Silent with English Intertitles
Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson
Borderline (1930), the only feature film directed by Kenneth MacPherson (1902-1971), is one of the most important and most beautiful films ever made. It was the result of another magic confluence of queer talent: the bisexual poet HD (Hilda Doolittle’s pen name), her long term partner the novelist ‘Bryher’, and Bryher’s (mostly gay) husband Kenneth MacPherson. These three, who called themselves ‘the Pool group’, created the avant-garde film magazine Close Up. They were bang on in the centre of the modernist movement. HD and Bryher not only devoted much of their time to producing experimental writing, but they also built a stunning modernist house for themselves and their daughter in Switzerland.
All three occasionally slept with each other, it seems, and the boundaries of their individual creative input into Borderline are equally fuzzy. The whole project feels like a triumph of collective derring-do. HD played a major (the main?) acting role in Borderline -- her bony, brittle, and beautiful frame is unforgettable as ‘Astrid’, the pulse of the film. Bryher also appears, as the butch (it is implied, lesbian) bar owner. MacPherson seems to have been in charge of the editing, which is the glory of the film. How quickly we have forgotten the radical visual experiments of the 1910s and 1920s, when the possibilities of the new medium were being stretched to the limit. This was particularly the case with the Surrealists, who wanted to shake up the viewer’s comfort-zone. But Borderline is different. The nervy editing is not an exercise in provocation; this is a film looking for a formal strategy to realistically depict feelings of alienation and disintegration.
While mainstream cinema was refining realistic storytelling and editing conventions (what film historians call ‘IMR’), rebel artists were pushing it in the opposite direction, saying: ‘What does cinema do that no other art can do? Lets explore that!’ In this film, MacPherson plays with the unique ability of cinema to manipulate time. Many modernists were influenced by the theories of the philosopher Bergson, who distinguished between objective/external time, and subjective/internal time. Have you ever noticed how a day can fly, or a minute can feel endless? That is because you are experiencing time in a personal, subjective way. The editing of Borderline shows a woman disturbed by her own conflicting desires, and the ‘stuttering’ editing reflects her altered mental state. It is a pity that few filmmakers are interested in the more radical, more extreme possibilities of editing. With the advent of sound, most filmmakers seem to have given up on the potential of film to tell things by images only.
As for its theme, ostensibly Borderline is about prejudice against black people, as well as on how love and desire can be a devastating force. In the famous lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (burned by the British censors after a scandalous trial in 1928), the queer hero/heroine listens to a black singer of spirituals and feels an instant empathy for the plight of the enslaved race. It is no coincidence that the three main artists involved in the Borderline project were queer. We all know that ‘No Trespass’ signs are multivalent, and to cross one borderline is as good as crossing them all, because black civil rights, women’s rights, and queer rights, are all being fought on the same front line.
Dublin Film Qlub 2014, 2015
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