Posted by David Kalat on September 7, 2013
As any fan of reality TV can tell you, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are poorly policed. Reality shows emphasize drama—often following entirely predictable and palpably artificial storylines—yet are constituted of footage of events that actually happened. The irony is that for all the ways that this may feel challenging or new, it has been part of cinema since the very beginning. This is where movies began, in the 1880s and 90s.
The earliest motion pictures were just what their name said: pictures that moved. And as such they had a lot in common with pictures that didn’t move—records of real events. Take a quick look at whatever pictures you have on your phone. How many are attempts to tell stories, or to be artistic, versus how many are documentary records of things that happened to you? Think about what comprised the first ever Lumiere Brothers film show in 1895—here’s our office, here’s our friends, this is somebody’s baby. It’s a photo album that moves. All that’s missing are some Lumiere Brothers selfies throwing up deuces.
To keep this conversation from getting too unwieldy, I need to bring in the technical term for these earliest films: actualities. But I’m a little leery of that term and delayed introducing it for a reason. If you think about actualities as being defined by reality, if you think of them as proto-documentaries, then you’re likely to get into trouble.
Take the Lumiere’s Leaving the Factory. Well, what kind of a factory is it? It’s a movie camera factory. The people leaving that factory are absolutely aware of what that funny box on the tripod is, and they didn’t get to leave the factory until their boss, the guy making the movie, said so. Or take Edison’s The Kiss—it may look like a couple of middle-aged schlubs having a quick snog but in fact they are professional actors recreating a scene from a play they were in. As “actualities” go these are staged events involving subjects who are aware of and playing to the camera.
It is the same phenomenon that we now have with Reality TV—the presence of the camera by itself has a distorting effect that influences events. Reality TV feels scripted because the subjects adjust their behavior to what they think will play best on TV.
So, the crucial transformation to look for in charting primitive cinema isn’t just from actualities to scripted drama, because the two are already close enough that the switch is mostly just a matter of inflection. Something else happened in those early years that had a more revolutionary effect. We just lack the vocabulary to describe it properly.
Once again I’m choosing my words carefully—I say “vocabulary” because language is the key concept here. As children of the media age we all know the language of cinema as a mother tongue. But this language involves unique attributes unlike any spoken language, and for which our spoken vocabulary is inadequate as a substitute.
A “cut” suggests something has been removed, and a “splice” suggests something has been inserted—yet both are synonyms, and what this actually does in visual terms is so much else besides.
For example, here’s a promotional video for one of my son’s favorite Reality TV programs, Duck Dynasty. Regardless of whether you also enjoy this show, or have ever even heard of it, just try to count all of the things that editing does in this clip:
There are individual shots in which different camera angles on the same scene are juxtaposed so that the cut joins two different contemporaneous views of the same event; there are also shots in which the same people are in the same location doing the same things but at different points in time; there are talking heads bits in which the interviewees narrate the onscreen events from a later point in time but as if they were happening in the present tense; and there are talking heads bits with narration from outside that frame commenting on the show in general.
It’s the visual equivalent of a person speaking in a barrage of homonyms, homophones, puns, and complete non sequiturs, and expecting you to keep up. If you watched this without a basic understanding of how cuts works, how edits can join two different views of the same event or two views of the same event or to compress (or expand) time, you’d be completely bewildered by this clip. In other words, if you showed this in 1895 it would be completely incomprehensible, yet it is a promotional video for a piece of mainstream television with a sizeable youth audience. Between 1895 and today, our visual literacy has evolved substantially.
Which raises the obvious question—when did this happen, and how?
For many film theorists and historians, the key text in this regard is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. This 1914 feature includes a legendary sequence in which Griffith cuts between several different events to imply contemporaneous action, build suspense, and imply relationships—to put it in a technical term, cross-cutting. In short, Griffith’s film is closer to Duck Dynasty than to Leaving the Factory.
But there’s a problem. Birth of a Nation is a mean-spirited work born of hatred and intolerance. It’s hard to watch, and uncomfortable to respect. Very few film historians went into the field in order to valorize the Ku Klux Klan. The fact that Birth of a Nation has survived when so many other silent films are lost seems to me an argument against the existence of God. We don’t have Hats Off, but we have this?
But… there is a competing claim. Another film, even older than Nation, that featured cross-cutting. And as this film was “rediscovered” in the 1960s and 70s, a whole alternate history of cinema started to congeal around Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman. It was perfect: here was a film that could kick Birth of a Nation off its pedestal, it came from an unalloyed hero of early cinema, and it was only 6 minutes long. Who wouldn’t trade Griffith’s KKK-loving diatribe for this?
The only hitch was… there actually isn’t any cross-cutting in it.
Huh? What’s that, you say? Well, you see, in the early days of cinema, the Library of Congress didn’t have a mechanism in place to deposit actual film prints for copyright registration. Filmmakers had to make “paper prints” for deposit—printing each and every frame on paper and then depositing that huge stack of stills. Yes, it’s absurd.
