Crossing the Borderline

By Sophie Mayer

borderline-kenneth-macpherson.jpgBorderline, 1930

Why is Borderline being stopped at the British border?

On an elegant walkway in the new extension of the BFI Southbank (formerly the National Film Theatre), a copy of an earlier issue of Vertigo shares a wall-mounted glass exhibition case with a number of other film journals, including Undercut. Vertigo is in the bottom row, not as a critical judgement, but as the most recent exemplar of the critical film magazine in a lineage of British film writing. In the top left-hand corner is the small magazine that started it all – Close Up. The two magazines are exhibited, alongside other documents such as stills, publicity material, diaries, notes, video and DVD cases and other ephemera, as part of the exhibition History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain, based on David Curtis’ new book, that fills the Mezzanine Gallery.

It’s a significant marker of the place of avant-garde moving image work in the British canon, and specifically at the National Film Theatre, where many of the foundation events of the British moving image avant-garde took place. In the early 1970s, the NFT hosted several programmes of Expanded Cinema, as well as programmes of structuralist film, and now its new Studio and exhibition spaces will once again be given over to experimental work in screen media. And yet the inclusion of Close Up strikes an odd note in this firing of a national canon: the magazine was published from Switzerland, and included a wide range of European contributors. Two of its editors were American, and one of them – Winifried Ellerman, known as Bryher – funded the journal with her family’s shipping fortune.

The exhibition is keen to find its roots in Close Up, which extends avant-garde cinematic practice in Britain historically back by several decades, staking a claim to a British role in the flowering of the French and Spanish Surrealist, German Expressionist and Russian cinemas that inaugurated the European avant-garde. The exhibition briefly features British Surrealist David Gascoyne, who wrote a number of scripts for films that were never made (a Surrealist or Dadaist form in itself), but Close Up represents its best hope of legitimating British artists’ film and video within the historical precedent of pre-war Modernism.

borderline-kenneth-macpherson-2.jpgBorderline, 1930

Close Up, however, sought no nationalist endorsement, but rather to propound not only an international avant-garde, but avant-garde praxis and theory as a model for constituting post-national communities. In so doing, the POOL group – Close Up’s editors, Kenneth Macpherson, Bryher, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) – also worked to cross the ideologically-connected borderline between theory or criticism and practice, ostensibly running the journal to fund and publicise Macpherson’s filmmaking. POOL made Borderline, released internationally in 1930, in Territet, the Swiss village where Macpherson and Bryher lived and edited the journal. It is thus a manifestation of the journal’s wide-ranging theoretical interests that still hold in cinema studies today, from the nature of black cinema to the place of psychoanalysis in film.

In the booklet that accompanies the BFI’s release of Borderline on DVD, Sukhdev Sandhu describes the film’s ambivalent relation to nationalism when he comments that the guest house where the film’s disastrous action takes place is “a metonym for the liberal nation state and its ambivalent response to the newcomers,” a black couple played by Paul and Eslanda Robeson (14). The significance of Robeson’s appearance in Borderline is hard to appreciate in 2007, when George Clooney plays ‘one for me, one for the studio’ to both commercial and critical plaudits. While African-American stage performer Josephine Baker made several films in Europe, film performers such as Marlene Dietrich and directors such as Joseph von Sternberg were expected to travel in the opposite direction, gravitating towards the commercial centre.

Robeson, like Baker, is said to have travelled in Europe to engage with artists and communities less institutionally and interpersonally racist than those in the US. While Sandhu gives a critical account of Macpherson’s essentialist race politics, he highlights the way in which the film rejects both racist dualisms and the dominant forms in which race relations were treated: melodrama and ‘social problem’, both of which still dominate. Borderline’s contemporaneous setting and its focus on emotive relations also challenges the place of blackness in the European avant-garde, which was deeply compromised by the association of blackness with primitivism. While, as Jamie Sexton writes in the BFI booklet, Robeson is framed by images of the outdoor world in montage sequences, it is Thorne (Gavin Arthur), the white man, who acts out of intemperate passion, sleeping with Pete (P. Robeson)’s wife Adah (E. Robeson), and killing his ex-lover Astrid (H.D.) when she tries to prevent him leaving the claustrophobic guest house.

