Losing Ground


USA / 1982 / English

Directed by Kathleen Collins

With Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, Duane Jones

Still from 'Losing Ground'Is it a necessity for all black filmmakers to feel they have to represent, or at least tap into, “the” black experience with their films? And is that burden twofold for a black woman? Kathleen Collins must have been aware that there was no precedent for what she was doing when directing Losing Ground, the first feature film by an African-American woman. At the same time, she doesn’t seem to have wanted any of those responsibilities, and her film goes beyond questions of what must be said about black peoples’ lives in America, and further than the experiences of women. She preferred having the freedom to address any subject matter having to do with life itself, and her discursive debut, her one feature (she also published six plays and a few short films before her death at age 46), isn’t limited to depicting African-American experience – but it does do that, obliquely, and all of the main characters are black – but of inquiring into experience itself.

The first scenes of the film, which give a sense of its protagonist, Sara, take place at her job teaching logic at a university in New York. Sara’s students hang onto her words, and seem still in awe that such a rare bird could sit among them, and watch her as though she were about to disappear before their eyes in a flame-burst. They keep saying that her husband must appreciate her so much. She wonders what their preoccupation with her being married is all about. Perhaps they sense something that she doesn’t? A succession of them passes through her office, grudgingly letting go of her for the summer. One of them, a pompous film student, asks her to act in his thesis. She grins and nervously plumps the bun of hair tied up above her glasses, insisting she could never act.

She then goes home to the loft she’s shared for ten years with Victor, an older man and artist who fills the place with large canvases of abstract jazz. He’s wiry, with thin, ropey arms, and possessive eyes. Collins, who wrote the screenplay, describes both of them as having “creole beauty”, and she may as well have had an image of her stars, Seret Scott and Bill Gunn, in mind. Victor exudes the same kind of intensity as Sara, but externally, rather than delving into philosophy.

Still from 'Losing Ground'To her students, Sara posits that the existentialists had war, chaos, as the defining environment of life. There’s no great leap from Sartre to her home life with Victor, which could then be described as existential, by her definition of it. Sara complains that, “nothing I do leads to ecstasy. You [Victor] stay in a trance, you ever notice that, a kind of ecstatic private trance, it’s like living with some musician who sits around all day blowing his horn.” If they were good foils for one another in the relationship, ten years together has made their differences in temperament as difficult to reconcile as contrary magnets. And yet they hover around one another, an invisible force keeping them together, and they keep on ruminating, expressing, blowing off steam.

The dissolution of the marriage serves as Collins’ central viewpoint from which she addresses women and men, and the problems in intellectualizing life. The film is not as much about limitations and prejudice as about the terminal problems in the two characters’ relationship. Sara is approaching a sort of awakening, the specific nature of which stays unclear, and he has hit a wall with the concrete, with pursuing experience without analysis or sensitivity.

Victor reveals his longing for one of the small towns far up the Hudson from them, and that perhaps they should look for a summer getaway. Sara’s primary concern is whether there will be a library up there, so she can continue her research. He spends a day on his own, dancing around the town of Riverview, sketching long-haired Puerto Rican women who lean out of windows, and admiring the peaceful streets in a state of child-like delight. He is smitten.

It’s not that New York isn’t their natural habitat, but the small town promises “a new universe” as Victor says. It isn’t snobby or isolated, but he idealizes it as unpolluted, and wholly apart from their intellectually-stifling surroundings. Sara must be used to going along with his whims. In short order they’re set up in a vast, Tudor-looking house on a wide property. She has little to do there in comparison to Victor, who seems satisfied dancing around a mock-salsa in the park with his small backpack and sketchpad, even inviting a young woman to the house to do her portrait. His mid-life crisis is obvious, as he’s had it with abstract painting and wants to represent real things, to be a real thing. While Sara has undertaken a research paper, her summer is full of trips back to the city, as the small-town library isn’t quite up to it.

Her research is on religious ecstasy. Perhaps what the gnostic Christians defined as ecstasy was a closeness to nature and the vibrancy of life before it was articulated and locked away in words and study. Christianity ruined it with a sort of organization and logic. One of her students, a young woman, tells her she is having trouble with the logic part of the course. For Sara it’s second-nature, it flows within her. Logic and reason comprise the boat that’s kept her afloat so far, and she starts to realize that in order to understand the religious ecstasy she’s seeking out in books, she has to prize herself off of it.

