Friday, July 12, 2013

Regeneration (1915)

WHO: Raoul Walsh directed and co-wrote the scenario for this.

WHAT: I haven't seen Regeneration except in a few clips such as those included in the short biographical documentary on Walsh found on the Fox DVD for The Big Trail. In that doc, critic and historian Tag Gallagher calls Regeneration "still a dazzling film today," and compares Walsh's direction to the Ford's Theatre scene from the most famous film by his mentor D.W. Griffith, in which Walsh portrayed John Wilkes Booth:
He makes you part of the movie. If you see The Thief of Bagdad and there's Douglas Fairbanks flying over Bagdad on a flying carpet, you're on a flying carpet. In A Birth Of A Nation, for example, Griffith keeps the camera in the orchestra. Now six months later comes Walsh's first feature Regeneration. There you see Anna Q. Nilsson looking at some boys an a wharf, and she beckons at the boys. She does it directly into the camera, looking at you. So the camera is now with the actors, part of the actors, and it brings you into the movie.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, at 7:00 PM.

WHY: The PFA's Raoul Walsh series got off to a roaring start last Friday with a perfectly-matched double bill of Sailor's Luck and Me And My Gal that had me in equal measure thankful that this series is happening at all, and ruing that it's only fourteen titles long. While introducing the series, PFA video curator Steve Seid made mention of the Italian Walsh retrospective I mentioned in my first article on this series, and talked of how attendees swooned over his 1951 movie with Gary Cooper Distant Drums even though it had to be shown in a French-subtitled print, the only known available. The undercurrent of his comments seemed to be that PFA audiences deserve to see only the best-quality prints of the films programmed there. I'm not so sure I'd be so distracted by the presence of foreign-language subtitles on a Hollywood film (I used to see prints like that all the time when I was living abroad), but I understand the reluctance to have the PFA spring for the cost of shipping a less-than-ideal print, especially if, as Seid indicated, he was personally less than enthusiastic about Distant Drums. But his tantalizing words just made me eager to see it for myself somehow.

As Seid noted in a recent article posted to the PFA blog the institution has been "scrimping and saving" to purchase a new 4K digital projector capable of showing DCP, the now-industry-standard replacement for film reels. The device was installed a couple months ago, and I have yet to sample it. I have mixed feelings about it. Though it will allow the PFA to screen more of the new artist-made video works which are increasingly made available by their makers through DCP (perhaps David Gatten's The Extravagant Shadows might finally make its Frisco Bay premiere?), the use of such projectors to show digital versions of films made using photochemical processes seems to me to be a triumph of convenience over integrity. As Seid notes,
Films transferred to digital acquire a new kind of received illumination—it’s no longer simply light passing through a plastic strip but endless bits of information shuttled through a light array. These files are also output with perfect stability whereas film moves through the projector with a perceptible shudder, a fragile physical object making its way through a tolerant pathway.
Luckily the entire Walsh series is to be shown on 35mm film, the way it was intended by everyone involved in its creation. Or would be luckier to have a DCP version of Distant Drums as part of the series, were such a thing available? It's a conundrum, and not one likely to be solved in a way that satisfied my format-purist instincts. At any rate Walsh's Regeneration and What Price Glory? are two of the six silent films planned to screen on 35mm at the PFA this summer. The other four are the Gainsborough-produced films in the Alfred Hitchcock silent series coming to the venue in August- the same four shown on 35mm at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's Castro Theatre presentation last month, which I discussed at the time. As for Hitchcock's British International Pictures-produced silents, they would have to be left out of the PFA's Hitchcock 9 series if the 4K projector had not been installed.

The truth is, more and more new so-called "restorations" of silent films are being made available only digitally. In the previous four years the SFSFF had only screened one to three programs of digitally-presented work per festival. This year there will be as many as five essentially-DCP programs, matching the number of DCP shows in the Hitchcock weekend. The opening night presentation of Prix de Beauté starring Louise Brooks and Sunday afternoon's showing of The Weavers both exhibit new "restorations" from European archives, unavailable on formats other than DCP. In addition, the Sunday morning shorts program featuring Chaplin, Keaton, etc. and the closing film Safety Last! are both currently-touring thanks to US distributors, and also unavailable through these middlemen except via DCP. I'm as yet unclear on the format of the Winsor McCay animation program presented by scholar and animator John Canemaker. When he came to the PFA to showcase these films several years ago, he used 35mm prints, but there is no indication one way or the other on the SFSFF website.

Still, these 4-5 programs make up less than a third of the total programming at the SFSFF this year. I'm excited to revisit favorites like Tokyo Chorus and The Patsy on 35mm with new (to me, at any rate) musical scores, to finally see long-sought titles such as The Half-Breed, Legong: Dance of the VirginsThe House on Trubnaya Square and The Joyless Street, and to discover titles I was (at best) only dimly aware of before the festival announcement, like The First Born, the Golden Clown, Gribiche and The Last Edition. And I'll probably stick around to check out some of the digital versions as well- how else am I going to see rarities like Prix de Beauté or The Weavers these days?

HOW: Regeneration will screen via an archival 35mm from the Museum of Modern Art, with live musical accompaniment from pianist Judith Rosenberg.

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