The last great film of the silent era? Anthony Nield takes a look back at the BFI’s two-disc handling of Borderline, released last year.
In the latest edition of Sight and Sound (August 2008), occasional DVD Times contributor Michael Brooke signs off his article on the recent BFI DVD release of A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) with the thought that “sound kicked in at the worst possible time for British cinema”. The reasoning is that during the end of twenties directors such as Dartmoor’s Anthony Asquith, Alfred Hitchcock and E.A. Dupont were just beginning the reach the height of their silent filmmaking skills. Not mentioned amongst this trio is Kenneth MacPherson, director of Borderline, another of the last of the British silent movies to demonstrate just how remarkable this final flourish would be.
Given that the creative force behind Borderline was the POOL group who’d previously founded Close-Up magazine (the first British journal to seriously consider film as art), and who would occupy many of its roles both behind and in front of the camera, it could almost be considered an amateur production, a silent move by default. Yet I’d contend that it also ranks alongside Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera as a genuine “last hurrah” for silent cinema, British or otherwise. MacPherson and the others (amongst them Robert Herring, the writer Bryher and poet H.D.) had not only explored cinema in Close-Up but clearly learnt its lessons: this is filmmaking at its most immediate and intense. From the word go we are thrown into a world where the style and expression creates the drama, not the narrative. The flurry of sharp edits and composition choice almost wilfully deny us a sense of place or story: who’s who and what’s where? The exposition doesn’t fall back on easy inter-titling but on our own sense – and the excitement – of constant discovery. A sharp eye for detail and recognition are required before the melodramatic mainstays fall into place: romantic pairings, mis-pairings and miscegenation.
MacPherson never rests on these early laurels, however, by giving way to eventual convention. Rather he continues to pick at the screen, as it were, for the riches within. Paul Robeson, the central figure in Borderline’s love triangle and perhaps its sole instance of stillness, is represented almost as a figurine – in a stunning example of montage we witness first his face, then a hand, an arm, his stance, his posture; rarely are we seeing an actor, or indeed a film, in the typical sense. Indeed, although Borderline’s cast list is made up predominantly of the POOL group plus various friends and associates, you can’t help but think they’ve been allowed onscreen as much for the sense of reality they bring and their extreme stylisation: hints at homosexuality so matter-of-fact as to be almost invisible or H.D. coming across like some androgynous Max Schreck.
This matter-of-factness is interesting insofar as it prevents Borderline from becoming an ‘issue’ movie, however artfully composed it may be. Certainly, there are “sign of the times” edges to be detected, such as the fact that the black characters are presented in less psychologically complex terms than the other players, though even here that makes them less prone to derogatory characterisation. Compare Borderline to some of Robeson’s other pictures from the thirties – The Emperor Jones, say, or Sanders of the River – and it’s noticeable how we are called upon to consider the film in an historical, slightly forgiving light when it comes to racial presentation. Indeed, this is cinema too tough to be an artefact, and besides there’s so much going on elsewhere that such concerns appear trivial, at least during initial viewings.
For what stays with the viewer is the freshness which, even after all these years, occupies the whole enterprise. No doubt aided by Courtney Pine’s newly composed – and equally immediate – score, but there are comparisons to be drawn with the ‘beat’ cinema of Robert Frank and Shirley Clarke, the poetic realism of Cassavetes or the sweaty brutality of cinema’s best Tennessee Williams adaptations. It even prefigures the early nouvelle vague with its excitable jump cutting and general playfulness with film form. And note how none of these reference points is even remotely British – for Borderline is another of those unheralded and unsung reminders of just how rich and strange British cinema can be.
Minor scratches and other evidence of age may be apparent, but on the whole Borderline is treated to a fine DVD presentation. Clarity and contrast are excellent throughout whilst the expected original Academy ratio is present and correct. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is superb with Pine’s score treated to a crisp PCM stereo handling that ably captures its full dynamism – no need for 5.1 here.
Furthermore, the BFI have decided to treat Borderlineto a two-disc treatment. As well as the now customary booklet (20 pages devoted to articles on the film, notes on Pine and the POOL group, plus full credits) we find trailers for the BFI’s discs of Dreams That Money Can Buy and Pink Narcissus (both essential DVDs, by the way), a lengthy interview with Pine in which he discusses how he approached the score, and two French documentaries by Véronique Goël. The first, at 13-minutes, is dedicated to Close-Up magazine and tracks its history and shifts in approach, noting its key articles and contributors. The second, the feature-length Kenwin (86 mins), concentrates on the POOL group and their interactions via various letters they wrote each other over the years. Stylistically some may find it hard going – reliance on voice-over, images consisting of gliding shots around their Swiss base – but it contains much of value in pinning down these various personalities.
(Both of the Goël documentaries are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios with optional English subtitles. English subs for the hard of hearing are also available on the Courtney Pine interview.)
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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