Borderline was the major – some would argue only – avant-garde silent British film.
It was produced by Kenneth MacPherson’s and represented an attempt to put
the critical theories developed in his Close-Up magazine into practice. Close-Up
contributors Bryher, Robert Herring and poet H.D. all feature, alongside legendary singer
Paul Robeson and his wife in an intriguingly ambitious work that attempted to explore
gender and race whilst synthesising German Expressionist and Russian Formalist cinema.
Borderline announces its formal and ideological intentions immediately: the first title
introduces ‘Pete, a negro’ (recalling Nancy Cunard’s seminal Negro Anthology, to which
MacPherson contributed) before rapid, Eisensteinian cutting between a woman (played by
H.D.) on the phone and a picture smashing cut up the theme of conflict.
Borderline’s editors despaired of British cinema, and tried to construct an avant-garde
by themselves: inevitably, given the scale of this ambition, Borderline somewhat overreaches
itself, the weight of its desire to single-handedly transform British film culture
occasionally crushing the (deceptively simple) narrative under an avalanche of social aims
and formal reference points.
Consequently disappointingly received on its release, when critics would likely have
just one opportunity to see it (in Film Society screenings), Borderline benefits greatly
from DVD release, its fragmented narrative best processed across more than one viewing.
Its intellectual and historical context is clear, but Borderline seems less dated than other
‘progressive’ British silents, perhaps because its sympathetic characterisation encompasses
not just ethnic minorities but also lesbians and an effeminate man.
Finally issued by the BFI with Courtney Pine’s strong jazz soundtrack, the disc sadly
omits the remaining fragments of MacPherson’s Wing Beat (1927) and Close-Up contributor
Oswell Blakeston’s Light Rhythms (1932), but this remains a beautifully packaged
release of a film that will retains a definite fascination.
UK 1930, 71 mins