Abel Gance

Paul Cuff

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online April 2017 | | DOI:
Abel Gance

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Although Abel Gance (1889–1981) is now recognized as a major figure of early cinema, he often struggled to find acceptance of his work in established canons of taste. As Jean Epstein wrote in 1927, Gance’s films are “magnificently imperfect,” evidencing an “turbulent, unstable, precipitous, excessive” concoction of styles and ideas that is not easily understood or embraced (see Abel Gance. Afterimage 10 (1981): 28). The label frequently attached to him—“the Victor Hugo of cinema”—continues to link him to 19th-century romanticism rather than 20th-century modernity. Not helped by the long-standing unavailability of much of his work, Gance remains something of an unknown quantity in much of film history. He began his career in the theatre, but his talent as a film director was established through a series of skillfully made comedies and melodramas produced in the 1910s. Gance’s cinematic career reached its zenith in the 1920s, when his increasingly ambitious film projects garnered much notoriety in the press. His multi-hour epics J’accuse, La Roue, and Napoléon pioneered the use of mobile camerawork, superimposition, rapid-montage, split-screen, and wide-screen processes. Peers often criticized Gance’s creations for their excessive length, melodrama, or literary pretentions, but it was generally acknowledged that his stylistic and technical feats were second to none. However, the coming of sound brought challenges that could not be overcome by Gance’s optimistic enthusiasm for new technology. His first sound project was La fin du monde, a critical and financial disaster that diminished his standing among his peers, producers, and public. In the 1930s, Gance rarely got the chance to work on personal projects over which he had full control, and his intellectual idealism was increasingly alien to Europe’s political climate. Having been one of the most renowned filmmakers in the silent era, by the time of World War II Gance was almost forgotten outside of France. Although he continued to concoct huge cinematic schemes, between 1943 and 1981 he could find finance for only two feature films. His critical reputation suffered during this time for lack of access to (and thus interest in) his earlier work. Whereas silent films by contemporaries such as D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein remained in circulation throughout the sound era, Gance’s work was frequently subject to partial or total loss. Major critical resuscitation took place only after the restoration of the silent Napoléon in the 1980s, but large areas of Gance’s artistic activities remain relatively unknown and unexplored.

Article.  7562 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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