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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 639-653

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Borderline Modernism
Paul Robeson and the Femme Fatale

Susan McCabe

The silent 1930 film Borderline has long attracted the archival interest of modernist scholars because it features Paul and Eslanda Robeson as well as the American expatriate poet Hilda Doolittle (or H.D. as she became known). However, the film has been largely sequestered in the vaults of the Museum of Modern Art, not available commercially and rarely screened. G.W. Pabst (the director H.D. most admired) called Borderline "the only real avant-garde film," yet its avant-gardism to some extent may have doomed it to obscurity (Cinema and Modernism 389). It recently surfaced as part of a Robeson retrospective on American Movie Classics, which suggests that perhaps the film is breaking out of the circumscribed locus of the archive into a wider cultural forum. As a result of the limited audiences for Borderline, Robeson's significant role in the film has been understated in the history of black cinema as well as in more general studies of early cinema and modernism. However, to assert that Robeson's contribution and the film's place in American film have been overlooked merely as a result of its limited distribution would be a tremendous oversimplification of a complicated intersection of cultural and aesthetic vectors.

The film's experimental methods draw into radical relief the very processes by which racist fantasies are installed. As Hazel Carby gages it, the film relies upon "an almost obsessive use of close-up, in which light and shadow from taut skin and flickering muscle are used to evoke mood and meaning" (67). She further asserts, singling out the white director, Kenneth Macpherson: "The subjectivity dissected and exposed by his camera work was in effect a product of his own modernist desires and anxieties surrounding the formation of masculinity in the modern world. Its racialization was a mediating device" (68). Indeed the filmmakers wield the "dissecting gaze," but I argue that the white protagonists and creators of the film also become dissected. Racialization becomes more than a mediating device; it is in fact how we become bodies, how we are defined as such.

In their rejection of high modernist values of impervious autonomy and transcendent disembodiment, the creators of Borderline were part of an avant-garde aesthetic movement that viewed film as conduit of social change. Film also acted as the medium par excellence to self-consciously manipulate (if often heavy-handedly) psychoanalytic tropes, such as Freud's proto-cinematic notion of the "bodily ego" as the "projection of a surface." The body from this perspective is the site and map, from the outset, of libidinal investment. With its focus upon the inscription upon bodily surfaces and through its heightened use of montage, Borderline vivifies how bodies are cut out and constructed along devastating racial and sexual lines. [End Page 639]

The haunting scene of H.D. (as the character Astrid) cutting into the scriptable surface of her betraying husband (Thorne) coincides with the frenetic slashing and editing of celluloid. Cutting in this way is part of the plot, but it is also an aesthetic device with corporeal meaning. This self-conscious cutting highlights the film's obsession with racialand sexual body marking; by disrupting a seamless narrative, the act of montage reveals itself as capable of taking apart installed cultural fantasies and refashioning them.

Invoking a psychoanalytic model of the body as bearer of sexual and racial inscription, but with no conventionally central character, the film demonstrates how bodies are constructed by Oedipal desire, which as Teresa de Lauretis asserts, inexorably functions as "paradigmatic of all narratives." The film's montage, however, dislocates a phallic Oedipal narrative in its rescripting of the femme fatale. Robeson, I will argue, becomes the femme fatale, the bearer of disavowed desire, a figure appealing to modernists. As Mary Ann Doane explains, the femme fatale "is a clear indication of the extent of the fears and anxieties prompted by shifts in the understanding of sexual difference in the late nineteenth century"; she embodies "an articulation of fears...


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