Still from 'Losing Ground'Duke arrives as a handsome apparition while she’s buried in research – a dapper, older man wearing a cape, talking philosophy and past lives. Later, when she goes back to George, the film student and offers to act in his movie, she discovers she’s been cast alongside Duke (who, as it turns out, is George’s uncle), and the caped costume finally makes sense. The director shouts instructions to them as the obedient and sycophantic cinematographer dollies along the vast rooftop where they’re shooting. In the wings a calculating woman watches the fictional couple and waits for her moment to steal Duke’s character away.

Victor is forever externalizing his questions, his fears and insecurities, his artistic problems, which are really his male problems. The air is full of them. Sara complains that she has nothing to “take out” [of her pants] and display to the world, to tell the world what’s what. This is not a fundamental difference between a man and a woman, but a limitation in what she’s allowed to have at her disposal. So there is a degree of external oppression addressed in the film, but it’s not central, and it’s largely limited to the marriage, to the environment engendered by a fiery male mind and a female who wants equivalence.

His flirtations with the Puerto Rican women, since there is an exaggerated language barrier, happen with a choreographed physicality. Similarly Sara’s closeness with Duke mainly transpires during the dance numbers in which they appear. The film that they’re acting in is an adaptation of the song “Frankie and Johnny” – a murder ballad, as it happens, in which a young woman shoots her lover in a jealous rage. Meanwhile she and Duke don’t seem to share many intimate moments together outside the film shoot, as the relationship seems to be planted there, on camera.

Although Losing Ground is a milestone, so to speak, in black independent cinema, it doesn’t seem to have been viewed as such when it was released. Its dialogue is heavy but the feeling of it is light-hearted; it’s more about marital strife than it is about problems facing the black community. Black communities may as well not exist outside its purview. Also, emerging now from the past from out of left field, the film has the appeal of a time capsule holding views and preoccupations of a set of types little-documented in popular narrative, more so than about the fads of cinema at the time.

Still from 'Losing Ground'The immediate complaints about the film (leading to a lack of distribution in Europe, where much of the post-production budget appeared from) were about the absence of le malaise du ghetto, as though that were the only theme a black woman could make a film about. It’s not that audiences and distributors only wanted to see that, but that they only wanted to see that from her. The pressure is always on the creator, never on the consumer. The film goes against expectations because it so interior. It has almost nothing to do with imposed adversity, and is all about an inner struggle and deep questions. The content of the film isn’t notably daring – it’s relaxed and supports itself with archetypes – but putting it together, putting it out there was an act of defiance against the market and people’s limited imaginations. Not that there is any dearth of things that would challenge either of those, but the commitment it takes to so is enormous.

Without more literature on the film, it’s hard to know how much Sara was modeled on Collins’ own experience or personality. However, even in the film’s first scenes, you get a sense for how she must have felt as a black woman in academia, churning out an ambitious piece of human creativity. She goes to visit her mother, and the subtle prodding doesn’t stop. Her mother says she should quit academia and write a play. About what? About me, of course. Like Collins herself no doubt met with on a daily basis, other people have a fully developed idea of what she should be creating, but she herself is adrift. She’s lost a sense of herself, and the murkiness and open-endedness of Losing Ground reflect that, like opaque water. It’s prosaic and verbose, but doesn’t reveal anything aside from frustration, which takes on many shapes and tones.

Sara is an academic archetype. The strictures of her academic attire look Victorian, all bust, bustle and corset. The sunlight coming into her office gives an ancient, sacral glow to an idealized academia – in the screenplay, Collins describes it as “medieval looking”, which it certainly is. “Everything I do is abstract,” Sara concludes. So she wants to experience but doesn’t know how. The theme is common, but the degree of self-analysis is not.

The sad realization dawns on her, overtakes her like a handsome man in a library, that she is probing the history and providence of religious ecstasy but is, herself, so far from any of the conditions that lead to it. Making one’s art, exploring oneself and the outside world through it, is a sort of religious experience, but as Victor demonstrates, can still leave a person blindly seeking. He seems to be quite the inverse of her. He has always been creating, but for no one’s benefit but his own. This is perhaps the damnation of the abstract artist, but continually watering his own corner of the Earth has led to some serious soil erosion, and his intense personality flows away in all directions. Meanwhile she’s become a towering sunflower on her own, admired and alone, but dry and finally desiring to find out what makes her grow.

