The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History

By Lewis Jacobs | Go to book overview

III
ART: EDWIN S. PORTER AND THE EDITING PRINCIPLE

IF George Melies was the first to "push the cinema toward the theatrical way," as he claimed, then Edwin S. Porter was the first to push the cinema toward the cinematic way. Generally acknowledged today as the father of the story film, he made more than fictional contributions to movie tradition. It was Porter who discovered that the art of motion pictures depends on the continuity of shots, not on the shots alone. Not content with Melies' artificially arranged scenes, Porter distinguished the movies from other theatrical forms and gave them the invention of editing. Almost all motion picture developments since Porter's discovery spring from the principle of editing, which is the basis of motion picture artistry.

Significant for his genius for structural technique, Porter is equally noteworthy for his eye for content. Unlike Melies, who made fantasies, Porter turned to the real world for subject matter. He dramatized what he saw, reflected and commented on contemporary American life, illuminated many of the issues and interests of his time. His efforts to make real occurrences dramatic by means of editing widened the scope of movies, educated its technique, and through the introduction of the story film made the industry boom.

In 1896 Porter, a mechanic with an enthusiasm for machinery, had come to Edison Company as a general handy man, wondering whether or not he should have gone instead into the newfangled business of making horseless cars. Even after he had become a cameraman for Edison, he still seriously considered quitting the movies, for like most others he felt that popular interest in "living

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