LOSING GROUND by Kathleen Collins – A Film That Reaches Beyond
Kathleen Collins’s 1982 film Losing Ground—the latest selection in Kinoscope’s screening series at the New School, and the last of this season—has historical interest to burn, as one of the first features to be directed by an African-American woman. Emblematic of the difficulties that women in the independent-film industry faced at the time, the film was barely released and languished in relative obscurity until last year, when Milestone Films, working from a negative rescued by the director’s daughter, Nina, brought it to theaters in a new digital restoration.
To see Losing Ground as simply a time capsule, though, is to do this still-vital film a grave disservice. With its predominantly black cast, there’s some sociological interest, especially since its characters do occasionally discuss matters of race with each other. Much of that talk comes from the older characters: Sara’s (Seret Scott) actress mother (Billie Allen) jokes about the beauty of “racial excuses” in excusing a black person’s professional failure, saying, “I can always tell my friends, ‘you were talented but unseen’;” while Sara’s co-star in a student thesis project, Duke (Duane Jones), recalls how, in his younger days, “there was no such thing as a Negro movie director.” (Both Jones—most famously the lead of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—and Allen were veterans of stage and screen by this point, lending their offhand ruminations extra poignancy.)
Collins’s film also powerfully resonates at universal levels. One of them is as a marital drama. The relationship between Sara and her husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), follows the contours of a typical disintegration-of-marriage narrative, but the details of these two distinct characters give it fresh specificity. To some degree, they’re a classic case of opposites attracting: Sara the intellectual academic to Victor’s more intuitive painter. But while some romantic sparks still fly between them, there are signs of tension from the beginning, their temperamental differences only exacerbated when Victor—on the heels of having his first painting sold to a major art museum—suggests they spend a summer in a town in upstate New York, an idea Sara isn’t too keen on, especially when her husband informs her that the only library in town is a lending library. Not helping matters is Victor’s newfound penchant for drawing female subjects, which only gets worse once they’ve moved into their temporary summer home and he finds a new muse in a Puerto Rican woman named Celia (Maritza Rivera).
Though many of Sara’s actions in Losing Ground are motivated by this fissure that bubbles underneath the surface of their marriage, a deeper, more profoundly human yearning drives her: that of casting off the shackles of her purely intellectual mind and tapping into her inner emotional self. The film opens with Sara lecturing a group of students on existential philosophy, with “absurdity” and “chaos” being the main subjects, and with the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus invoked. Initially, Sara is shackled by her intellectualism—when she turns her research toward “the ecstatic experience,” she burrows into books and even schedules an interview with a psychic to understand how it translates into practice.
Her potential deliverance, however, comes when George (Gary Bollins), a student and aspiring filmmaker who sees movie-star potential in Sara, persuades her to act in his senior-thesis project. Though initially resistant, when jealousy and frustration overtake Sara upon meeting Celia, she finally gives in and unleashes new sides of her—those of physical, emotional, even sexual freedom—she never knew she had.
Considering her own background as a film-history and screenwriting professor at City College at the City University of New York, one with a master’s degree in French literature and cinema, Collins seems to be tapping into an autobiographical vein in Losing Ground—a brutally self-critical one. In Collins’s view, liberation comes at a price: broken relationships, for one thing; but perhaps most importantly, a more disturbed awareness of oneself. That’s what makes the film’s ending—in which, in the film Sara is making with George, she shoots the romantic rival of her fictional male love interest, the film-within-a-film fiction thus merging with the harsher reality of her crumbling marriage—both tragic and triumphant: Sara reaches empowerment, but one that clearly rattles her. It’s a personal breakthrough that potentially heralds a new life phase.
Sadly, Losing Ground never quite heralded a further breakthrough in Kathleen Collins’s: She never made another film, and succumbed to breast cancer six years later, at the untimely age of 46. At least, though, she managed to make this masterpiece, a film that reaches beyond issues of race and class to explore that fundamental human tension between intellect and emotion.