Still from 'Losing Ground'If one were to make a black independent timeline, Collins would sit about half a generation before Julie Dash. Collins was teaching contemporaries of Dash’s in the 1970s, even though she didn’t come into her own as a filmmaker until about the early 1980s. Since her crew was mainly composed of her students, and her stars were a handful of experienced actors, her vision went off more or less verbatim from the page. The main limitation must have been budget, and a few scenes from the script did not make it into the movie. Whatever the degree to which Collins wanted to address themes of power, misogyny, or the intellectual freedom that she desired, Losing Ground no doubt takes on meanings of its own. Unlike Dash, she doesn’t seem to have her sights on extremely specific themes, and that gives the film a certain freedom to express ideas at a variety of registers.

What’s amazing is that she manages to acknowledge that onus to make a film of the black experience without attempting to lift it, ignoring the pressures but sensitive to the environment that created them. She doesn’t tell “the” black story. Any film that tries to do that will fail, because it will be, ultimately, just a film. Dash’s epic-voiced Daughters of the Dust (1991) does a huge portrait of black history, and mainly succeeds in moving through the manifold aspects of the experience. Collins doesn’t do that – her story has a perspective, personal, and is loaded with observations and invention that come, polished and succinct, out of her own experience.

The difficulty they had adapting the script (referred by cinematographer/producer Ronald Gray as “essentially literature”) is apparent when comparing it to the final cut of the film. It seems like Collins was trying to connect the electricity of her personal musings into more concrete characters, which at times fail to illuminate with it. Collins decided to work mainly with professional actors, which gave the material she wrote (and the occasional improvisation) the safety of craftsmanship. Gunn, who thought that non-actors would enliven things with spontaneity, wasn’t enough to sway her from doing things in this particular way. Which is a good thing; Ganja and Hess (1973), which he directed, mostly has the overwhelming feeling of just throwing together what was available on hand, and the rest of the time it lapses into arcana. Losing Ground is less ambitious and more focused.

Sara feels frustrated with a purely rational approach to uncovering experience. Her struggle could be inadvertently echoing the pressure Collins felt to somehow sublimate or encapsulate the African American experience. Sara’s intellectual torpor and Victor’s mid-life crisis reflect the same problem as experienced by two different (and conflicting) people. He’s been trying to perfect experience – sharpening it with a dance, an argument, an espresso – and she’s been trying to immure it into academic jargon.

Sara says to Victor, “I could be another Dorothy Dandridge” – which is interesting. Why didn’t she say Lorraine Hansberry (whom Collins admired a lot)? There is something mildly anticlimactic in the fact that her great moment of release comes in performing the student film, in moving her lithe and statuesque dancer’s body to movements dictated by a male observer, with a male partner. But there’s considerably more to those scenes than a reductionist summary attests. Duke is a touch arrogant, but she feels a certain amount of freedom with him, a means of expression. The film she appears in is meant to appear weak in meaning and intent. But it is the synthesis she finds with her life, the meaning that appears out of it, that ultimately leads to the sense of an awakening. It is only a sense, since her acting is without dialogue. All we hear are George’s screamed directions, and the occasional furtive chit-chat with Duke. She tells him she’s married to an abstract artist. He asks if they have any kids. “Too concrete?” he teases.

Still from 'Losing Ground'It isn’t that moment of putting herself out there and performing that is liberating; she has already been admired, by the institution she works for and by fawning students. It’s more the layers of performance and life coalescing, for once – it points to a sort of release, but is nowhere near self-realization. Things aren’t resolved, they’ve just begun, like the discovery of a porthole into her own mind. The image of Sara that emerges in the last frames of the film, that has been waiting, latent, throughout the film, is perhaps a bit of Hansberry and a bit of Dandridge, hardly one person; far from it. The ground may already be gone from beneath her, but that, for once, is a most positive and freeing condition. Without succumbing to the strictures of what she must write, what it was incumbent on her to visualize, Collins clearly was pursuing her personal path to ecstasy, Losing Ground representing a stunning testimony of that.


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