiasm, the reduction of conversation to bite-sized text only served to remind me of the distance between my place in the cinema and the experience of those present in the theatre. Through persistent mediation, the broadcast presentation disrupted the continuity of the live experience - breaking the cinematic illusion of our inhabiting the same space and time as the performance.

The circumstances of digital exhibition were equally as disruptive. When the on-screen presenter finally fell silent for the opening chords of Les Vêpres siciliennes, I watched as the lights in the auditorium of Covent Garden went down. Simultaneously, I became surreally aware that in our cinema the lights stayed up - as effective a method as any to disrupt an audience’s sense of involvement with the on-screen performance. The houselights weren’t turned off until twenty minutes into the opera; they were turned on briefly during the first interval, went off five minutes later, and never came back on - even during the second interval. Exactly the same thing happened at the start of The Nutcracker. Here, the head of the woman in front of me was better lit than the stage on screen and the overhead beams admirably caught the arms of her many restless children as they thrashed about in their seats, pretending to conduct the music. Thanks to theatres’ automation of all-digital programmes, this kind of irritating disruption regularly happens during the projection of films. As well as the fact that many cinemas no longer have control over their own in-house lighting systems, there are no projectionists to monitor screenings and control the environment of their exhibition. (I was once in a screening where the houselights came up five minutes before the end of the film, right in the middle of its delicate emotional resolution, rendering the characters’ faces illegible.) Members of staff at theatres now have nothing to do with the films they project. They sell you a ticket, they serve you food, they check your tickets, they show you your seat, and they tidy up afterwards - but they are not part of the event itself.

Unlike in the trailer for Carmen, the cinema had to keep the sound at a fairly low level throughout Les Vêpres siciliennes because its speakers would reduce those moments when full orchestra, chorus, and soloists sung in unison to an inarticulate roar of distortion. Thus, the average volume must be moderately dissatisfactory so as to prevent its peaks from being disastrously dissatisfactory. Yet even if the sound balance had been better, no speaker system could replicate the sensation of live sound travelling through space to meet your ears, to tingle over your skin, to rattle at the back of your skull, to hum through the floorboards and through your chair and shake you from tip to toe. Verdi’s score was also subject to the randomised censorship of broadcast technology - either through the sudden addition of loud clicks and warps, or by the sustained subtraction of all sound for several minutes at a time. Aside from having been told so at the outset, these technical errors were the only evidence that the performance was live at all. Visually, the experience was no different than watching a DVD at home; aurally, it was worse because of the breaks in sound. The unstaffed, automated environment of the cinema produced an uninvolving experience that killed any presence the music might otherwise have possessed.

Even beyond the world of opera, other experiences have illustrated the strained relationship between live performance and digital streaming. In 2010, there was a cinematic broadcast of King Lear (starring Derek Jacobi) from the National Theatre in London. In this case, a technical error interrupted the broadcast and, amazingly, the live performance in London was halted whilst the technicians fixed the issue and could resume transmission. There was no tangible evidence of the problem to people present in the theatre itself, but they were far outnumbered by remote audiences whose experience was privileged over theirs. Another issue presented itself in October 2013 when I attended a screening of Frankenstein: Live an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Despite the tickets calling the event Frankenstein: Live, we were in fact watching a recording of the original performance that had been broadcast from the National Theatre in 2011. From being a guarantor of experiential involvement, the term “live” had been reduced to an advertising slogan; it should have been called ‘Frankenstein: Then’. As if to underline the distance between audience and original performance, there was a technical issue bringing the “live” show onto the screen that delayed its start by over half an hour. The file (an ignobly generic term) was proving difficult to access and play on their system. When we eventually went in, the screen was showing a brief documentary originally broadcast as a prelude to the performance for cinema audiences. Someone pressed “pause”, then “fast-forward”. I could tell this because the playback icon was in the top right of the screen: a visible token of the banally uncinematic nature of this “performance”.


