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11 As Cinema Becomes Mass Entertainment, Porter Resists: 1907-1908
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A Rigorous Linear Temporality

The motion picture industry was moving toward a relationship between film production and exhibition in which the showman acted as a businessman-programmer who simply presented the completed, self-sufficient works of the production companies.[135] To the extent that Porter resisted this trend, he was part of the old guard. His continued commitment to a mode of representation associated with the pre-nickelodeon era is perhaps most apparent in his refusal to abandon a conception of temporality that was being jettisoned by his contemporaries. An exhaustive retrospective of films made in 1907-8 organized by Eileen Bowser at the Museum of Modern Art displayed a remarkable shift in the


depiction and organization of time. In the early months of 1907, Porter's The "Teddy" Bears and Lost in the Alps reflected the state of cinematic storytelling. Shots were still discrete units, overlapping action was frequent, temporal repetition common, and the narrative loosely constructed. By mid 1907 the most advanced production companies began to observe a linear structure. This involved two phases.

In the first phase, retrogressive elements like overlapping action were eliminated. In Vitagraph's The Boy, the Bust and the Bath (July 1907) or Pathé's The Doings of a Poodle (1907), there is rapid cutting between proximate spaces and, in many instances, a strong suggestion of a seamless linear temporality across shots. This, however, is not made explicit by techniques such as a match cut on action. In these films the consistent forward movement of time, often in conjunction with intertitles, greatly facilitated the viewer's effort to comprehend the narrative, particularly once the systematic nature of this representational approach became apparent to the spectator. This system subsequently provided the framework within which the mode of representation associated with the classical Hollywood cinema was to be constructed.

During the second phase, this linear framework was made explicit as new representational strategies, based on this reorganization of temporality, were developed. Pathé's popular The Runaway Horse , made in late 1907, explicitly acknowledged a linear temporality through its use of parallel editing. At this stage, however, the procedure served as the basis for a series of tricks:

shot 1.

man with scrawny horse and cart arrives outside city apartment building.

shot 2.

man goes up stairs.

shot 3.

outside the apartment building, the very scrawny horse begins to eat a bag of oats on display at the neighboring store.

shot 4.

man goes up the stairs.

shot 5.

man goes into family dining room and makes a delivery.

shot 6.

outside, the horse is eating—less oats in the bag.

shot 7.

family dining room, delivery man talks to man and woman.

shot 8.

delivery man goes down the stairs.

shot 9.

delivery man stops to talk to concierge.

shot 10.

outside, the horse is eating, much less grain in the bag.

shot 11.

man says good-bye to concierge.

shot 12.

delivery man comes outside—the horse attached to cart is strong, healthy and well-fed. The delivery man and cart quickly leave as the owner of the oats comes out and gives chase.

By cutting back and forth between two lines of action, Pathé's director, Ferdinand Zecca, was able to manipulate the size of the bag of oats and substitute


a dashing steed for a scrawny nag without having to resort to stop action. There is a rigorous advancement in time and a rapid alternation between activities in two spaces. Nothing so extensive happens in other available films made in late 1907 or early 1908, but Biograph's Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker (written by Griffith and directed by McCutcheon in March 1908) cuts away from a sequence in which a girl is visiting the offices of the Amalgamated Association of Charities to her sick mother at home—and then back again to the offices.[136] McCutcheon (and Griffith) conveyed a strong sense of linear temporality by showing simultaneous events in a parallel rather than successive manner, stopping short, however, of the rigorous a-b-a-b structure that is the paradigm for parallel editing.

Surviving films from late 1907-early 1908, while limited, nonetheless suggest that The Runaway Horse and Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker preceded the period when strategies of parallel editing or matching action were readily executed by filmmakers and accepted by spectators. This moment seems to have come in the summer of 1908 around the time Griffith was making The Fatal Hour (July 1908). The Fatal Hour shows a last minute rescue in which the forward march of time becomes the subject of the film: unless she is rescued, a pistol mounted on a clock will shoot the heroine when the minute hand reaches twelve. The Dramatic Mirror described The Fatal Hour as "a wholly impossible story, with a series of inconsistent situations, and yet the wild drive to the rescue while the clock slowly approaches the hour of twelve, brings a thrill that redeems the picture."[137] Cutting back and forth between the rescuers and the advancing clock, the editing creates an emotional intensity that far exceeds that of Lost in the Alps , which has a similar rescue but lacks a structure based on cross-cutting and the pressure of time moving inevitably forward. Porter's clock was, in fact, painted pasteboard and shows the same time throughout.[138]

