October 3, 2017
Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.
Collins wrote and directed Losing Ground, shooting in New York City and Rockland County on a budget of $125,000. The film centers on the relationship between literature professor Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) and her painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn). Sara is cold, calculating and withholding, while Victor is impulsive, bombastic and outgoing. She has strict routines of writing and researching while Victor goes on instinct. His latest instinct is to spend a month in a house upstate so he can paint the local Puerto Rican community (especially, and exclusively, the women). All Sara wants is a library nearby so she can continue researching her book on aesthetics. Victor expects her to figure out study arrangements on the fly, placing his job, his art, before hers. The trip only exacerbates their differences, and neither gives any ground to the other. This is a movie in which neither spouse is completely sympathetic.
This was Collins’ second feature after the 50-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980, available as an extra on the Losing Ground DVD/Blu-ray), in which she adapted Henry H. Roth’s short story collection The Cruz Chronicles about a Puerto Rican family. Made for only $5,000, Collins recalled it was “terribly hard” to make, but it laid the groundwork for Losing Ground. She made both while a professor at the City College of New York, teaching film history and screenwriting. She had a masters in French literature from the Sorbonne, but a course she took there on adapting literature into film ignited her interest in cinema (previous to her academic career, she was a civil rights activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Collins began writing scripts while making a living as an editor for the BBC and a variety of other television stations. But she couldn’t secure any funding for her projects, recalling that “nobody would give any money to a black woman to direct a film. It was probably the most discouraging time of my life.” It was through the encouragement of one of her students, Ronald K. Gray, who would be her cinematographer, that she stubbornly carried on, and was able to scrape together enough funds for Losing Ground.
Victor is working through a personal and artistic crisis, as he shifts from abstract to figural canvases, he spends most of his time with a young dancer he meets in town, his model and mid-life crisis muse. Sara yearns for escape, so accepts an offer from one of her students to act in his student film, a loose adaptation of the “Frankie and Johnnie” lovers-on-the-run folk blues song. It is on that shoot that she enjoys her own awakening.
Sara asserts control of her environment from the first shot of her lecture on existentialism. She speaks with emphatic enunciation, seeking clarity and directness. After the talk, a student clumsily tries to flirt with her by telling her he hoped her husband appreciated her. Sara pauses, a little shocked at this intrusion of her home life into this workspace – that pause indicates the barriers she erects between the two. Victor is introduced working on a canvas while drinking champagne at their apartment, totally collapsing his art and his life. It is essential for him to intertwine his work and his personal life, as one informs the other. As played by Bill Gunn (a fine filmmaker in his own right – see Ganja and Hess ), Victor has bought into the idea that virility is the key to his inspiration, a machismo that he uses to justify all kinds of indelicate actions. His first act is to suggest to trip upstate, a journey that would aid his artistic practice, and one sure to delay Sara’s book project.
As Victor’s retreat looks more and more like a way for him to have an affair by other means, Sara’s reserve begins to crack. Her carefully drawn barriers between work and life collapse as Victor keeps intruding. She escapes into the film production, letting her hair down and dancing with a charismatic out-of-work actor named Duke (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead ). This performance seems to free something in her, and allows her to discover creative ways out of her collapsing marriage. She begins to see Victor for what he is, and in the most brutally honest line in the movie, she spits out, “Don’t you take your dick out like it was artistic, like it was some goddamn paintbrush!” That is a line too harsh and too true to come back from. The film ends in a scene of creative violence, a gunshot in the film-within-a-film providing a definitive end to their affair. Tragically, this would be Collins’s final film, as she would die in 1988 of breast cancer at age 46.
It is thanks to Nina Lorez Collins that we are able to see her mother’s brilliant work. In 2010, DuArt was closing it’s film processing lab, and disposing of their vast archive of material. It included the original 16mm negative of Losing Ground. DuArt contacted Nina, and with the assistance of Milestone Film, the material was preserved and scanned for home video and digital distribution. It could have so easily been trashed at any step along that path, so any viewing of Losing Ground is a gift, and should be welcomed as such.