See the moving picture


Continuity in Action (IV)

Life of an American Fireman

Edwin S. Porter, Edison Manufacturing Co., USA, 1902-03

About a year after the appearance of James Williamson’s Fire! (see Figure 8.4), Edwin S. Porter made a version of the same story for Edison. Porter’s treatment of the climactic rescue, however, is quite different than Williamson’s. As Porter’s film unfolds in linear sequence, the exterior shot on the right follows immediately upon the interior shot on the left. Although the passage of screen time in each shot is not identical, the action—both what’s shown and what’s implied—is intended to be the same: the same action, in other words, is repeated in its entirety. In a burning bedroom, a woman cries for help and faints; a fireman comes through the window, carries the woman to the ladder in the window, disappears momentarily, returns to rescue a child who’s been hidden under the bedclothes, and descends the ladder a second time. The only difference between the two represented actions is the coverage of the fireman’s two trips up and down the ladder: In the shot on the left, they’re implied (both by logic and the fireman’s momentary absence) because the shot is taken from inside the house, where we can’t see the fireman on the ladder; in the shot on the right, the two trips are explicit because the shot is taken from outside the house, where we can see the fireman go up and down the ladder. The reliance on overlapping action—which preserves the sequential property of film unfolding linearly—suggests that Porter, unlike Williamson, doubted an audience’s ability to comprehend an illusion of actions which, though simultaneous, had to be shown in linear fashion. (A more detailed sequence of shots from Life of an American Fireman is analyzed in Figure 4.24.)

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