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Borderline, Sensation, and the Machinery of Expression

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 14, Number 4, November 2007
pp. 687-705 | 10.1353/mod.2007.0086

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.

—Sherwood Anderson, "Hands"

Per contra, a representation is vague when the relation of the representing system to the represented system is not one-one, but one-many . . . . Vagueness, clearly, is a matter of degree, depending upon the extent of the possible differences between different systems represented by the same representation. Accuracy, on the contrary, is an ideal limit.

—Bertrand Russell, "Vagueness"

1. Film Sensations

Perhaps the most startling thing, on first viewing the 1930 silent film Borderline, is the image of H. D. (as Astrid), her face worn and gaunt, her frame looming and cadaverous, her hairline reaching precipitously toward the frowsy crown of her head. Telephone receiver in clenched hand, H. D. appears frenetic and mechanical in her first frame. Paul Robeson (as Pete), on the other hand, wears the smooth mask of celebrity, his face registering little emotion, Garbo-like in its frozen iconicity. (Figs. 1 and 2) Of course, Robeson is, already by this, his second film, a screen celebrity and more widely a celebrity of the sound media. He is


Click for larger view
Figure 1
H. D. as Astrid in the Pool Group film, Borderline, directed by Kenneth Macpherson.

Click for larger view
Figure 2
Paul Robeson as Pete.

dehumanized in the film, as critics have noted, his figure aligned with the primitive, with stone, with sculpture, but it is a dehumanization of monumental proportion, the sort we demand of our celebrities, the distance we require of the screen image so that we may worship, unencumbered by knowledge of the myriad indignities that attend the human form. His is a command performance, his screen image calm and enduring, befitting a man of his stature, his status on the international stage. H. D. is a lesser celebrity. She is instead writerly, her figure twitchy, scratchy like the nib on the page; she clearly thinks too much, and as the film opens, she is agitated at the state of her marriage, her husband having taken up with a new woman. The connection between the two figures is forged early in the film, as Astrid telephones Pete, not apparently in a gesture of friendship (confirmed in his refusal to speak to her), but in a shared outsiderness, both at the margins of their relationships, both hoping to break the bond between Pete's wife and Astrid's husband. But none of this is immediately clear.

Narrative opacity is predictable enough, given the film's aesthetic and intellectual interests. Borderline was a production of the Pool group, an avant-garde collective based in Switzerland, funded by the Ellerman family fortune (via Bryher, formerly Winifred Ellerman), and interested in saving the "universal" language of silent film from the new threat of talking pictures. Kenneth Macpherson, the film's writer and director, tried to import the imagery of psychoanalysis into his film scenario, providing what he imagined to be a visual representation of unconscious processes. He also used a readily sensationalized topic—the interracial affair between a black woman and a white man—and complicated it with the furious racism of one jilted spouse (played by H. D.) and the steadfast stoicism of the other (played by Robeson). The critical discourse surrounding Borderline has generally focused on questions raised by the film's racial and sexual politics. Here, rather, I discuss the film's interest in the aesthetics of the unconscious, the phenomenological response to film as sensation, and one recurring motif in the film—the hand—that brings together the Pool group's formal and affective aims. To consider the multiple tiers of the film's aesthetics will, I hope, contribute to the larger claim that the poetics of film functions simultaneously to its belief structures, resisting, undercutting, and complicating, if not altogether breaking free from, its thematic interests. The sensationalism of Borderline's subject matter is so remarkable, especially in its historical context, that the film's attention to sensation itself has been overlooked. Further, because the narrative is difficult to follow and both demands and claims to repel...



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