Director : Kenneth Macpherson
Screenplay : Kenneth Macpherson
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1930
Stars : Paul Robeson (Pete Varond, a Negro), Eslanda Robeson (Adah, a Negro Woman), Helga Doorn (Astrid), Gavin Arthur (Thorne, Astrid’s Husband), Charlotte Arthur (The Barmaid), Blanche Lewin (The Old Lady)
“Fifty odd years hasn’t done so badly in getting an art into the world that fifty more will probably turn into THE art, but now, after somewhat magnificent growth, one feels here is its critical age. Its humble Pier Penny Peep Show beginning is still far too evident, and one sees that in a very short while the thing that people now go to see will have become tradition, and standard, as the past tense in literature, harmony in music, and representative conventions in painting.”
--Kenneth Macpherson, “As Is,” from the first issue of Close Up, July 1927
Kenneth Macpherson was clearly aware that his first and only feature film Borderline was made at an important juncture in film history. By the end of the 1920s, cinema had already congealed into a significant commercial enterprise, yet there were still raging debates about the inherent nature of the medium and its possibilities. While the mainstream film industries had codified a set of narrative and representational norms, radical artists like Macpherson, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, and Dimitri Kirsanoff, many of whom were already accomplished artists in other media, were experimenting with film’s various potentials. Borderline openly bears its heady influences from Freudian psychoanalysis, Eisensteinian montage, G.W. Pabst’s street realism, and Harlem Renaissance race awareness. It is a unique film, a fractured bit of avant-garde experimentation that confuses and confounds as much as it enlightens.
Macpherson, who was originally a painter and novelist, produced several short films in the late 1920s, but Borderline was his only feature. At the time, he was the editor of Close Up, an international film journal that was billed as “the only magazine devoted to films as art.” Close Up was the official publication of Pool, a trio of European intellectuals and artists that included Macpherson, the imagist poet H.D. (né Hilda Doolittle), and arts patron Winifred Bryher (né Annie Winifred Ellerman).
H.D. has a starring role in Borderline (under the pseudonym Helga Doorn) as Astrid, one member of a tortured tangle of lovers. The others include Astrid’s husband, Thorne (Gavin Arthur) and a black couple, Pete and Adah (real-life spouses Paul and Eslanda Robeson). Thorne and Adah have had an affair, which sets in motion a series of tensions, rivalries, jealous rages, and eventual accidental death, not to mention the ignition of racial prejudices lurking just beneath the surface of the tiny village where the story takes place. The location is never explicitly named, but a scant few exterior shots, one of which shows a tram rail snaking up a mountain, suggests Switzerland, which is where Pool was headquartered.
On first viewing, it is difficult if not impossible to piece together the narrative in Borderline. Macpherson drops the viewer immediately into the midst of emotional turmoil without establishing any of the characters or their relationships. The film plays as a constant challenge to the viewer--a pile of puzzle pieces that are constantly shifting around, but never quite forming into a coherent picture. It is doubly difficult because the film is silent and Macpherson employs intertitles sparingly, sometimes flashing them across the screen so quickly they’re impossible to read in their entirety.
While this confounds narrative expectations, it opens other avenues of reception, namely a focus on the characters and their interactions. While it is not always crucial to know exactly what is going on, we are always profoundly aware of how the characters are feeling. Macpherson portrays his characters in isolated fragments, sometimes out of focus, from canted angles, and frequently in tight close-ups. He is obsessed with hands, and we see emotions through the clenching and releasing of fists more than we do through facial expressions and eye contact. Macpherson’s interest in psychoanalysis is evident in the psychic turmoil his characters endure, and his own unconventional sex life (as well as that of the other members of Pool) is reflected in the characters’ complicated interrelationships, not to mention several peripheral characters who are clearly coded as homosexual.
As a story, Borderline barely holds together, but to expect it to do otherwise would be to miss the point. The film is much better understood as an experiment, one in which Macpherson toyed with not only minimalist narrative, but also various editing schemes, ranging from static long takes to cuts so quick they border on the subliminal (Macpherson referred to this as “clatter montage”). In addition, Borderline is an experiment in representation, boldly diving into issues of racial prejudice and sexuality that were either completely ignored or treated superficially by most other filmmakers. In making Borderline, Macpherson and the other members of Pool stayed true to their vision, which was perfectly encapsulated in a 1927 advertisement for Close Up that promised it would “approach film from any angle but the commonplace.”
|Borderline Criterion Collection DVD|
|Borderline is available exclusively as part of the box set “Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist,” which also includes Body and Soul (1925), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942), as well as the Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979). The box also includes an insert booklet featuring an excerpt from Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand, new essays by Clement Alexander Price, Hilton Als, Charles Burnett, Ian Christie, Deborah Willis, and Charles Musser, a reprinted article by Harlem Renaissance writer Geraldyn Dismond, and a note from Pete Seeger.|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$99.95 (box set)|
|Release Date||February 13, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Borderline is presented in a new high-definition transfer taken from a 35mm duplicate negative restored by George Eastman House (apparently, the transfer itself was not done by Criterion, but rather by the British Film Institute, which could explain why it is an interlaced, rather than progressive, transfer). We should be happy that small, experimental films like this exist at all, but it is all the more refreshing to see it in such good condition for a film of its age. There are certainly signs of wear and tear that couldn’t be corrected, including some edge damage, instability, and a few vertical lines in some shots. The overall quality of the image is quite high, though, with good detail and contrast. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround soundtrack features a crisp, quirky jazz score by Courtney Pine that was commissioned by the BFI and recorded in 2006.|
|No supplements related to Borderline are included on this disc.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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