Monday, March 19, 2007

The Vague and The Painstaking

A still from Kenneth MacPherson's 1929 film Borderline

Borderline is an action movie. Kenneth MacPherson's only feature takes place in a universe of reactions--in fact, the movie seems overtaken, distracted by them, like someone trying to tell a story all the while following a tennis ball with their eyes, back and forth. The plot is reduced a series of title card interjections, the movements at the heart of it so fetishized, so examined that we no longer recognize what they are: climbing a staircase, opening a door--simple actions become so alien through the emphasis placed on them. It's like looking at the world through binoculars--we identify individual parts, but they become so fascinating that we can no longer grasp the whole. It's a re-examination that would make Francis Ponge proud, one where a new object seems to be created simply by describing an old one. The door knobs and coffee cups in MacPherson's film are not the same as their analogues in our world, all thanks to the miracle of transformation at the heart of cinema's alchemical side.
It's a terrifying world sometimes, too--the sheer interconnectedness the editing suggests, cutting to "reaction shots" of motionless objects, creates a sense of constant consequences. The film's small town is so tangled with the reaction a chair has to someone sitting down on it that we miss the melodramatic story that supposedly forms the film center, with Paul Robeson and his wife as two black outsiders in a community vaguely defined but painstakingly described, more vivid as a set of sensations than a set of buildings and people (a feat considering the small cast and repeated use of recognizable exteriors and interiors). So perhaps it isn't just Ponge that the film evokes, but Kafka as well.

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