In pictures like Life of an American Fireman and Lost in the Alps , time was primarily altered through pro-filmic manipulations—that is, through the contraction of action occurring off-screen. In The Fatal Hour , time was accelerated by filmic manipulation through cross-cutting. Griffith was able to move the clock forward whenever he cut to the rescue party (just as Zecca greatly reduced the sack of oats whenever he cut to the driver in the apartment house). Both types of temporal manipulations (filmic and pro-filmic) appear frequently in Griffith's films of 1908—as one might expect of this transitional period— but Griffith increasingly elaborated on the former and gradually eliminated the latter.

Griffith's films from the summer and fall of 1908, particularly Betrayed by a Handprint (August 1908) and The Guerrilla (October 1908), give an increasingly strong impression of matching action from shot to shot. By The Lonely Villa (April 1909), the Biograph director was matching action in most situations with comparative ease. These procedures specified a rigorous linear temporality. The shot ceased to be a discrete unit and became completely subservient to the


narrative and linear flow of events. Action now moved across shots, not within them. Linear temporality, parallel editing, and matching action encouraged a more efficient narrative structure. The dances, rodeo tricks, and peripheral incidents common to so many films of the pre-1907 period disappeared or were pushed into the background. Nor was this surprising. When a story was already known, telling the story was not that central. The ways in which a filmmaker elaborated on the story and introduced novelty features determined its success. With new, unfamiliar stories, that changed. In the terminology of Sergei Eisenstein, filmmakers had begun to edit on the dominant (orthodox montage), to make editorial choices that emphasized the drama of the narrative.[139]

In many cases, as Tom Gunning has shown in his impressive study of D. W. Griffith's career at Biograph, the new linear framework enabled that filmmaker to articulate moral judgments with unprecedented intensity.[140] Despite a radically different representational system, Griffith's ideological perspective had much in common with Porter's own outlook. This similarity is not very surprising, since both filmmakers were recently impoverished members of the old middle class, even if one came from a family of small-town merchants and the other from a family of once well-to-do, but subsequently modest, farmers. Adopting a linear narrative structure, however, enabled Griffith to articulate this viewpoint with greater specificity and explicitness. In The Kleptomaniac (February 1905), Porter showed first the story of Mrs. Banker and then the story of the poor mother. In The Song of the Shirt (October 1908), Griffith contrasted the predicament of the poor seamstress and her employer throughout the film by repeated juxtapositions of their simultaneously unfolding stories. Griffith was able to express the same moral outlook as Porter, but with greater impact, by operating within the new system of representation and production.

From late 1907 onward, directors at Pathé, Vitagraph, Biograph, and elsewhere were developing strategies that provided the basic framework for classical narrative cinema. By mid 1908 much cinema practice had finally acquired the basic attributes of mass communication. Five criteria offered by Melvin DeFleur and Everette Dennis were being fulfilled:

1. The film industry was using professional communicators throughout its ranks. This had not always been the case. Prior to 1904, for example, production personnel often appeared in front of the camera (a practice that Porter never entirely abandoned). Even in later films, like Daniel Boone , Porter had to depend on actors who lacked professional motion picture experience. By 1907-8 Edison and other production companies were increasingly relying on a group of actors who had professional experience in the film industry.

2. The film exchanges and the new release system ensured that films were disseminated in a relatively rapid and continuous way.


3. The nickelodeons ensured that these films reached relatively large and diverse audiences.

4. The proto-Hollywood representational system ensured that members of the audience interpreted the films in such a way that their meanings were more or less parallel to those intended by the filmmakers.

5. As a result of experiencing these films, audience members were influenced in some way. From the very first moving pictures, spectators were, of course, usually entertained and occasionally informed. By mid 1907, however, the scale was different and a cause for societal concern.[141]

The cinema was not automatically a system of mass communication. In 1908, important industry practices such as "talking pictures" remained outside this system. Yet the inauguration in 1908 of both regular, frequent releases and the new mode of representation meant that substantial segments of the motion picture industry had become part of a mass communication system. Porter, however, resisted many of these developments, particularly in the shift toward a mimetically consistent, self-sufficient, linear narrative structure.

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