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Life of an American Policeman

Film Review by Abby Welling May 28, 2015

Obviously inspired by and quite similar to Porter’s previous Life of and American Fireman. One of the main, most interesting similarities is the mix of arranged and actual material. They start with a nice domestic scene, featuring three real little kids circulating sweetly around the theatrical space. Next comes a long-ish shot of a whole bunch of real uniformed policeman emerging from their precinct building. They are looking good, and proud, and very justified. The Keystone Cops are just a few years away, and over in Europe they’ve been disrespectful to this kind of constabulatory authority since Greek New Comedy. But here there’s not a hint of disrespect, or dissatisfaction. Rather we’ve got a thoroughly conservative sensibility, informing a thoroughly conservative institution. Tradition and order and authority are basic and necessary and incontrovertible. (Of course there are other strands of conservative thought that feels somewhat  different toward officialdoms.)

The task of the remainder of the film is to illustrate and reinforce this idea. A policeman is kind to some lost children, and another helps someone across a busy street. They’ve carefully arranged the dramatic scenes, but not so much the urban space—the frame is rich with authentic detail, doubtless taken for granted at the time, now full of fascinations and lost treasures. (Look at the interesting balance of equine and automotive transport. Look at all of that manure all over the streets.)

From these quiet duties we now move to the dramatic. A lady, intent on suicide, jumps off of that wharf into the Hudson River. The artificiality of the scene is very evident, but look how very long it takes all of these fellows to pull her out. In a certain sense the scene goes on way too long, and the single camera position is something that will quite properly be advanced into fragmentation and concision and cinematic excitement. But even though that’s true, and it’s fine, this scene is still pretty amazing! The duration is positively radical, both cinematically—Abbas Kiarostami talked about his appreciation for something similar in Chaplin’s The Kid, and he made this kind of thing the core of his own provocative practice—as well as documentarily. The latter context is more profound. Digests make sense in a way, but respecting and representing an actual event has to be one of the most profound ways to redeem reality (cf. Siegfried Kracauer, 1960). Turn off those cell phones!

We get a tiny glimpse of parallel montage as we cut from the after-rescue to the approach of a rushing ambulance. Again, a halting, terrific sequence shows us the mechanics and the duration of their work. Next we have a lady on a runaway horse. (These fellows are very gallant. These ladies keep getting themselves into scrapes, maybe related to what seems to be their presumed helplessness and even weakness.) Terrific riding! The notes mention a foiled robbery, but it doesn’t actually appear in the film.

The conclusion is curious, hard to read, and a rather fine relic. It’s a policeman’s prank, involving disguised mounts and the various conveyances that are still being utilized these days. It doesn’t read very well, and the previously mentioned radical duration, as well as an inflexible camera, don’t work as well in this instance. The great thing, though, is how private, even hermetic this is. History shouldn’t have to apologize for being historical, and it’s the historian’s duty to crack thorny impenetrabilities such as these. Things have changed. Let’s be mindful of and respectful to past practices, even if they are extinct.