Friday, October 10, 2008


Jack and the Bean Stalk
US 1902. PC: Edison. D: Edwin S. Porter. Print source: LoC, 625 ft /16 fps/ 11 min. No intertitles.
The Life of an American Fireman
US 1903. PC: Edison. D: Edwin S. Porter. Cast: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughan. Print source: LoC, 700 ft /16 fps/ 12 min, no intertitles
Tom Gunning: "As Charles Musser has shown in his detailed and insightful analysis of this film, Jack and the Beanstalk was one of the most elaborate productions ever offered by any American production company. The film quite consciously uses the theatrical aspects of the fairy pantomime tradition. The framing of the shots reproduces a proscenium arch, with the actors filling less than half the height of the frame when standing. The scenes are staged frontally, with the camera directly in front of the set at a right angle and with offscreen areas rarely playing important roles except for entrances and exits of characters. The sets use the system of painted flats placed at different distances that 19th-century theater had evolved to create a sense of depth and recession out of easily movable two-dimensional elements (see A. Nicholas Vardac, Stage to Screen). Although these sets strike the modern eye as artificial, they create a complex and carefully arranged scenic effect.
Theatrical fairy pantomimes consisted of a series of scenes, often described as “tableaux” or pictures, due to their highly spectacular nature.Thus, this form offered early filmmakers a highly visual scenography that strung scenes, each usually filmed in a single shot, together, united by the unfolding of the story. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the transition between shots is made by a brief overlap dissolve, a technique already used by Méliès in his fairy pantomime films but derived initially from the “dissolving views” of magic lantern shows, which used an optical overlapping to switch from one slide image to the next. Thus even the cutting between shots becomes a visually pleasant attraction.
Creating a consistent and continuous sense of time posed a new frontier for story films. As films began to follow actions over more than one shot, the models of practices that filmmakers drew on (such as the succession of magic lantern slides or the layout of a comic strip) did not exist in time in the same way that motion pictures did. In 1902-03, films tried out ways of dealing with time that differ from later practices.
A more extended example of temporal overlap occurs in a longer film that Porter filmed for the Edison Company in 1902 and released in 1903, The Life of an American Fireman. The film demonstrates the way a series of shots could be strung together to create a longer narrative, by focusing on process more than characters.
Life of an American Fireman follows an overarching action, forging a number of shots into a continuous dramatic danger-and-rescue scenario. But what type of story and what type of storytelling is this? As Musser has pointed out, the fire rescue was a familiar topic, the subject of lantern slides, a topic of amusement-park re-enactment (“Fighting the Flames” became an attraction at Dreamland and other amusement parks), and a familiar “sensation scene” in stage melodramas since the 19th century. Fire and rescue formed a spectacle, an attraction, even more than a narrative situation. Life of an American Fireman straightforwardly follows a process rather than creating the narrative enigmas and delays we associate with storytelling. From the alarm to the arrival of the firemen at the house, the film follows a sequence of preparing and racing to a fire that any urban dweller would find familiar. Physical action moving through the frame (the firemen down the pole, the engines out of the station, down the street) also propels the film, even overriding apparent inconsistencies. Besides the temporal overlaps that stretch out actions between shots, lapses in continuity indicate little concern for the consistencies that later Hollywood practice would try to preserve, as the number of vehicles and the colors of the horses vary from shot to shot. Actions rather than characters carry the film. The firemen are not individualized and even the woman and child, undoubtedly stirring audience sympathy, remain distant figures whose actions remain clearer than their faces."
– Tom Gunning

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