It’s nice to have certain years where you know there’s only a single choice. It’s always nice to have anchors. For 1903, this is the only choice. This is one of the five most important films made before 1910. This is one of the ten most important films of the entire silent era.
And you know this movie. Even if you haven’t seen it, you know it. (Ever see Goodfellas? Then you recognize the image that was the Pic of the Day.) (Which is also a nice little coincidence… two movies on consecutive days referenced in Martin Scorsese films. And if you really wanted to know how important and awesome the silent era is, know that Martin Scorsese built an entire film around the era, and references the era constantly. And if it’s good enough for a man considered the greatest living director, it’s good enough for you and your “Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best movie ever made” watching ass.)
Aside from Georges Melies, no one was working this long in 1903. In terms of American filmmaking, maybe five, six minutes was as long as you were gonna get. And even then, there weren’t that many at the time. That’s one of the reasons this film is considered so much of a milestone. It’s ten minutes, and tells a complete story. (Plus it’s also one of the first westerns ever made, and considering that is the American genre, that’s a huge deal in and of itself.)
Porter makes use of multiple locations, even multiple characters, and manages to use editing and staging to tell a complete story in an era that really doesn’t do much of that, and doesn’t try to do that. This would be like, during the era where everyone was crawling, or half fish-people or whatever, the first dude to get up and start walking around. Or, the first monkey in 2001 to pick up the bone and beat the other monkey to death with it. It’s a real achievement. (more…)