Genius At Work: Edwin Porter in Life of An American Fireman

by Emon Hassan on April 2, 2008

I love editing! I cut my teeth, so to speak, by editing the dozens of radio plays. When I’d moved on to editing movies, I was essentially cutting to the beat of sound. I don’t mean using sound beats to cut picture to; I looked to match mood with sound rhythm on picture. In the beginning I was obsessed with continuity trying to match direction, movement, etc. It made for great synchronization which also made scenes mechanical. Continuity is overrated, Wim Wenders would say, and to move a story forward you can take liberties.

I’ve posted about Man With A Movie Camera that took editing to new levels back in 1929. Narrative editing, on the other hand, took a big step with Edwin Porter’s Life of An American Fireman. Porter’s other film – released the following year – The Great Train Robbery is better known between the two. I personally like “Fireman” because – the documentary approach he took, combining real and dramatized footage  of course – at 3:15 he does a quick flashforward inside the apartment, jump cut included, until coming back to where he’d left off at 6:00. Genius!!  Of course, you’ll notice the window was done away with when the POV switched to outside but I guess that’s because the camera couldn’t have possibly captured the action inside the house through glass windows. In the flashforward, the fireman takes her out and is instantly back for the kid – jump cut! – whereas later reenactment has him take her all the way down upon which she cries “My babyyyy!” (I think).

Again, genius!!

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