The Half-Breed ★★★½

Didn't so much see a movie as Decasia in action; the print was pristine on its own (no obvious damage to its surface), but its source seemed to be some kind of horrible paper print survivor, so each reel — only half of the running time was there — started OK but was disrupted by increasing levels of visual gabba, first tentatively gobbling the sides then increasing in sonic-ish waves and (by the end of each reel) making the image almost totally illegible. Which as an experience is actually kind of fascinating, insofar as it creates unintended suspense — how much of the frame can I grok before it's snatched away? — but obviously not preferable (Peter Labuza informed me a restored edition will premiere at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival next year, so if he's wrong it's his ass). Anyway, what I saw was pretty fascinating, a Western before the genre was narratively codified as the faceoff between some more/less ambiguous version of the stand-off between putative civilization and the outlaw/displaced Native American forces on the frontiers of unsettled terrain. This is clearly Western country, with Douglas Fairbanks as the title half breed abandoned in "a world of ruthless white men," as the titles unambiguously announce (nothing's changed). He tries to claim his place in a frontier town but there's no Good V. Entropy stand-off (although only about half of the narrative got shown in this garbled rendition; for all I know the MoMA projectionist made an executive decision in disgust, since a 60 minute running time was listed). There's a powerful sense of something from recent history being conjured up from personal memory; Dwan plants his camera in the middle of streets or in churches with open doors, and you can see all the way down the middle of the road, with milling extras each performing plausibly individuated actions seemingly plausibly part of a visible microcosm of a Western town in astonishingly coherent deep-focus, at least until the visual garbage leaves only a barely-existent narrow middle of information. I'd like to see the restored version, basically.