The film could be read as an extraordinary reversal of Othello, in which – as in the play – all eyes are on the dynamic, accomplished protagonist, and the narrative works not to debase him by revealing his uncontrollable passion, but, even when he is driven out of the town for Thorne’s crime, his thoughtful compassion. Macpherson described Borderline as “an attempt to take film ‘into the minds of the people in it’,” (Sexton, 3). In place of Shakespearean soliloquies, the film derives a language of montage from the work of Pabst and Eisenstein, both of whom had been examined, and praised, extensively in Close Up. H.D. referred to the technique as ‘clatter montage’. Thorne and Astrid in particular are subject to this rapid-fire imaging of their histrionic mental state, and both of them subsequently act out those emotions, as if aspiring to roles in melodrama. Pete, on the other hand, is less permeable to cinematicity and formal conventions, and thus to hysteria: unlike the white characters, who wear their hearts on celluloid sleeves, Pete is not transparent. Nor is he “pure, in comparison to the degenerate whites,” as Sexton suggests (4).

Pete’s association with the outside world, to which he is exiled at the end of the film, has overtones of the Greek tragic hero whose banishment points to the corruption of the so-called civilization that attempted to contain him. As in Greek tragedy in its original performance, it also points to specific crises within the identity of the nation-state. Although the BFI assert defiantly that both Close Up and Borderline are part of a British lineage, Sandhu approaches the position of the film’s makers when he writers that Borderline “is most successful as a rumour or a promise. Its obscurity… helps[s] unshackle it from the dulling confines of British film historiography” (11). He goes on to argue that the film is fascinating because of its diegetic and extra-diegetic narratives of transnational migration of people and money. If, as Sandhu writes, actors “are inadequately theorised vectors of new social and cultural possibility,” then Robeson has to be read also as an American – and as metonymic for the American funds behind the film and journal – in relation to Europe between the wars.

borderline-kenneth-macpherson-3.jpgBorderline, 1930

Borderline’s other ‘outsider,’ Astrid, bridges the literary and cinematic communities, standing for the ‘imported’ or exilic Modernism of Americans in London and Paris. H.D., unlike the Modernist writers of the Bloomsbury set with whom she associated, embraced cinema, and its influence can be felt strongly in her post-war, post-Imagist poetry. Her essays on the association between female beauty and cinema prefigure much later feminist writing – but also explore the taboo of the female viewer’s visual pleasure in watching women onscreen. H.D.’s passion for cinema manifested itself as a desire to become a screen icon: she petitioned G.W. Pabst for the role of Lulu in Pandora’s Box, but her performance in Borderline is the only surviving trace of her celluloid desires.

Astrid is a femme fatale, a madwoman in the attic whose desire for Thorne (Gavin Arthur) results in her death, and thus sets the plot in motion. She is the embodiment of the problematic of female cinematic desire, the related obverse of the queer looks addressed by the bar manager, played by Bryher, who was also H.D.’s lover at the time. It is Pete’s intervention into the guest house that awakens these currents of desire and, after his ejection, there are signs that queer desire, although returned to the closet, will persist, as the pianist (Robert Herring) places a photograph of Pete in his breast pocket. MacPherson implicitly codes the effect of his film: although seen by few, it held out a possibility of a cinema that was alternative in every sense, and made a powerful connection between the potential formal disruptions of avant-garde art and the social disruptions of queerness, blackness and femininity.

As the guardians of a ‘national’ film heritage know, policing borderlines of (gendered and raced) desire is explicitly connected to the policing of aesthetic and critical borders. At the same time as their release of Borderline, and their institutionalisation/exhibition of artists’ film and video, the BFI’s Mediatheque is offering a selected history of queer film and TV pre-Will and Grace. This ‘Secret Cinema’ will act as focus for a debate on whether the mainstreaming of (some) queer identities has marred the creativity of queer filmmakers. Borderline won’t be included in the Mediatheque, possibly because it lacks the camp humour or high-minded realism that marks the other contributions.

Yet it answered the question several years before: conventional forms document conventional identities. Borderline is a disquieting romance that forgoes both the ethics and aesthetics of Hollywood cinema, and it politicises sexuality by using Eisensteinian montage to frame it. Several decades before feminists announced that the personal was political, Borderline argued that politics start in interpersonal relations not in defining national canons, and that form offers the most profound challenge to the cultural taboos and constructions that delimit erotic and social relations and their depiction in art.

A History of Artists’ Film and Video exhibition is currently at London’s BFI Southbank.

Borderline is released by the BFI.

The BFI Southbank Mediatheque’s focus on queer British film and television runs through July.

Sophie Mayer is currently completing a book on Sally Potter for Wallflower Press. From September, she will be the Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Film at the University of Cambridge.