Posts Tagged British cinema

Borderline (MacPherson, 1930)

“If I had my way, not one negro would be allowed in the country!”

– “The Old Lady”, Borderline

“She worked hard and did well, paid off her mortgage and began to put something by for her old age. Then the immigrants moved in.”

Enoch Powell

“…we affirm that non-Whites have no place here at all and will not rest until every last one has left our land.”

Nick Griffin

“2 fkin rite the fkin immigrant bastards go fuk off bak n giv us our country bak n our money ya fuuuuuuuuukers!!!!!”

– “I Was Born in the Uk. So Why Do I Have Less Rights Then Immigrants

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If France was once infected by the cinéma du papa, then the UK continues to be plagued by the cinéma du mama: a cinema whose commercial success and everlasting appeal resides predominantly in the purses of middle-aged, middle-class housewives beguiled by the gratification and security that its features can promise. This is a disease that manifests itself in two definitive strains. First, there is the ever archaic “heritage film” – a nostalgic fashion trend that beautifies the inevitably right-wing national past with its lavish veneration of mise-en-scène, whilst immobilising the viewer’s intellect with a recycled brand of doomed romanticism. Then, perhaps even more disturbingly, there are the attempts to create a stock of British “social realism” – championed by privileged white males who understand nothing of the “gritty” milieu which they sporadically inhabit, and defined by its timid aversion to any meaningful engagement with the problems confronting the disenfranchised groups whom it seeks to represent.

Together, these dominant bloodlines tighten the garrotte around the slender neck of the British film industry. And by their lack of ambition, they compel the admiration of the foreign press, defending the national colours on an awards circuit where they regularly corral nominations and prizes. What use is a picture that panders so desperately to such a vainglorious, rabidly innocuous market? The answer is none. Such inanities do not personify the vestiges of imagination and ingenuity that lurk within the forgotten corridors of our cinema – and yet they dementedly persist in stifling the enfeebled arthouses of the nation with their ill-gotten prestige. Imitators aspire to replicate their success, thereby upholding the un-impeachable tradition of audience nullification whilst maintaining the vicious cycle of vacuity that saturates our passive minds. And thus, the culture of filmic disengagement is perpetuated; reprocessed and diluted until the British “cinema” is rendered nothing more than a British vacuum, vainly masquerading as a purveyor of artistic integrity. Where then, in so mephitic an environment, do the filmmakers of tomorrow (integral to any potential revolt) find the inspiration necessary to emancipate our country from this contemptible beast that refuses to surrender?

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Enter Borderline. Had Kenneth MacPherson’s 1930 feature not itself been strangulated by the consumerism of yesteryear (its theatrical release was never becoming), then perhaps the pestiferous vermin of the mama would be nothing but a creative abortion; a minor blip in the character of a thriving and pioneering national cinema. Instead, it occupies a peculiar hideaway in the annals of film history. An exemplar, and possibly the sole exemplar, of the avant-gardist tendencies that once existed here (and can yet be unearthed), Borderline is relentless in its formalism and shameless in its virtuosity. Taking heed from the Soviet montage school of thought, MacPherson incites action and reaction through a bravura demonstration of editing that wilfully distorts the viewer’s grasp of his visual rhetoric. The film bemuses with its expeditious cutting rates and its excisional framing – the latter’s reduction of human figures to dissected body parts powerfully accentuating the characters’ physical detachment from their internal desires. Together, these core tenets invoke an overwhelming tsunami of kineticism that obliterates the audience’s understanding of the film’s spacial and temporal dimensions until all that’s left for us to cling to is an immediate, raw visceralism; the ultimate purification of the cinematic experience.

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Lest it give the impression of nothing more than a conceited experiment, it should be stated that Borderline is as grippingly radical in content as it is in style. Though it spitefully rejects the post-Griffith developments in narrative exposition, it cogently deploys associative montages to convey the psychological undercurrents of its disturbed characters. Torrents of passion and malice thus satiate the film, exacerbated and inflamed by the presence of that most toxic of evils: blacks. Yes, Borderline‘s real intransigence is a socio-political one – an earnest affront to Western xenophobia, and a valiant dismissal of the tendency to scapegoat minorities in times of turmoil. MacPherson contrasts the decadence of his white characters with the relative dignity of his so-called “negroes” (consider also how carefully he frames them against natural idylls), and emphasises the grotesqueries of racial hatred by recording those that uphold and enforce the status quo at their most repugnant. With this approach, the director audaciously upends the comfort and satisfaction that we seek from our modern, advanced society; his subversive portrait of an Occidental utopia revealing itself as a cutthroat mundania where all those that challenge the norm (the film’s few sympathetic whites are implied to be homosexual) are compelled into a precarious existence, forced to renounce their sense of justice in the name of the majority’s self-preservation.

