Borderline (1930), the only feature film directed by Kenneth MacPherson (1902-1971), is one of the most important and most beautiful films ever made. It was the result of another magic confluence of queer talent: the bisexual poet HD (Hilda Doolittle’s pen name), her long term partner the novelist ‘Bryher’, and Bryher’s (mostly gay) husband Kenneth MacPherson.
These three, who called themselves ‘the Pool group’, created the avant-garde film magazine Close Up. They were bang on in the centre of the modernist movement. HD and Bryher not only devoted much of their time to producing experimental writing, but they also built a stunning modernist house for themselves and their daughter in Switzerland.
All three occasionally slept with each other, it seems, and the boundaries of their individual creative input into Borderline are equally fuzzy. The whole project feels like a triumph of collective derring-do. HD played a major (the main?) acting role in Borderline — her bony, brittle, and beautiful frame is unforgettable as ‘Astrid’, the pulse of the film.
Bryher also appears, as the butch (it is implied, lesbian) bar owner. MacPherson seems to have been in charge of the editing, which is the glory of the film. The nervy editing is not an exercise in provocation; this is a film looking for a formal strategy to realistically depict feelings of alienation and disintegration.
Ostensibly, Borderline is about prejudice against black people, as well as on how love and desire can be a devastating force. In the famous lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (burned by the
British censors after a scandalous trial in 1928), the queer hero/heroine listens to a black singer of spirituals and feels an instant empathy for the plight of the enslaved race. It is no coincidence that the three main artists involved in the Borderline project were queer. We all know that ‘No Trespass’ signs are multivalent, and to cross one borderline is as good as crossing them all, because black civil rights, women’s rights, and queer rights, and being fought on the same front line.