film: MacPherson: Borderline (1930)

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I was always judged very harshly by my appearance, which was something I never took much time to consider. It was around the time that my sister told me I’d taught her a valuable lesson, “that it doesn’t matter what other people think of you,” when I found myself with a host of new values, spending all my time shopping, grooming, tanning, fine-tuning the science of conversation, and, in a word, only caring about what others thought of me. Most people I went to school with are hard on the path to marriage now, and most seem to have really let themselves go, and me? I’ve grown more irresponsible and vain with every passing day, dedicated to nothing more than satiating my senses, living fantastic stories, and doing all I will to brutalize these deep breaths, my firebrands, my progeny, my animation. So, I suspect one of the key reasons I’ve been so enchanted by silent films lately is purely a sexual matter, whether it be Rudolph Valentino or Mary Pickford, so be quite sure that I’m not exaggerating when I claim to be in love. They entice my eyes. But H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), oh no, she does not. And yet she was Pound’s lover, and I find him to be enthrallingly handsome…so, clearly, her intellect could shine through that dangerously steep forehead and that brick of a jaw, a face I could not even bring myself to look at until I tried to convince myself she was actually a man, oh, the relief when she was finally murdered in this film. But why, oh why, did everyone else in the film have to be nearly so ugly as well? What I mean is I don’t care about art or entertainment: I care about pretty.

Director Kenneth MacPherson was a film theorist whose sole surviving film, Borderline, was considered by G. W. Pabst as “the only real avant-garde film,” remarkable considering this film was made in the same year as L’Age d’Or, and Le Sang d’un Poete, both the latter of which Henry Miller extolled for many years (while consistently leaving MacPherson’s work off his lists). This leads one to consider the logistics of distribution of art films in Europe at that time, given Borderline’s role in advancing the career of Paul Robeson and being what would today be considered an international effort—and also wonder why Cocteau and Bunuel’s work went unmentioned. While the use of montage may not add to the semblance of a narrative (indeed, what narrative might one draw from a film exploring the dictates of the unconscious?), it does not hinder the flow, adding something of a poetic rush to it, Eistenstein under restraint; this is furthered by the hand-held use of the camera, giving the film a naturalistic feel amongst the violent strobing. And this is where we find art, perhaps, couched somewhere in between the unnecessary and the useless.

Maybe Pabst looked highly upon this film due to its use of excessive facial close-ups, something he made use of in his 1929 Pandora’s Box¬. Things taken for granted now were, for most of the history of drama, impossible, viz., subtle facial expressions, and this is one of the key elements that differs between pop and art films of the silent era; recall Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc and the way that facial close-ups are even now some of the rarer shots in contemporary film. One can see the progression through Feuillade or Chaplin as expressions slowly take the place of grandiose gestures…perhaps it’s only logical that it progressed so far as New Yorker fiction, in which plot was replaced by subtle character development, character development later replaced by inferences, and presently the inferences have been replaced by drivel. And you wonder why I drink myself onto the ceiling every night. Today, perhaps it’s the expression of the full body emphasized, or even the tone of voice, something early sound films did poorly, as a soft voice is analogous to a face’s subtle expression, and radio depended on flailing rather than lilting voices. I’ve written a bit about William Powell and how by 1932 he was a shining example of modern speech. Indeed, the majority of this film is carried by expressions, conscious hyperbole (as opposed to early film’s somewhat vaudevillian methods of acting), and frequent synecdoche as close-ups are used not only on faces but also on hands, arms, and torsos. Silent film may be likened to a deaf person whose other senses are thus heightened, and rarely does a film make use of all our senses. In this film one feels dirty from the spilled drinks and blood everywhere, tastes and smells the smoke and booze through its glorification on every character’s breath, hears the piano and phonograph so constantly seen, and lives the anxiety of the cutting, the lighting that switches from shot to shot, a film one lives, not views.

Borderline (okay, let’s try to be mature and academic) comprises extensive cuts, both in the physical film itself through the montage sequences, and in the domestic fight scene, during which H.D. wields a knife wildly and cuts her lover in a few places. And then there’s the demarcation of male and female, homo- and heterosexual, black and white, shadow and light, dream and reality, indoors and outdoors, hardwood doors and beaded curtains, water and alcohol, dancing and fighting, violence and joy; there are the fluids that will not remain in their vessels, whether blood that gushes, or drinks that spill, and, throughout all, the heretical concept, the heart of borderlines, pulses that nothing can remain static, nothing is born in its grave, that all will break free and finally converge.

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