By Eric Hynes
Dir. Kathleen Collins, U.S., Milestone Films, 1982
When a historically important film emerges from obscurityâ€”as Kathleen Collinsâ€™s neglected, never theatrically released Losing Ground (1982) has done thanks to Milestone Films, the Film Desk, and the Film Society of Lincoln Centerâ€”itâ€™s almost inevitable that its historically important elements will overshadow its singularities, its idiosyncrasies, its autonomy. But as crucial as it is to reclaim Losing Ground as a vital, vibrant, retroactively canonical independent film by an African American female directorâ€”made when African American female directors were even scarcer than they are nowâ€”itâ€™s no less crucial to view Collinsâ€™s film on its own defiantly individualistic terms. The film doesnâ€™t shrink from its own significanceâ€”after all, it opens with a smart black woman addressing a classroom of rapt university studentsâ€”but within the narrative itâ€™s a starting rather than an end point.
From that first scene we know that Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) is black, female, and a professor of philosophy. (Collins spends zero time explaining or establishing what it means that sheâ€™s any of these thingsâ€”theyâ€™re evident facts.) And by the end we only know that we, and she, have just begun to learn who she is, and who she might become. Collins introduces us to Sara and her painter husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), at a pivotal point in their lives. To celebrate Victorâ€™s sale of a painting to a New York museum, the couple takes a sojourn upstate for the summer, which reinvigorates Victor and destabilizes Sara. Victorâ€™s artistic interests have shifted away from pure abstraction toward the representationalâ€”to landscapes and people and particularly the brassy Puerto Rican woman down the street. Meanwhile Sara feels exiled in the rural settingâ€”the local library doesnâ€™t have the academic titles she needsâ€”yet seemingly provoked by advances from students and colleagues (which come as a surprise due to her studied air of professorial brittleness), sheâ€™s also suddenly stirred by thoughts of the â€śecstatic experience,â€ť first as an intellectual pursuit and then, eventually, as an emotional and physical one. She consults the literature, she visits a clairvoyant, she visits a church, then ultimately submits to an artistic process in which she can give up control in order to gain some measure of it.
She wishes to experience things more directly, without an intellectual filter, and he wishes to engage with the messy actuality of the world rather than from the remove of pure abstraction. Victor strays beyond their marriage to feel into his transformation, which she seems to expect and even begrudgingly permitâ€”this clearly isnâ€™t the first time heâ€™s discovered himself by discovering the charms of another woman. What truly causes conflict, and thus is clearly a new challenge for them, is her corollary transformation, her feeling into a new understanding of herself. She accepts the lead in a student filmmakerâ€™s movie, and thrills to playing a more expressive, sexualized version of herselfâ€”one who dances and swoons, and exudes rather than caps charisma. Itâ€™s not that she fully becomes a different person, itâ€™s that the clothes of this person fit far better than sheâ€™d anticipated. Victorâ€™s machismo canâ€™t bear the loss of control, or the sight of Saraâ€™s handsome, baritone-voiced costar, but most unlivable is the loss of his wifeâ€™s dependability, her steady blandness that gave purpose and shape to his eccentricity and buoyancy. If she no longer makes sense to him, it seems he canâ€™t make sense of himself either.
Yet it's not just marital or societal subjection she's up againstâ€”it's also her own personality and character. Itâ€™s not that sheâ€™s a product of anal retentiveness: her own mother is an actress and avowed sensualist who has an easy rapport with Victor, and seems utterly baffled by Saraâ€™s intellect. Her mother and others hint that her light-skinned daughterâ€™s academicism is a "white" pursuit, an effort at upward mobility "castle building.â€ť (Sheâ€™s even typecast in the student film, which the director describes as â€śa take off on the theme of the tragic mulatto.") But Collins never lets it be that tidy, never anchors the movie or her character in externally imposed definitions, even if others canâ€™t help but project those impositions.
All told, itâ€™s a rich stew for an adult drama. Each of them strains against both how they're perceived and how they perceive themselves, and both Gunn and Scott project contemplation and engagement with all this instability and irresolution. There's awkwardness in how some of this is expressed and dramatized in the filmâ€”much of Scottâ€™s line readings come off as line readingsâ€”yet there's truth in the awkwardness. Since Sara is a character that performs a self as much as she inhabits one, why wouldnâ€™t artificiality be present in how she talks, why wouldnâ€™t she move through space as if sheâ€™s trying to hit a mark? Itâ€™s unclear if Scott is channeling awkwardness or if Collins cast the nasally, angular actress in order to harness it, but what at first seems disconnected from the filmâ€™s purpose emerges as integral. By filmâ€™s end, Scott is performing a tango in a leotard, as regal, self-inhabited, and singularly appealing as anything else weâ€™ve seen before us. Collins isn't just contemplating liberation and individualization, she's sussing it out dramatically, filmically. (Her only other film, the 49-minute short, 1980â€™s The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, is no less interrogational of form, and no less liberated artistically. Collins had the temerity, it would seem, to make it not about African Americans, but rather three orphaned Puerto Rican brothersâ€”also living upstateâ€”who are haunted by their deceased father, whose point of view is represented by the camera itself.)
All the while, Bill Gunn does as Bill Gunn does, stalking the set with Cassavetean magnetism, playing around with pauses and grins and chuckles so that even stilted moments seem at least naturally so, and wearing an assortment of yellow terry-cloth t-shirts, red Izods, and black overalls like he was in the proud and glorious altogether. His cocksureness and onscreen charisma present an insurmountable challenge to Scott, but the text of the film eventually rises to acknowledge this fact. Collins doesnâ€™t intend for Sara to out-dick Victor, to become the brand of barker and carouser that heâ€™s permitted to be thanks to his masculine birthright. What she intends is for Sara to notice and feel, finally, the inequalityâ€”an inequality not of desire, but of license. "Don't you take your dick out like it was artistic. Like it's a goddamn paintbrush,â€ť she says, in the filmâ€™s penultimate scene, when Victor aggressively toys around with another woman in front of Sara. â€śMaybe that's what's uneven. That I got nothing to take out."
As in that doozy of an excoriation, dialogue in Losing Ground can be a bit bullâ€™s-eyed, the themes a touch too underscored. But at the same time, these themes are too rarely explored in cinema of any kind, from any era, for the film to suffer from being overly emphatic. And though Collins was an African-American female filmmaker who was working basically alone in that capacity, what she does is scarce for any filmmaker of any race or gender. Sheâ€™s articulating and dramatizing that which is habitually inarticulate and not seemingly dramatic. She explores what makes any of us who we are, and what any of us might learn or become if we knew ourselves a little better. As the title says, Sara is losing ground. But sheâ€™s also gaining air, and thereâ€™s literally no knowing where it will take her. Itâ€™s the not knowing that seemed to motivate Collins, the potential for creating characters that are as opaque and confused and irreducibly human as any one of us areâ€”or could be, if weâ€™re brave enough to admit it. Instead of a character comprised of what others need and expect her to be, Sara is at least beginning to understand herself from the inside out. And with this sole feature film, Kathleen Collins, who died in 1988, was beginning to do the same with her art.