These depressing reminders of our (spatial/temporal) distance from the performance aside, I was far more engaged when watching Frankenstein than I was during Les Vêpres siciliennes. Perhaps plays are the best suited of all events to be broadcast in cinemas. The idea of mediated performance is, after all, the very basis of film spectatorship: we know the images we watch are the mere ghost of real objects and real people, but we are still absorbed and convinced by their life on screen. The most vivid evidence of this difference in broadcast content could be located in the audiences’ reaction to the two events. Les Vêpres siciliennes was being transmitted live, yet there was no response from the viewers at its conclusion; Frankenstein was little more than a DVD screening, yet the audience greeted its conclusion with sustained applause.

Live broadcasting in cinemas is a wonderful idea, producing far greater cultural and financial attention for organisations that often struggle for sales. However, the experience they offer cinematic audiences is entirely different from those offered for theatrical audiences. Despite the insistence of advertising that digital technology allows the expansion and sharing of live events, it is an apparatus that can never replicate the presence of music in the site of its creation. In their persistence of mediation (hosts, documentaries, interviews, subtitles, Tweets), opera broadcasts are tangible evidence of how digital media “[unties images] from the contemplative and immersive ritual art object” in order to pursue “a form of interactive communication”. In doing so, they are redefining art’s engagement with audiences and departing from the specificity of cinema both as a medium and as a site of communal experience.

Critical perspective and technological change

Whilst generating huge popular acclaim, Napoléon was greeted with a mixture of veneration and vilification among critics when it was reappeared in the 1980s. This ambivalence was due in no small measure to the novelty of the film’s format and the demands it made upon theatrical exhibition. In 1981, Richard Philpott argued that a pre-recorded score accompanying screenings would be ideologically preferential to the “elitism” of a live orchestra. That same year, Peter Pappas called Napoléon “great” and “profound”, but the very enthusiasm the performance evoked was deemed to be a “fascist” effect. Unable to endorse his own joyful reaction in the cinema, Pappas retrospectively chastises such emotion as morally dangerous.

This self-censure had much to do with the psychological, political, and semiotic film theory of the 1970s that sought to denounce cinephilia as fetishism, scopophilia, and voyeurism. Many films were seen as ideologically manipulative delusions, detrimental to the health of the general public. (Only theorists, conveniently, could see through this illusionism.) The immersive experience of Napoléon was destined to confound a generation of critics who prided themselves on denigrating cinema’s emotional engagement. Though this view is no longer so prominent, nor so self-righteously proclaimed, in Film Studies today, its aftereffects can still be felt. “Critical distance” is frequently held to be at the heart of objective analysis, the notion that scholars should keep themselves apart from the language of the artist and the distorting experience of art’s actualisation. Distance is thus both figurative and literal. The detailed work of film scholarship now takes place mostly at home via repeated viewing of material on DVD. This enables a tremendous expansion of formal analysis, but it also changes the nature of critics’ engagement with the specificity of the medium. Modern audiences no longer experience cinema as their ancestors did in the early twentieth century. Questions of scale (television versus cinema screens) and medium specificity (digital versus celluloid) are tied to changes in the conceptual and practical nature of film exhibition.

Critics would do well to heed the warning offered by Susan Sontag in her 1966 essay ‘Against Interpretation’, which attacks the distortive and self-serving “rules” of academic analysis. As Sontag reiterated in 1995: “the intellectual experience is [not] opposed to the aesthetic experience… the aesthetic experience is a form of intelligence”. The fact that “a great deal of what people call intellectual activity is aesthetic experience” is particularly visible in some modes of film criticism. “Objective distance” can hinder the honesty and effectiveness of the scholar. Evaluation does not begin away from the spell of film in cinemas, but during this experience. This is something I can attest to with Napoléon, a film I have twice seen projected on celluloid before an audience, accompanied by a live performance of Davis’ score. The impact of these screenings on my writing about the film has been profound, as these theatrical viewings are entirely different to watching Napoléon at home (especially as Brownlow’s restoration is not available on DVD). I have always tried to articulate the live presence of the film in a cinema, rendering its emotive resonance as well as its formal representation. Following Sontag’s dictum, I hope that in my own judgements the (immediate) aesthetic reaction of the cinematic experience can inform and enrich my (subsequent) close analysis.

