Zoom Salon - La Roue (1923) 268 min | Mechanics' Institute

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Zoom Salon - La Roue (1923) 268 min
January 2021 CinemaLit: Golden Silents


Matthew Kennedy, curator and host

CinemaLit Film Series

January 2021 – Golden Silents

We start the CinemaLit 2021 season with a celebration of four great silent films. We've scheduled two highly consequential European dramas, Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) from Germany and Abel Gance's La Roue (1923) from France. Note: both films are over four hours long. We scheduled them at the beginning of the season so you could leisurely watch them over the winter break. Dr. Mabuse is neatly segmented into parts and acts for serial watching, and La Roue is in two parts, each in the typical length range of a feature film.

The other two films on the docket are stunning American comedies, Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). They clock out at a relatively compact 46 and 88 minutes, respectively.

Short or long, funny or sad, domestic or imported, these are four very special titles from the distant film past.

January 22 – La Roue (1923) – 268 minutes

La Roue will be hosted by film journalist and former CinemaLit curator and host Michael Fox.

French director Abel Gance envisioned his films on a grand scale. In J'accuse!, he staged huge war scenes, including the profoundly discomfiting "Return of the Dead" sequence in which fallen soldiers rise from their mass grave to indict us, the living. His magnum opus Napoleon remains one of the most ambitious films ever made, sweeping from boyhood to battlefields, and glittering ballrooms, to storms at sea, the Revolution, and French troops advancing into Italy.

La Roue (The Wheel) is far more intimate, but epic in both its length and probing of human psychology. In the grimy railway yards at Nice, engineer Sisif rescues a baby girl from a disastrous train crash and raises her as Norma, his daughter. Elie, Sisif's biological son, believes Norma is his sister, while years later family dynamics turn Wagnerian when both Sisif and Elie fall in love with her.

The story is straightforward, but Gance infuses his four-and-a-half hour film with enthralling ahead-of-its-time techniques. He uses double exposures liberally to convey the characters' torment. Even more apparent is Gance's pioneering use of fast cutting. He exploits the kinetics of the railways with flashing moments of wheels, pistons, and smoke in frenetic repetitive action, and hypnotically follows tracks as they converge and diverge, achieving a remarkable and often frightening rhythmic intensity. In one sequence, Gance repeats the same six shots in decreasing time to give the effect of acceleration and danger. In a key dramatic climax, Gance runs flashback images from the film one frame at a time. The effect is both thrilling and horrific, as Gance reveals the potential of film to reach our subconscious in previously unimagined ways.


Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies. 

I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."

Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”



First watch the selected film on Kanopy. All you will need is either a Mechanics' Institute library card, or a San Francisco Public Library card, which will give you access to Kanopy and its treasure trove of movies. Make a reservation for our CinemaLit Salon as usual via Eventbrite and watch the film on Kanopy at your leisure. You will receive a link to the Friday night CinemaLit salon on Zoom one day in advance, and then an additional reminder roughly two hours in advance. On the night of the salon click the Zoom link and join us.

If you do not receive a Zoom Link by 4:00 PM on the day of the event, contact Pam Troy at [email protected]


Mechanics’ Institute members can now sign up for FREE access to Kanopy, a wonderful film streaming service. To sign up:

1. Click on  THIS LINK.

2. Click on the large orange login button that reads, “Log in to milibrary.”

3. Enter the 14-digit bar code from your MI Library card

4. Set up your account following Kanopy’s instructions, including your email and a password.

5. Kanopy will send verification to your email address.

You’ll be able to choose from a wonderful selection of films, including classics, pre-code, foreign films, and documentaries, including the films we’ve scheduled this month for CinemaLit.

If you are not a Mechanics’ Institute member, consider membership and click  HERE  to join online:

Or, you can check with your public library to see if they are Kanopy members. If so, you may use your public library card to set up a Kanopy account.


Register with Eventbrite below.

If the green TICKET button is not immediately visible, scroll down on the right in the Eventbrite window until it appears.


CinemaLit Films

Members Free
Public Sliding Scale Free to $10
Register now ›
Pam Troy - 415-393-0116
Register now by using the form below or calling .

Future CinemaLit Films

Jul 30 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - Two Men in Town (1973) – 99 minutes
July 2021 CinemaLit: Jean Gabin: The Great Face of French Cinema

Aug 6 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - War and Peace (1956) – 208 minutes
Summer CinemaLit Finale