MacPherson is perhaps too oblique in his approach and too callow in his sentiments to offer a parable of assiduous complexity for the 21st-century viewer. Yet the basic impetus of his tale is one that continues to transcend time (however unfortunately). Eight decades may have passed, but Borderline remains as recalcitrant now as it almost certainly did then: its fundamental concerns with the issues of immigration and integration still unnervingly prescient, and its refusal to pander to the prevailing prejudices of its era eliciting only admiration. Indeed, the film goes so far as to celebrate the very notion of dissimilitude by incorporating our fear of the subject into the form – playing out like the cinematic equivalent of an improvisational jazz piece, infectious in its exaltation of the medium’s possibilities. In the context of our national film culture, it stands alone in its compassion, its foresight and its innovation. A sign of what was to come it definitely was not, but one prays for the day when it can be commended first and foremost as a historical artefact rather than a sui generis of contemporary relevance. In the interim though, the burden lies solely with the present generation of cinephiles – it is we who must embrace progression (however paradoxically ancient) in the same manner in which our superficially-inclined brethren lust after regression. From MacPherson’s example we must draw only hope, for it is now evident that there once was a way forward for the British cinema – and, for as long as Borderline exists, there always will be.

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The Devils (Russell, 1971)

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“Hark!”, Ken Russell’s devils sing. But just who are the “devils” in 1971’s diabolical reverie of a film? All and sundry will eventually claim that Lucifer is synonymous with one Father Grandier, a charismatic priest and part-time theologian with a gluttonous taste for coitus. Why blame him for it? Savouring his role as an excitable vacationist in a garden of earthly delights, Grandier jovially surrenders to his carnal impulses, going so far as to reinterpret Catholic doctrine to justify his indulgence: Russell’s curious revision of the classic screwball exchange features a repartee between our newlywed protagonist and his spouse as they debate the scriptural merits of chastity, the former adamant in his belief that “even the most innocent lamb is destined for the lustful ram.” A Holy Man this preacher can never be – he preys on impressionable maidens during Confession, substituting absolution for speed dating as he exacts the repressed desires of his adoring devotees (“Now there’s a man worth goin’ to Hell for…”) and devours them as if they were the elixir of life. This fantastically hedonistic adaptation of Christian morality is not without its perils, however: after impregnating one such admirer, our so-called cleric abandons lover and child with icy disregard – Grandier’s mindset thus unclothed as one that’s willing to challenge traditional mores, but not so willing to face the consequences of his actions. With a gaggle of sexually-frustrated nuns driven to near-dementia through their collective appetence for our rock star-as-clergyman, it’s no surprise that the citizens of 17th-century Loudun will come to condemn this covetous Casanova as the Antichrist himself.

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Yet Grandier is – alongside his wife – the only character who remains excluded from Russell’s titular accusation. Indeed, were it possible for angels to exist in the director’s nefarious dystopia then our flawed Father would probably be best placed to fill such celestial boots (if only by default). His introduction as a skilled public orator with a powerful command over his fellow townsfolk suggests that, in a different epoch, he’d achieve renown as a great politician rather than notoriety as a wayward priest; for all his personal failings, Grandier is a man wholly committed to admirable ideals. In an era defined by religious persecution, it is he alone who pleas for tolerance, urging Catholics and Protestants to live alongside one another in peace. It is he alone who rallies to his city’s defence when wealthy barons arrive to tear down the famed fortifications that shelter its inhabitants from external turmoil. And it is he alone who poses an affront to France’s corrupt statesmen – a group of eccentrics intent upon stirring a mass hysteria to further their own fervently prejudiced agendas. Despite his questionable ethics, Grandier’s moral authority over his parishioners is (initially) unconditional – so much so that his nation’s pernicious nobility will desperately contrive to discredit him, thereby clearing the final obstacle in their path towards absolute domination. Russell is judicious in articulating the institutional hypocrisy of the times, blasting the warmongering leaders and early-modern spin doctors that manipulate a precarious order with their chicanery; their unmitigated iniquities ultimately inducing an epidemic of paranoia that will lead only to carnage. (Familiar, some?) It’s these rabid, power-hungry members of the privileged classes who collectively form the director’s Satan incarnate; the naïve civilians who lap up their every fabrication playing the subservient demons who enable the film’s cataclysmic maelstrom to wreak its destruction.

