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Borderline, and: Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 15, Number 3, September 2008
pp. 594-598 | 10.1353/mod.0.0020

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For many years, the film Borderline, made in 1930, was a largely inaccessible object of scholarly fascination, with copies locked away in a few archives around the world and seldom screened in public. For historians of avant-garde and experimental film-making, it represented a last, forlorn hurrah from the modernism of the 1920s, which had hoped that artistic experimentation and commercial viability need not be mutually exclusive. For feminist literary modernists, it was not only the film that H. D. starred in, but it also promised another object of study imbued by her aesthetic vision. For people interested in Paul Robeson, it was at least a fascinating footnote to his acting career, which might also offer a clue to the way that Robeson was perceived and interpreted by his modernist admirers and friends. (Fig. 1) And for cultural studies, it provided rich possibilities for analyzing the sexual complexities and racial contradictions of 1920s negrophilia.

Borderline was made in 1930 by the self-styled POOL group, an idiosyncratic triumvirate of avant-garde intellectuals with a passion for cinema: the talented but ill-disciplined young Scot, Kenneth Macpherson, the English writer and shipping heiress Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), and, of course, Hilda Doolittle, the expatriate American poet H. D. Living together in the Swiss town of Territet, these three played out an intricate minuet of sexual relationships and self-reflection on the depths of their emotions. H. D. and Bryher were already in a lifelong sexual relationship when H. D. met and embarked on an affair with Macpherson, sixteen years her junior, in 1926, the year in which her autobiographical novel Palimpsest was published. Macpherson in turn wrote his own novel about the relationship, which bordered on pastiche of his mistress’s voice: Poolreflection (1927). Bryher married him and both women tried to give focus and direction to his diffuse talents. In 1927, Bryher gave Macpherson an expensive Debrie camera, and the group embarked on a number of POOL film experiments. At the same time, they began publication of their new journal, Close Up (1927–1933). This, they announced, not without justification, would be the first journal devoted to film as an art. They promised “Theory and analysis: no gossip.”

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Fig. 1. 

Paul Robeson in Borderline.

In August 1929, Close Up ran a special issue on “The Negro in Film,” prompted in part by that year’s vogue for “all-negro” feature musicals, but also reflecting the POOL group’s genuine interest in the culture of the Harlem Renaissance and their anxiety about the coming of sound. Although Close Up had been resisting this development, Macpherson acknowledges in his editorial that, even if sound had destroyed the unique gestural aesthetic of cinema, it at least had the virtue of allowing more intimate access to “the Negro”: “Talking films took films from us but they have given us a glimpse of him.”1

Paul Robeson had promised an article for the Close Up issue, but it did not materialize. Macpherson, Bryher, and H. D. had been introduced to Robeson and his wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson, during his run in the 1927 London production of Show Boat by a fourth, but nonresident, member of the POOL group, the poet and journalist Robert Herring, who wrote about film for the literary monthly the London Mercury. This meeting eventually led to Paul and Eslanda agreeing to appear in Borderline, partly as a favour and partly to kill time between concert engagements.

Despite the notorious opaqueness of its narration—one contemporary review, in The Bioscope, described it as “a wholly unintelligible scramble of celluloidan eccentricity”—the underlying story of Borderline is quite straightforward, as the “libretto” that was issued to the audience at the film’s first screening makes clear. In a carefully unspecified small town in Europe, a neurotic older woman, Astrid (H. D., using the pseudonym Helga Doorn), and a degenerate, alcoholic younger man, Thorne (Gavin Arthur), are trapped in a destructive relationship. (Fig. 2) Thorne has had an affair with Adah (Eslanda Robeson), whose husband Pete (Robeson) has recently, unknown to her, returned to the town to work in a cheap hotel café. As a racially borderline figure, Adah...

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