The POOL group’s rarified history exists in fragments, and is only partially preserved due to two of its member’s significance to early 20th century literature. The collaborators’ objective—to promote avant-garde film making over the proliferation of studio made films in England and America—demands a reappraisal, and their work benefits from the hindsight of a century of film study.
POOL, founded in 1927, was built on the triangular relationship between Scottish-born artist Kenneth Macpherson, English writer Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), and American Imagist poet HD (Hilda Doolittle). In the group’s short duration, they amassed a considerable volume of research in avant-garde film study in Britain. POOL Productions made one feature length contribution to cinema, Borderline, 1930, and together with a collection of partial works, it has proven to be of lasting significance to contemporary artists and film historians. They also produced the film journal Close Up, published monthly from July 1927 to December 1930 and quarterly until December 1933. It proclaimed itself as the first journal to exclusively consider film as an art form.
There is no doubt that my personal fascination with this trio is romantic. European and transatlantic travel, poetry, psychoanalysis including sessions with Sigmund Freud among others, and literature in a period neatly bracketed by war—all these elements lend themselves to the very ‘classic’ idea of modern literature. The fact that all this seems so alien, and yet familiar, is a facet that draws others to the work too. Their patchwork history, minglings with modernism and memory gaps in accounts of their years together, gives room to the imagination that literature itself requires.
This complex personal relationship was truly ‘modern’; MacPherson and Bryher were married for pragmatic reasons, as both were homosexual. Bryher’s lesbian relationship with HD outlived the ménage à trois (Macpherson later departed and lived platonically with Peggy Guggenheim). For the most part of POOL’s existence, Macpherson was HD’s lover and also the adoptive father, with Bryher, of HD’s daughter from a previous relationship. Together Macpherson and Bryher published Close Up ; Macpherson as editor, Bryher as assistant editor, and HD as frequent contributor. The journal included contributors from across Europe and America. These red, illustrated journals are now sadly very difficult to come by.
Bryher came from a wealthy family, her father John Ellerman (1862-1933) is still regarded as the wealthiest businessman ever to have lived and worked in Britain, and with this wealth she supported the group and the production of Close Up and Borderline. Significantly, Bryher also help to fund Shakespeare and Company, the Parisian bookstore whose owner, Sylvia Beach, originally published James Joyce’s Ulysses in the first complete volume while also authoring a number of fictional works.
POOL Productions silent, black and white, 63-minute feature, Borderline received little critical recognition on its initial release, eclipsed by the advent of war and the introduction of talkies to the cinema audience. The film is a compassionate study of love, jealousy and racial prejudices, and the events surrounding characters Adah and Thorne’s interracial affair, set in an anonymous border town. Released the same year as Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and five years after Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Macpherson’s aim was to embrace the experimentation of early avant-garde cinema and to reject the conventions which were homogenising filmmaking at the time. It was filmed in Switzerland, where Macpherson, HD and Bryher shared a house that the latter had constructed. The dwelling was named Kenwin—an amalgamation of Macpherson and Bryher’s first names. As the film title suggests, it deals with social and personal borderlines of the characters it revolves around, but also of the world the trio shared. The film’s narrative is odd and sometimes confusing, as it fluctuates between traditional and experimental filmmaking techniques.
Borderline was thought to be lost until an immaculate print was recovered in Switzerland. Both Criterion and the British Film Institute released the print on DVD in 2007, with a specially-commissioned soundtrack by jazz musician and composer Courtney Pine accompanying the latter release. This is a strange addition to a film intended to be silent, but it does compensate for the lack of intertitles in the work. The film is, however, best viewed with the sound turned down, although I’m sure there are less attentive audiences that appreciate the distraction this contemporary addition offers. The feature stars both Bryher and HD in roles that can now be viewed three-fold: a portrait of the lovers at a time when their complex relationship was at a high, a mirror to racial prejudices at a time when the ripples of the Harlem Renaissance were being felt across Europe, and lastly the film can be viewed as an early example of queer cinema, a term coined in the late 1980s. The work’s gay undertones are epitomised by Bryher’s performance as a butch, cigar smoking landlord/innkeeper. Incidentally, Bryher believed that through a genetic accident she was born a girl rather than a boy, and that she was in fact male. The most interesting character in the film, Bryher, is captured in her only appearance on celluloid.
