Saturday, August 11, 2018

La roue

Michael and I spent a few evenings watching the 2008 reconstruction of Abel Gance's La roue (1923) with music by Robert Israel, and it was a remarkable experience. The idea of watching a four-hour-long silent movie put us off for several weeks, but once we started watching I knew those four hours would pass quickly. The film is so visually compelling, has such superb acting, and has such engaging music, some of the time did pass quickly, and some of the time didn't. In this "modern day" Sisyphus story the weight of the moment or the full emotional exploration of a situation at hand is part of the quality of the experience.

The film was first shown with Arthur Honegger supplying the music (I happily noticed the influence of Honegger's "Pacific 231,").

Robert Israel (who shares my birthday, though he is four years my junior), did a fantastic job writing music for the film. He incorporates all kinds of techniques that were around during the time of the film like Poulenc-ish harmonies, and nods to Honegger and his colleagues in "Les Six." There are also tone rows here and there, and a striking fugue during a train-platform fight. One of the characters is a violin maker, so there is a lovely violin-rich musical subtext which provides a late-19th-century contrast to the "modern" steam engine music that surrounds it. We do get some film-music memes, like nods to Hermann's "Vertigo" here and there. Israel also incorporates a familiar pavane, a verse of Josquin's "El Grillo," a momentary homage to Sarasate, and a modified 1812 Overture.

A thrilling moment for me came during the first hour of the film. The violin maker imagines what it would have been like to live as a violin maker in days of yore (with costumes that looked like they could be used in a Shakespeare play), and on his bench he happened to have a seven-string viola d'amore, which he picked up and played. The instrument looked very similar to my viola d'amore!

The viola d'amore was making the first of its "comebacks" during the early part of the 20th century, and was considered to be an ancient instrument. We now know, of course, that the seven-string instrument wasn't around during Shakespeare's time, but Gance probably loved the way the instrument looked and the name it had (another set of obsessions that the characters of the film "enjoy"), so he used it in the scene.

[Just as an aside, the viola d'amore has a flat back like a viol, and it can fit really well in a Renaissance-era consort.]

You can see the unrestored silent film (without music) on YouTube:

And you can watched a few clips there of the restored film with the Robert Israel score:

Here's one:


Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks so much for this - the only Gance I've seen is the most recent reconstruction of Napoleon, which is also very long. It is spectacular, as well, requiring three projectors and an immense screen for one long sequence. I will have to run down the 2008 La roue.

Do you and Michael generally like silent movies? I've been going to the SF Silent Film Festival off and on for a few years and have seen some great pictures there.

Elaine Fine said...

You are so fortunate to have a local silent film festival! We have to wait until they appear on DVD! But there are so many riches, and a whole new (old) approach to acting that I love. We certainly want to see everything we can by Gance!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Come to SF in late May/early June some time!

The last SFSFF had an amazing film, Gosta Berlings Saga, which is Swedish and VERY modern in its acting style. The two leads, Lars Hanson and Gerda Lundquist, are astonishing, and the cinematography is great. This film is most famous in the US as Greta Garbo's first, but her role is smallish compared to theirs and....she isn't quite Garbo yet.

This is a new restoration and I think it is out on DVD or will be soon.