Film archivists have been going through these paper prints, and rephotographing them onto film to turn them back into motion pictures. Some films otherwise lost have been recovered in this way. Life of an American Fireman wasn’t lost, though, there were prints in circulation that had supported the claim that it pioneered cross-cutting. But the restored paper print version, which matched what Edwin S. Porter had submitted for copyright registration in 1903, didn’t correspond to the print then in circulation.
So let’s watch it together and figure this out. There’s only 9 shots in this, it won’t take long.
1. The Vision.
The film opens with a fireman falling asleep. He’s not snoozing on the job—our hero is having a vision of a woman and her child trapped in a burning building. Thanks to this disquieting premonition, he will speed to her rescue. (They are presumably his own wife and child. I’ve never imagined anything else, but I’ve been deeply puzzled by some commentators who didn’t read it this way. I find that almost willfully obtuse and choose not to engage in that argument).
Right away, Porter is throwing down the gauntlet—this vision involves Melies-style optical trickery, to combine two different scenes in one shot. With all the fuss over cross-cutting, how come this doesn’t get more attention?
2. The Alarm.
Since psychic premonitions aren’t enough to justify a full-on emergency response, only when the actual alarm goes off does anyone lash up the horses.
Let’s note that the opening shot (#1) was as actor on a studio set in a controlled environment using special effects. This shot may well be an “actuality” involving as it does an actual fire alarm.
3. The Firemen Respond (Interior Sleeping Quarters)
The confusion between staged scenes and actualities increases here. I’m not able to tell just from watching whether this is staged or real. But I hope you’re paying attention to this issue—the mixing of staged scenes with actualities is very, very important to understanding what makes Life of an American Fireman exceedingly important, regardless of whether it pioneered “cross-cutting.”
4. The Firemen Respond (Garage)
This is certainly actuality-style footage of an actual firehouse, as the horses are lashed up, the firemen board, and the engines go screaming off. Pay close attention to how many engines there are, what style they are, how many horses there are, and what color they are.
5. Fire Trucks Race to the Rescue (1)
This shot of fire trucks speeding down a city street is also actuality footage—but if you look closely you’ll see a 1903 example of a continuity error. In the previous shot, three engines left. The first one to leave had two white horses, the two that followed had two black horses each. Yet here we have trucks pulled by three horses, a mixture of white and dark, and the engine design is wholly different.
6. Fire Trucks Race to the Rescue (2)
More actuality footage, more continuity errors. How many trucks are there? What kinds of horses? What kinds of engines?
7. The Woman and Her Child.
Now we’re back to studio sets and actors—and you can tell by looking at the wall, where the Edison Company’s logo has been affixed to the scenery. This form of in-camera branding was intended to help fight piracy and prove ownership of the footage.
8. Fireman Save My Child
OK, kids, here’s where it gets complicated. We just saw the lady and her rugrat saved, and now bizarrely the film has leaped backwards in time to show the same events all over again from a different point of view.
Forgive me, but this is the weirdest piece of editing imaginable—this borders on the avant garde. But this avant garde weirdness only exists here because it hadn’t yet occurred to Porter (or anyone else) that you could cut in the middle of a scene, go look at something else for a while, and then come back. In other words, cross-cut.
As soon as cross-cutting was an option, it would quickly become the norm. Filmmakers would abandon the all-or-nothing approach—because it makes no sense. It is absolutely insane to run a scene through in its entirety, then roll back to the beginning and watch it all over again from a different angle. It feels like we’re watching the daily rushes, an unfinished product.
What we have is a movie with a hole in it—a conspicuous absence. Cross-cutting isn’t in place, but its absence is felt. Imperatives are in place that will lead, inexorably, to its invention. If not Griffith, then someone.
And I believe this explains how cross-cutting was imputed (imported?) to Life of an American Fireman. I doubt that anyone did it as an intentional hoax. More plausible is that a private collector, with a copy of Fireman lying around, decided to do the obvious thing and shuffle shots 8 and 9 together, to make it more sensible, more enjoyable to watch. Then, somehow, that personal cut was duplicated and distributed without a disclaimer.
The focus on the presence, or absence, of cross-cutting in this film entirely miss the point, however. Life of an American Fireman did something else, definitively. Sure, the last two scenes probably ought to have been shuffled together, but in the preceding 7 scenes Porter has already been shuffling together staged scenes with documentary footage—and he has made no effort at all to make the documentary clips follow any consistency about what exactly they depict. From shot to shot, the number and color of horses varies, the number and style of engines vary—and yet nobody notices.
As continuity errors go, they are as blatant and blunt as possible, yet this is not a detail on which any appreciation of the film has ever fumbled. Porter spliced together actuality footage from what appear to be 4, maybe 5, different fire departments and assumed that the narrative flow implied by putting them together in the same presentation would smooth over any obvious inconsistencies in the footage. The horses can change color and number from moment to moment, but audiences don’t care—they mentally paper over the gaps and accept them as continuous action.
Which is precisely how cross-cutting works—so maybe Porter invented it after all.
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