Macpherson wrote and directed Borderline while editing Close Up with Bryher, and the film can be seen as much as an experiment in the techniques promoted by the journal, as much as it can an original work. Significantly, Close Up was responsible, along with Bryher’s nonfiction, Film Problems of Soviet Russia, 1929, for introducing Soviet Cinema to a wider audience in Britain, and these influences are clearly seen in Borderline . American actor Paul Robeson was the only professional in the film’s cast, and although this was only his third film work, he was already renowned for his theatre performances. He and his wife (who also features in the film as his lover) were living in England at the time, where they stayed until the outbreak of World War II. By today’s standard’s Borderline ’s storyline is a well-trodden path, but historically this work is a presage to the events of World War II, even though Switzerland was never invaded.
One of the complexities of a contemporary reading of Borderline is Macpherson’s objectification of Robeson—it is unclear whether the actor is being framed in camera to fetishise the physique of Robeson as a black male or capture the portrayal of his character. Macpherson’s motivations remain ambiguous, although it has been said that his lingering shots of the actor bolster the overall queerness of the work. Another curious trait of Borderline is Macpherson’s fixation with hand gestures; in addition to his questionable interests in Robeson it confirms that the film is as much about narrative as it is about the framing of the body – a common preoccupation of modernist cinema.
The most effective facet of Borderline is the editing techniques adopted, which are at times startling. These jump cuts go some way to sublimating the psychological state of the characters, this detail compensates for the poor acting by a cast made up of non-actors. As Macpherson, Bryher and HD collaborated on the process it is clear that the combination of their skills resulted in the most interesting aspects of the film.
Beinecke Library, based in Yale University, recently restored Macpherson’s virtually unknown and presumed lost Monkey’s Moon, 1929, from a print acquired in 2008, and the move has again renewed interest in the POOL group. Monkey’s Moon was one of three known ‘lost’ films including Wing Beat, 1927, and Foothills, 1929: fragments of Wing Beat can be viewed at the the New York Museum of Modern Art’s Circulating Film and Video Library.
The little seen, silent 6-minute Monkey’s Moon was never intended to be shown commercially or to an audience, and as such gives a further insight into Macpherson’s cinematic preoccupations. Also filmed in Switzerland, the film depicts the escape and subsequent capture of Macpherson and Bryher’s pet monkeys. The work is a precursor to Borderline, and is effective in its simplicity – perhaps even more effective than his ambitious feature. Throughout the work, an unknown figure peruses the wild animals, drawing multiple parallels between their world and that of humanity at large. A sign on the open gate reads ‘PASSAGE INTERDIT ’ (no entry), which is juxtaposed with the monkey’s cage. The work can be seen as a simple study of the animals and the techniques of silent filmmaking, but it’s also clear that Macpherson’s interests were focused on depicting the psychological territory shared by the films subjects. This work is surreal, with each shot lasting a few seconds before it merges or overlaps with the next. This technique of confusion, disorientation and lack of comprehension is a filmic embodiment of the motivation of the players. What we view is dreamlike, and has a similar aesthetic to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, which was made more than ten years after Monkey’s Moon in 1943. In fact, the latter also shares an eerie similarity to the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, 1941, which begins with a shot of a ‘No Trespassing’ sign on a fence, followed by a shot of two monkeys that twin with those in Monkey’s Moon . Although this comparison is coincidental, it highlights that Macpherson’s efforts had the potential to be as iconographic as Welles’ opening sequence to Citizen Kane .
By 1929 Russian filmmaking had thoroughly developed the use of montage, and it was also in wide use in German cinema. Macpherson is by no means a pioneer of the technique. However, he was socially and culturally aware, and used these devices to record his unique living circumstances with poetic detail. With Borderline ’s perceived failure, Macpherson abandoned filmmaking, only returning briefly in 1947 co-producing Hans Richter’s Dreams that Money Can’t Buy . The complexities embedded in POOL’s practice resulted in attributes the artists could not have perceived their work to have. Borderline, Monkey’s Moon and any other work that surfaces in future, are sure to engage new audiences in an introspection that unfurls the psychology of Macpherson, Bryher and HD as much as it does the viewers’ own.
Steven Cairns was former co-editor of MAP