There is something a bit disturbing about watching `Borderline' and it is the same feeling that arises when people today discuss issues such as racism as if it were a personal, rather than social, issue. It is the arrogance of the implied statement; `the world revolves around me'. A film that purports to deal with racism ends up by saying `black=good, white=not so good'.
Judging from the notes that accompanies this DVD the only reason that the Robesons agreed to staring in this film was to amuse themselves at the expense of this bunch of self -indulgent (and self-deluded) bourgeois group: the POOL group. That isn't to pass judgement on Macpherson and his group. They were, no doubt, very sincere about their anti-racism. It is just that they could not see a world beyond their own parochial one.
As such, the viewer is made to feel like a voyeur. It seems as if we have gate-crashed a therapy session rather than a serious appraisal of a social issue. Things are given: you either accept it or you don't. There is little room for manoeuvre when it comes to the discussion of racism, sexism or gay rights (no doubt these people would have loved the social- issue-as-mental-health-problem, that peppers the etymology of social issues today; reducing racism or anti-gay pronouncements as `phobias').
But there is also something really beautiful about the film. Macpherson's constant close examination of Paul Robeson seems to suggest that, far from examining racism, he was more interested in the beauty of masculinity (sometimes Macpherson borders on portraying Robeson as the `sauvage noble'). And I found the film worked best on this level.
We are not encouraged to either see anything worthy in the white characters, who come over like a bunch of silly teenagers, and thus it is hard to sympathise with them. But it is also difficult to actually sympathise with Pete because we actually don't know how much of his misfortune he brought on himself. The closing shot of Thorne and Pete shaking hands is, perhaps, the only political (however naÔve) statement. But it doesn't fit comfortably with the rest of the film's navel-gazing.
If self-indulgence was a reason to dislike a film (or any work of art) then there would be very little to appreciate. Borderline is a great work. Macpherson certainly embraced the new trends in art with az passion and, in doing so, has created a greatly unique film.
However one has to wonder at what it was that drove BFI to include a soundtrack by Courtney Pine. The music gives one the feeling that what we are watching is some porn film. I half expected a half dressed hunk with long sideboards and a near-handlebar moustache to burst on the scene and give Bryher `a good seeing to'. I ended up turning the mute on. It was just so imposing as well as being irrelevant to the film.
What is sad about this 2 DVD set is that we are told nothing about Véronique GoŽl whose film `Kenwin' takes up the second disc (actually it would appear that there should be two films by GoŽl, but `Close Up' is melded into `Kenwin'. I don't know if this is an accident, but it works really well). The films deal with Macpherson's group through a series of correspondence and (in `Close Up') a series of family films. Oddly enough this seems less voyeuristic than Borderline. They have a very ethereal feel that makes the concerns that are related in the letters, secondary.
I am delighted with this DVD with the exception of the soundtrack. Macpherson captures the feel of Hilda Doolittle's imagism really well and forced the viewer to see beyond what is in front of them. It is sad that Macpherson never made any more films as `Borderline', at least, suggests an interrogating mind. He did produce Hans Richter's `Dreams That Money Can Buy  [DVD
]. Surprisingly it was Bryher who, literally, put her money where her mouth was, when it came to social conscious, by devoting her money and energies to helping refugees from Nazi Germany.