Tuesday, September 01, 2009

House of Silent Scream: An eagle took my baby!

Welcome to the third annual Silent Scream series. Through out the month of September, mixed in with the normal ANTSS fare, you'll find posts subject of genre silent films. This year, we're going to be doing things a little bit different this year. First, I've invited other bloggers to join in the fun, so you'll get posts from new and familiar faces this year. Second, we're expanding our coverage to include films and topics that reflect the diversity of the guests participating.

As this is the opening post of this year's Silent Scream series, I think it's appropriate that today's flick, the 1908 man-versus-nature thriller Rescued from an Eagle's Nest, gives us the opportunity the discuss one of early American cinema's most important figures: the innovative, yet enigmatic Edwin S. Porter.

Born in 1870, Edwin Porter was the son of a well-to-do Pennsylvania merchant and was on of six siblings. Despite the middle-class trappings of his early years, Porter was seemingly a restless youth and, after dropping out of school at the age of 14, Porter worked a series of odd jobs including sign painter, telegraph operator, ship engine builder, and exhibition ice skater. In 1893, Porter joined the US Navy as an electrician. The Navy gave the already mechanically inclined Porter the thorough technical training his wandering youth had denied him. In doing so, the Navy prepped Porter for his future employment with the Edison company and, unintentionally, helped gave the American film industry its first truly important director.

After leaving the Navy, Porter got work at Vitascope, the projector manufacture and film production arm of Thomas Edison's vast commercial empire. The vitascope itself was not actually an Edison invention. Atypically, Edison was slow to understand the commercial potential of movie projectors. When several of his employees who were working on the concept defected, Edison took it as a wake up call. Having lost much of his R & D expertise, Edison did what any good capitalist innovator would do: He bought his way back into the race. In 1895 to inventors, C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat, displayed their phantoscope projector to impressed audiences at the Atlanta Cotton States Exhibition. Their triumph was short-lived. Not long after, the two partners bitterly parted ways and each claimed to be the sole inventor of the phantoscope. Armat showed the system to Edison's men, hoping to secure some sort of developmental support. Edison agreed to manufacture the projectors and create original films for the new machine, but only on the condition that the machine be renamed the vitascope and that Edison be given public credit for its invention. With some minor tweaks, the phantoscope died and the "new" vitascope was added to Edison's long list of modern wonders.

Porter began working for Vitascope in 1896. It was the perfect time to get into the biz: the rebranded projector had its public debut in New York City in April of that year. Porter was on hand as part of the tech crew.

The vitascope entered a very crowded field. American companies debuted the eidoloscope (a near-exact copy of the not so "new" vitascope), the kineopticon, and the biograph. Competition came from overseas as well. The Lumière cinématographe, which had debuted in 1895 in France, arrived in the United States.

Back then, the film equipment manufacturers acted as the major studios. They made the devices needed to record and project films and they made most of the movies shown on their devices. Not all the movies, though. Even in the early days of cinema, there were independent players in the biz. Independent theaters would lease or buy equipment and then acquire films on their own. Independent filmmakers would purchase filmmaking equipment and then market their wares to the bigger producers, who would act as distributors. Finally, there was an entire class of licensees: freelancers who would rent equipment from the big production groups and then sell back any footage they shot. By the turn of the century, nearly 40 percent of the films sold under the Edison banner were shot by licensees or independents. In 1898, Porter went indie and became the projectionist at the independent Eden Musee Theatre in Manhattan. This job served as Porter's film school. His job consisted of illegally duplicating and recutting films, especially the work of the famed French master of the fantasy film, Georges Méliès. Carefully re-editing the films of others gave Porter an appreciation of film aesthetics, a broad knowledge of the art's techniques, and a nimble mind for the editing process.

After a failed attempt to invent his own camera and projector, Porter returned to Edison. This time, however, Porter was behind the camera. His most successful early films – 1902's Jack and the Beanstalk and 1903's Life of an American Fireman - aped Méliès's style and methods, but Porter quickly started introducing stylistic innovations of his own. His next film, The Great Train Robbery, not only included powerful visuals (most famously, a bandit fires his pistol directly at the camera) but it introduced the method of cross-cut editing to show simultaneous action in multiple locations. A year later he introduced parallel story narrative structure into his The Kleptomaniac. A year after that, Porter introduced side lighting, close-ups, and incorporated changed shots within a scene into a single film. Technical advances seemed to just pour out Porter. Later he would combine documentary and staged footage into a single film and innovate on-location night shooting.

In essence, Porter shifted the basic unit of film from the scene to the shot. In doing so, Porter liberated film from its stagecraft roots and established it as a unique medium. If he'd made no greater contribution to the medium, he would still rank among the most important directors ever.

