By the mid 1920s an interest in avant-garde cinema in Britain was beginning to coalesce. British Intellectuals, aware of the innovations springing from Soviet Montage Cinema and the critical theories and philosophy of the Frankfurt School, were eager to regard film as a fundamental expression of international modernism. Like their European contemporaries, they rejected the notion of cinema as a medium of mass entertainment and sought to embrace it as a form of art.
Close Up, published between 1927 and 1933, can be regarded as the first English language journal devoted entirely to the art of film, predating and often outliving a number of European and US publications with a similar scope. Close Up is distinct from its forebears and contemporaries because of its vehemently expressed distaste for the Hollywood model of filmmaking.
Editor-in-chief Kenneth Macpherson dictated the tone and direction of the publication, contributing articles that defined the role of the director and defended the integrity of cinema and its right to be considered as art. Macpherson was a member of the politicised Federation of Workers’ Film Societies but rather than take the documentarist approach that was to flourish in Britain in the 1930s he passionately pursued formal experimentation in film. He regarded the films and methods of Sergei Eisenstein as a gold standard and major influence in cinematic artistry.
In the year before Close Up's inception Macpherson and his collaborators formed the POOL Group, intended as a production company and also the publishing concern from which Close Up would emerge. POOL produced three short films; Wing beat in 1927 was characterised by the use of cross-cut, multi-layered, superimposed images in an attempt to approximate the thought processes of its protagonists. Foothills in 1929 borrowed its basic ‘plot’ of a cosmopolitan woman caught in a countryside setting from Murnau’s Sunrise but added psychoanalytic ingredients. Monkey’s moon, also from 1929, continued in the same creative vein as its two predecessors, this time featuring Macpherson’s own pet douracoulis monkeys as its main characters.
The only feature length film produced by POOL,in 1930, was also its most ambitious, complex and experimental work. The film employed a distinctly elliptical narrative to impart the loose ‘story’ set in an unspecified mid-European border town – most likely Swiss - of a negro couple (played by Paul and Eslanda Robeson). The wife is caught in an affair with a white married man and the neuroses and prejudices of the townspeople, represented by the reactions of the customers of a café, are played out resulting in the scapegoating of ’s character and the exoneration of the white male philanderer.
Shot is April and May of 1930, Borderline is the only Macpherson film known to be intact and complete in an original negative, and then only due to the rediscovery by chance of a print in Switzerland in 1983. The film was meticulously storyboarded; Macpherson produced over 1000 sketches detailing specific camera angles and character positioning. The film is silent, running at 70 minutes and employing a mere 26 intertitles, of which 23 carry direct dialogue. This economy of explicit on-screen information quite deliberately hands the communicative emphasis over to the elaborate disjunction of images.
Judged on its own merits Borderline is a ground-breaking work, dealing as it does with issues of race and sexuality at a time when such subject matter was still largely taboo and had only been previously tackled cinematically through oblique inference. Being Macpherson’s only feature length work it carried his ambitions to a new level, surpassing his earlier shorts in both scale and thematic bravura. Aside from the explicit depiction of racism, implicit homoerotic elements are included, in the tendency for the camera to linger over Paul Robeson’s masculine frame. Robeson’s character is associated with a physical solidity attuned to the forces of nature, whose potency stands to be appreciated by either gender.
The casting of Robeson was a considerable coup for POOL. His singing and acting talents had developed a considerable international following since the mid 1920s. The involvement of Robeson and his spouse both raised the profile of the film and bore out one of the central issues that Close Up concerned itself with, that of the ‘Negro viewpoint’. Borderline was made in the context of a modernist culture that was starting to acknowledge the input of black artists. With the casting of the Robesons and the publication of a special issue of Close Up in August 1929 developing notions of ‘negritude’ in the cinema, POOL was placing itself at the heart of the debate about race and culture.
Aside from the underlying themes of race and sexuality Borderline exhibits its maker’s full range of avant-garde experimental filmmaking techniques. Macpherson used an editing method dubbed ‘clatter-montage’ involving rapidly superimposed images akin to that previously practiced in Wing beat, as a means of realising its characters’ thought processes and inner turmoil. Employing this technique to represent such themes was something of a fusion of Eisenstein’s montage innovations and Pabst’s psychoanalytical approach. The result is less a process of editing, more one of dissection. Macpherson took everyday events and recombined them in an effort to reveal their psychoanalytic significance. The experimental approach was not confined to pre- and post-production. Macpherson’s direction called for broad expressive movements from the actors in an attempt to communicate the characters’ bodies as unconscious indicators of their shifting emotional states.
The metaphor in the film’s title can be applied several times over; there is focus on the socio-cultural space between the white and black characters, between heterosexual and homosexual tensions and a study of social marginalisation. Geographically it was filmed and effectively set in Switzerland, a linguistic crossing point and for Macpherson and his associates a cultural buffer zone of sorts that afforded them freedom from the British censorship they so despised. Stylistically the film walks the line between the Soviet montage and German psychoanalytical methods championed in equal measure by Close Up.
Borderline is one of British Cinema's great one-offs. An experimental silent feature made when there was no significant tradition of British avant-garde cinema, it was both of its time and decades ahead of it. Its fusion of racism and sexuality would not be seen again until well into the post-war era.