What is both so wonderful and so problematic about Napoléon is that is impossible to replicate its full aesthetic impact in the digital format, either at home or in the cinema. Gance’s film represents one of the most radical attempts to change the nature of the frame: in switching between fullscreen and widescreen, Napoléon demonstrates a reconciliation of mainstream and alternative formats. In 1927, commercial cinema dictated a different path: rather than standardise Polyvision, cinemas were soon equipping themselves for the exhibition of sound. Even in the twenty-first century, when widescreen has long been adopted, Napoléon requires a larger screen than exists in standard cinemas. There is neither the capacity nor the personnel to accommodate alternative screening practices in digitised theatres, an issue not confined to Napoléon. In the production of Tristan at Birmingham, for example, Bill Viola’s moveable screen, which stood lengthwise in Acts One and Two and monolithically upright in Act Three, used the specificity of space to maximise its aesthetic impact on those present. More than its use of the acoustic qualities of the hall, such a performance would be unthinkable as a broadcast or DVD because of the sheer size and orientation of the screen.

Analogue and digital home distribution are also affected by standardisation. When Thames Television was involved in the restoration and cinematic release of Napoléon in the 1980s, the film was also broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. In order to try and reproduce the final triptych, it was at one time suggested that two other channels transmit the flanking panels of the Polyvision scenes so that viewers might gather three television sets and place them side-by-side. Though this never happened (the single-screen ending was used instead of the triptych), the commercial and practical unworkability of the idea highlights the fact that there is no room within home entertainment for alternative formats. Even on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray, modern widescreen televisions must inevitably shrink the 3.99:1 span of Napoléon’s triptychs to fit the 16:9 ratio of their screens.

Aside from the problem of ratio, there is also the issue of motion. In the late 1920s, the mechanized cameras necessary for sound cinema standardised the frame-rate of recorded/projected film at 24-frames-per-second (fps). Before then, silent films were filmed on hand-cranked cameras which produced fluctuating frame-rates; this variation can be accommodated in theatres by altering the speed of the projector, but this mechanical/physical solution is not replicable in digital exhibition. Though some films are now shot and projected at 48-fps in cinemas (such as the Hobbit trilogy), the home entertainment Blu-ray format currently possesses an unalterable rate of 24-fps. The only way such disks can accommodate alternative speeds is to repeat a percentage of frames or interlace existing frames to create “new” ones. Neither process can adequately capture the motion of the original celluloid. In the case of Napoléon, the opening scenes of Brienne were filmed at approximately 18-fps, whilst the rest was shot at 20-fps. The issue of motion assumes profound importance when one remembers Gance’s single-frame cutting - a method of editing irreproducible in the fixed digital speed of 24-fps.

Standardised formats, automated programmes, lack of personnel, and the fixed ratio of the screen make any deviation impossible to exhibit in theatres. This is far from the expressive revolution many imagined digitisation would offer. In his 2001 book The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich argues that digital technology will trigger the collapse of the hegemony of standardised cinematic exhibition, enabling the rediscovery of early cinema’s “repressed” practices. “Broadband” (or “macro”) cinema will pursue “spatial montage” as an alternative to the tradition of “temporal montage”, the “multiple windows” of its language exploring new structures of simultaneity across time and space. Through its handheld camerawork, split-screen, widescreen, and superimposition, Napoléon predicts numerous aspects of Manovich’s “macro” cinema, yet the wider impact of the digital age has fundamentally altered the nature of cinema in which its maker placed so much faith. The performative conditions of the pre-sound era have been disbanded, just as the physical space of the theatre is no longer the privileged site of communal experience Gance envisioned. Quoting the director in his essay on the end of auratic art, Benjamin argues: “Presumably without intending it, [Gance] issued an invitation to a far-reaching liquidation.” Audiences are no longer encouraged to think of films as something specific to the theatrical environment - we can consume video in any number of different ways. Gance’s ritualistic conception of art is alien to the digital viewing experience at home, which now privileges spectator independence and remote interaction; films may be paused and resumed at will, downloaded or deferred, or watched on any number of different (small-screen) devices. Our access to images from cinema has increased exponentially, but at the cost of what made them cinematic in the first place. Digitisation has rendered cinema disposable.