But, for all Porter's insights into the formal nature of film and his sense of its untapped technical capabilities, he had two profound weaknesses as an artist. First, Porter approached formal innovations as if they were special effects. Instead of building a new language cinema, he tended to treat each new development as a one-off gimmick. He would evolve the cross cut technique for use in one film, further develop it into parallel narratives, and then inexplicably drop the technique to never fully engage it again. This meant the Porter never developed a signature style or revealed a consistent developing talent over time. Second, Porter viewed film as a new way to tell old stories. He never showed any profound interest in creating novel narratives for the screen, preferring instead to rely on documentary and stage sources that quickly seemed dated to novelty craving audiences. Though he liberated the medium from theater tradition, he never grasped that he had a new medium that demanded new stories.

Though it is too much ideological baggage to load on to any one man, it's almost impossible to not see in Porter career the roots of American cinema's most lasting and damning stereotype: that we make technically astounding, but artistically lacking works.

Porter isn't in the director's chair for Rescued from an Eagle's Nest. Rather, he's double-credited as the producer and cinematographer. Still, there are some classic Porter characteristics on display.

The story of this seven-minute flick is simple. Somewhere on the frontier, a lanky lumberjack (played by youthful D. W. Griffith long before he became perhaps the most controversial director in American history) says goodbye to his wife and child and heads off to fell some old growth. His wife returns to her wifely duties in their small cabin, leaving the child outside to play. A massive eagle swoops down and snatches the child. The horrified mother scrambles for a rifle, but then realizes that shooting the bird would mean that the child would plummet to its death. She runs and tells her husband what happened. The husband knows that there's an eagles nest on a cliff not far from their worksite. The husband and wife, accompanied by two coworkers, go to the cliff. The spot the baby in the eagle's nest, but the eagle is nowhere to be seen. They tie a rope around the father's waist and lower him over the edge of the cliff. As he reached the nest, the eagle returns and attacks him. There is a long, energetic struggle before the father kills the not-yet-endangered symbol of America with his bare hands. The coworkers pull the father up. The family is reunited. All exit, screen right, with much joy.

As with most of Porter's projects, the story would have been a familiar one to his viewers. Every year or so, Eastern newspapers would carry some story about an oversized bird of prey making off with some noble frontier family's child. As a weird and anecdotal case study in media effects, Rescued from an Eagle's Nest was released in January of 1908 and, that same year, papers ran no less than four different avian kidnapper stories. The flick is a plot machine. Even by the standards of the early pictures, the story is efficient and lean. It plays out in near real time, the better to emphasize the thrilling tension of the plot. There's little characterization (except for a hysterical coworker whose over-emoting is, I suspect, a bit of improv on the actor's part) those places where the story pauses a bit seem more like pacing slip ups rather intentional moments of reflection. Thematically, the film comes from a pre-conservation time and, while it lacks any sense of historic irony, it is interesting to see a film from an era when nature was unproblematically a resource or a threat. Too thin to be truly involving, the plot does still pull the viewer along. In this, it should be considered to have succeeded on its own terms, even if some viewers would have liked more meat on them bones.

The film was partially shot in Edison's studio in Bronx (that greenhouse-looking building shown above) and partially shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Director E. Searle Dawley makes no attempt to disguise the studio/location split. The sets for the frontier home and the eagle's nest are opulently fake. Though modern viewers may simply put this down as an artifact film's primitive beginnings, placing this overt fakiness side-by-side with realistic location shots was noted by the film's contemporary critics. Critics at the time felt the tone shift this caused was a serious flaw. I disagree. Viewed now, the on-set scenes have a hint of magic realism about them. They give the viewer the agreeable sense that you're viewing a classic American tall tale, with its mix of frontier grit and absurd fancy. The same is true of the puppet eagle, which looks less like a realistic eagle and more like a newspaper artists conception of a monster bird.

The film's only real flaw comes in the clumsy editing. Though the "chase" aspect of the plot calls out for the cross-cutting methods Porter was already familiar with, he never clued the director in on them. There are also several unintentional cuts that weirdly overlap the action, though Porter should have been skilled enough to spot and edit out these slips. It could be that Porter was simply respecting the director's role, even to the degree of letting the director make his own errors. But, given Porter's odd relationship to the techniques he mastered, it is just as likely that Porter didn't care.

For the casual viewer, Rescued isn't essential viewing. For those curious in the origins of cinema, it is worth checking out. This is doubly true considering that it appears in the four disk "Inventing the Movies" collection – a joint Kino Films, MoMA production – that is required viewing.


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