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There is a disease that afflicts Loudun’s residents, one that’s even more virulent than the bubonic terror which, having manifested itself early into the film, acts as an ominous signifier of the oncoming catastrophe. Consider The Devils‘ sets: an exercise in magnificently flamboyant artifice, a grandiose series of architectural blitzkriegs that pits classicism against modernism whilst pristine, caustically-white exteriors threaten to blind the viewer with a façade of innocence (tellingly, Loudun’s cathedral – Russell’s centrepiece – has its interiors swathed in black to emulate the rotting souls of its purportedly devout worshippers). Embedded within these spectacular designs are: crosses. Everywhere. Inescapable. The real plague. Nary a scene passes by without the director somehow implanting this most potent of symbols into his imagery: in the rare instance where it can’t be found within the décor, then it will be conjured with light and shadow; if it cannot be done with optics, then it will be constructed with human bodies (always, there is a solution – for always, there must be a cross). Russell envisions the symbol as a recalcitrant infestation from which there is no escape and, amidst the chaos of his vulgar operatics, its meaning becomes totally debased. No longer is this is a representation of Christ’s benevolent sacrifice – rather, it becomes an imperious instrument of emotional oppression. Religion in this director’s world is conceived as a hotbed of atrocity, subjugation and ephemeral ideals; the purity of faith overwhelmed by the political machinations of scheming superiors: “I pray that I may assist you in the birth of a new France – where church and state are one!” Grandier’s ordeal at the hands of this governmental subterfuge will come to exemplify the disaster that ensues when the two cited Goliaths unite, though the fate of his primary accuser – the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne who heads Loudun’s sex-starved convent – is perhaps even more profound in its tragedy. Russell ensures that this delirious fetishist of a Mother Superior is constantly framed behind bars, emboldening the sexual incarceration that suffocates her deleterious psyche, and inducing ever greater acts of mania from her bruised ego as a result. She, more than any other character, is the embodiment of all that can go wrong when religion is ruthlessly enforced as a social order instead of being embraced by wilful believers.

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The cost of all this repression is devastating. Not least because the director expresses its damage by pushing the film to highs (or lows?) of garish, completely ludicrous excess that remain singular within his medium. The Devils communicates to its audience almost solely through the language of obscenity – and no taboo is left unturned as Russell fashions a boisterous, bombastic and boorish nightmare that upends any comprehension of human decency with its exuberant kitsch and vicious irony. Consider that, in under two hours, we’ll have witnessed: hornets deposited upon open wounds; crocodiles placed between women’s legs; candles being furiously masturbated; exorcisms by way of enemas (and giant clyster syringes); transvestite monarchs recreating Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It doesn’t end there. The film’s most infamous sequence culminates with the “Rape of Christ” as a swarm of lascivious lunatic-nuns tear down a life-sized statue of their Redeemer and proceed to defile it – the director frenetically cutting between the orgiastic pandemonium and the sight of an onlooking priest, notably aroused by the entire affair. If Hell were really to exist, then surely it would look a little something like this, for in Russell’s vision the notion of “nothing sacred” is actualised to the point of absurdity. When an effeminate King Louis XIII (the director plays fast and loose with historical accuracy) turns up and exposes the possessed nuns and their deranged exorcist as frauds – thereby granting them the opportunity of a reprieve from their madness – the belligerents simply continue with the farce. These pathetic, tortured souls need to maintain their uninhibited masquerade; a lifetime of suppression has left them with bodies crippled by angst, yearning for any semblance of freedom to alleviate the self-created paucity within. In unleashing the full, titanic force of unexpressed desire and unfulfilled dreams, the director articulates the depth of these deficiencies with an understanding that goes so far beyond blasphemy that it reaches a point of spirituality heretofore unseen in the cinema. In this frenzied amalgam of perverse satire, visual panache and frenetic montages, Russell’s most heinous act is also his most beautiful. Positing the reformed Grandier as a contemporary Jesus, he substitutes a crucifix for a stake and rams the comparison down our throats in a cyclone of redemptive hellfire. Having lost everything that he once held dear, the charred priest looks skyward to his Saviour and tearfully decries the fate of his self, his town and his country – knowing full well that in both life and in death he will have achieved only this: fuck all.

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“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen”

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