Wednesday, March 30, 2016

No Audio Audient: Regeneration

This is the third in my 2016 series where I catch up with one per month of one of my biggest blind spots: silent movies.

Regeneration marks the first movie of this series into which I came in having no preconceived notions whatsoever. It's also the first non-comedy. While I started with silent comedy superstars Harold Lloyd (The Freshman) and Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr.), the only name I knew associated with Regeneration was Raoul Walsh, who would later direct the excellent White Heat, starring James Cagney. So this movie -- which I learned about only because it was mentioned as newly available on Youtube by someone in my Flickcharters Facebook discussion group -- interested me as a study of a directing career that bridged from silent films to talkies. In fact, Walsh's career dove deep into the talkie era, as he made his final film in 1964 and lived until 1980. Regeneration was his first feature.

The other interesting thing about it is that it immediately became one of the three oldest features I've recorded myself as having seen -- and that includes The Great Train Robbery from 1903, which is only a feature in the loosest definition of that term. When I want to find the next oldest I have to skip ahead a whole 12 years to 1915, which now contains two films I've seen: Regeneration, and of course The Birth of a Nation. (Interestingly, Walsh appears in Nation as an actor -- he played John Wilkes Booth.)

As Regeneration came out nine months after Nation, it understandably does not get the same credit for redefining the narrative form that D.W. Griffith got. While watching it, however, I didn't have any idea of their respective release dates within 1915, and I wondered why more people didn't talk about Regeneration for its sophistication within early narrative film. Not only is there a real sense of editing and the varying of medium and long shots, both attributes that Griffith generally gets credit for, but the camera even moves tentatively on a dolly, which likely also occurs in Nation (don't remember that movie all that well) but startled me in a movie as old as this.

Speaking of the film's age ... this also marked the first time I have ever watched a movie that was more than a century old when I saw it. I've seen movies that are now more than a century old -- well, just The Great Train Robbery and The Birth of a Nation, I guess -- but they were not yet that old when I saw them. Kind of neat.

So in terms of plot, this is a gangster movie, which would come to be Walsh's specialty. (Since I've only seen this and White Heat, though, I can't really compare and contrast the silent Walsh and the talkie Walsh like I hoped I might be able to do.) However, Regeneration is not particularly heavy on plot, as you might expect. Or rather, there's enough plot, but it goes by slowly, and some of the nuance is lost by the decision to have comparatively few title cards. The title cards it does have tend to be long and somewhat flowery, though the actual blow-by-blow of conversations between characters is often left mostly to the viewer's imagination. That did cause my mind to wander a bit, and at times I thought I was lost within a more complicated plot. Later, I realized that not that much had really been happening, which is not all that surprising for a film made at the very dawn of sophisticated narrative filmmaking. It takes 71 minutes for not that much to happen, but they're a pretty interesting 71 minutes for the flavor you get of that time.

In short, it's the story of an orphan named Owen, who grows up poor and eventually falls in with a gang, steadily rising to become its leader. He then meets a girl who makes him want to change his ways, and the story is essentially his attempts at heroic redemption as his old life keeps pulling him back in. What's perhaps most profound about this movie in terms of its sophistication (spoiler alert) is that it does not have a happy ending. The beautiful girl that tries to save him ends up dying at the hands of a villain who was once in league with the hero, the hero not quite shaking off his dark side enough to save her. I would have guessed that at the very least, the filmmakers of 1915 were trying to send their audiences home happy. I didn't figure that tragedies would be very big in the nascent years of feature-length filmmaking, but tragedies have been big on the stage through the history of drama, so it shouldn't have been a surprise to me that Regeneration ends tragically -- but was anyway.

One thing that really impressed me, especially compared to what I remember of Birth of a Nation, was the subtlety of the acting. I remember Birth of a Nation being pretty big, but here the actors communicate a lot with subtle shifts in their facial expressions, and long, solemn looks. That seems like it should be a credit to Walsh for sure.

I found it interesting how easy it was to differentiate a movie from 1915 from a movie that came out in, say, 1925. If you had any tendency to lump all silent films together in the same group visually, Regeneration is the type of movie that reminds you otherwise. Some of this is damaged footage that was only partly salvageable, but even beyond that, the stock looks different -- more sepia. I also noted the old-fashioned effect of having only a small area lit around a character on a close-up, for all intents and purposes changing the shape of the frame to that of a locket -- probably not altogether surprising given that lockets were still quite in fashion back then.

One technical achievement worth drawing attention to is a fire aboard an excursion ferry, complete with flames, characters rushing in a panic and even a long shot of people jumping off the flaming boat. It's not Titanic, but it's pretty darn impressive for 1915 -- which would have been only three years after the real Titanic sank. (And actually, it was based on the real sinking of a boat called the General Slocum in 1904. The Slocum sank in New York's East River, killing more than a thousand of the 1,342 people on board.)

Okay! I think in April it might finally be time to tackle a true demon -- not only a silent film, but a silent film with an incredibly long running time. Let's grapple with an actual Griffith film and move forward one year to 1916, with the 163-minute Intolerance. Here's hoping I can tolerate it.

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