Paul Robeson: Outsider — Body & Soul/Borderline

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #371: Oscar Micheaux’s Body & Soul and Ken­neth MacPherson’s Bor­der­line.

Body & Soul

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Paul Robe­son and Oscar Micheaux are leg­endary, so I was eager to see what they could do in col­lab­o­ra­tion. Body & Soul is Robeson’s first screen appear­ance, and quite an open­ing act. The sto­ry is about a arche­typ­al hus­tler who’s hus­tle hap­pens to involve being an arche­typ­al black preach­er. There’s hypocrisy, drunk­en­ness, rape, and mur­der; just from the preach­er! The film is strong through­out, but pass­es the strength between Robeson’s com­plete trans­for­ma­tion into a Jekyll & Hyde char­ac­ter and Micheaux’s facil­i­ty with shot selec­tion, cin­e­matog­ra­phy and edit­ing. Body & Soul are typ­i­cal­ly bound togeth­er in mutu­al­ly pos­i­tive terms [e.g. Good for body & soul.] but in this film they are oppos­ing forces. An easy anal­o­gy can also be made: Robe­son as Body; his phys­i­cal pres­ence com­plete­ly mag­net­ic. This leaves Soul for Micheaux, who is able to inti­mate vio­lence with a shot of shoes walk­ing through a door, or an inter-title that sim­ply says “Lat­er.”

The film only fails at the fin­ish line. The dénoue­ment seemed like a grand cop-out to me. For the major­i­ty of the film, the dra­ma plays out as an explic­it crit­i­cism of min­istry and an implic­it cri­tique of cul­tur­al lar­ce­ny in gen­er­al. The fact that Micheaux felt the need to end with a “just playin’ y’all” doesn’t indi­cate a fail­ure of ide­al­ism to me, but like­ly a prac­ti­cal under­stand­ing of the recep­tion the film would have got­ten with a less fairy-tale con­clu­sion. Nev­er­the­less, I feel like it is fair­ly well neutered by the last ten min­utes, much like Campion’s The Piano was spayed in the same way.

The jazz score for the Cri­te­ri­on release is mag­nif­i­cent. There’s some smooth jazz, acid jazz, chain-gang­ing, and gospel echoes through­out, many times mar­velous­ly jux­ta­posed to empha­size sub­text that an audi­ence used to talkies might typ­i­cal­ly miss.

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Oscar Micheaux’s Body & Soul: Visu­al Rep­re­sen­ta­tion and Social Con­struc­tion of African-Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty
Com­pre­hen­sive Oscar Micheaux
Arti­cle about the jazz score for the new print.
• YouTube clip of Body & Soul.

Borderline

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Bor­der­line is a very dif­fer­ent film from Body & Soul. It’s a British avant-garde film about an inter-racial love tri­an­gle. Robeson’s role in this film is much less sub­stan­tive, but no less effec­tive. This effort­less effi­ca­cy is enabled by the sto­ry­line and its inevitable racial­ly-charged con­fronta­tion. This film is fair­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed, it uses mon­tage lib­er­al­ly, but in a very refined man­ner. I’ve nev­er seen a film where com­plete­ly motion­less fig­ures can make a scene feel unut­ter­ably vio­lent. When the storm actu­al­ly comes, it is almost a relief; the sub­con­scious clues sup­plied by the mon­tage-fore­shad­ow­ing turn the screen ten­sion into real ten­sion held by the view­er. MacPherson’s use of mon­tage often blends with the action instead of stand­ing sep­a­rate­ly as a sort of para­ble like some­thing out of Ver­tov. Thus, the pop of a cham­pagne cork and the dark stain it leaves on the wall sug­gests a gun­shot and blood­stain, and a woman trim­ming a hat with shears implies the thoughts of the man play­ing with a knife in the shot that pre­cedes it.

The jazz score for this film is also very good, but even with­out it the amount of sound present in the action of this silent film is astound­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the tech­ni­cal aspects of the film are its great­est strength. The plot is prob­a­bly a bit too com­pli­cat­ed to be effec­tive­ly por­trayed in a silent film, and while Robeson’s role is actu­al­ized through a sin­gle punch, the abrupt end­ing and near­ly non-exis­tent moral would be bet­ter suit­ed to a doc­u­men­tary and not a dra­ma. Per­haps this Mod­ern, ambigu­ous end­ing was pre­cise­ly the point, but if there is no par­tic­u­lar point to be made, why make a movie that so des­per­ate­ly seems to need one?

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Screenon­line syn­op­sis and mul­ti­me­dia. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the clips are only avail­able to cer­tain Brits.
Lux­on­line His­to­ry.