It is in this context that screenings of Napoléon and other silent films with live accompaniment are so valuable to modern audiences. Such events offer a chance to reconnect to a mode of engagement that no longer exists in film viewing - and to test the validity of our historical assumptions about cinema. Some critics believe that the supersession of celluloid signals the end of film’s “aura”, but the transition to sound marked an equally fundamental transition at the end of the 1920s. This experiential change is already evident in those silent films that were released with a synchronised music track - their tinny, muffled sound fossilises the performative aspect of the medium. I was always put off by the Fox Movietone soundtrack that accompanies F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927); only when I heard Carl Davis’ modern recording of the original score did I finally appreciate the beauties of Hugo Riesenfeld’s music and the profundity of the film’s images.

Cultural memory of the performative aspect of cinema inevitably fades (abetted by industrial propaganda), and this loss has helped shape many critical assumptions. In 1951, André Bazin wrote that the “presence” of theatre provides “a more uplifting, and more noble (one might even say a more moral) effect” than the mere “satisfaction” of a good film; “We seem to come away with a better conscience.” His article concludes that “something is missing” from cinema: “It is as if a certain inevitable lowering of the voltage, some mysterious aesthetic short-circuit, deprived us in the cinema of a certain tension which is a definite part of theatre”. Bazin never considers that silent cinema might possess the extra “something” found in live theatre. Likewise, in 1936 Benjamin wrote that films disrupt the “integral whole” of those performances captured before the camera; he overlooks the fact that only a few years previously, live music had offered an integral performance within the cinema and therefore went some way toward reconciling the human and mechanical aspects of filmmaking. In 1985, Davis wrote how he feels he is “performing” in the theatre, becoming the “new element” that completes the “experience” of Napoléon. Music is a vital dimension of silent cinema: the orchestra carries the world of each film into the physical space of the theatre, bringing the images to life and communicating their meaning. As the opera critic Bernard Levin observed in 1984, Davis’ “sympathetic and intelligent” score is an essential part of the “vast, dazzling, and profound experience” of Napoléon.

Gance’s film continues to defy the material difficulties of its conception, production, distribution, and exhibition - the physical survival of its celluloid is itself nothing short of miraculous. The incantatory ritual of live cinema resurrects Napoléon at each performance, and the standing ovation that always greets its conclusion celebrates Brownlow’s superhuman efforts of restoration, Davis’ magnificent score, and the triumph of Gance’s vision over material reality. The technical components of a film or the detail of its visual language may be analysed by watching a DVD, but in order to be understood as a work of cinema it must be seen live. There is a strong argument to be made that Napoléon should never be released on home entertainment formats because any other viewing context is alien to its true nature. My own opposition to this view is born of necessity rather than real inclination: in any age, art can only attain a critical or popular reputation if it is available to be seen. The fact that Napoléon has been physically inaccessible for so long is the prime reason for its scarcity within film history and critical literature. Gance’s masterpiece must be released on DVD and Blu-ray in order for it to be seen, discussed, and analysed by the widest number of people. However, it is to our own disadvantage (as viewers and as critics) if we let the digital experience of Napoléon replace its cinematic experience - for the truth of this film is to be found in knowing it as a living work of art.


This article was published on February 13, 2014.

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