The 1982 independent film Losing Ground—which plays tomorrow at 7 PM at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema—barely screened at all until Milestone Films premiered a restored version earlier this year. It’s easily among the most important cinematic rediscoveries of 2015. One of the first narrative features written and directed by an African-American woman, it exhibits a sensibility that’s closer in spirit to the casually wise naturalism of Jean Renoir or Eric Rohmer than much in the American film canon. Writer-director Kathleen Collins addresses some major questions about being alive (How do we find fulfillment? Does personal growth occur intellectually or through raw experience?), yet Losing Ground isn’t a heavy movie; it’s relaxed, unpretentious, and sometimes even funny. Unfortunately, it’s the only feature Collins lived to make.
Sara (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor who teaches (like Collins did) at New York City College; she’s passionate about her work, but introverted and a bit fussy. Her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, a multitalented actor who also wrote The Landlord and directed Ganja and Hess) is a successful painter and the sort of boisterous, macho type who often turns up in John Cassavetes’s pictures. The two have no children—they seem to live mainly for their work. Soon after the start of the film, a large museum buys one of Victor’s paintings, and he decides to celebrate by renting a summer home in the part of upstate New York “where Puerto Rican women live in old Victorian houses.” Sara isn’t crazy about the idea—she’d rather stay in New York City for the summer so she can be near the college library. She’s preparing to write a paper on the history of “ecstatic experience” and wants to bury herself in research materials.
Sara recognizes the irony of seeking ecstasy in academic tedium. She sees how ecstatic experience comes naturally to her husband and her stage-actress mother (Billie Allen, a New York theater director who staged some of Collins’s plays), and she admits that she wishes it was so easy for her. While not exactly unsympathetic, Victor is too wrapped up in his artistic process to give her much attention, and this sparks slight resentment in Sara. She continues with her work, but something gnaws at her; she wonders if there’s something missing in her life. Meanwhile Victor suspects that he’s lost his mojo as a painter and decides to make a break from abstract canvases in favor of a new approach to art. Collins freely interweaves discussions of philosophy and painting into the drama, so that one sees the parallels between Victor and Sara’s work and lives. As in Rohmer’s films, the characters seem like individuals as well as human manifestations of ideas or ways of life.
Collins cited Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” as an influence in a 1980 interview, adding
I’m interested in moral questions—in a certain kindness of life—and the possibility that without violating who they are or what the culture demands of them, people can still extend themselves into being kind. That is, of course, part of a unique ability not to take oneself too seriously.
The kindness Collins refers to comes through in her filmmaking. Everyone who appears onscreen in Losing Ground is granted a certain sympathy, even the occasionally callous Victor. Collins doesn’t tell us exactly what to think about her characters—she favors plainspoken, long-take medium shots that let behavior shape the flow of the action. (She also favors vibrant color combinations that suggest a living painting.) As a result Collins imbues her subjects with a fair amount of mystery: one comes to approach the characters as philosophical puzzles, an interpretation that mirrors how the characters take on their intellectual pursuits.
Collins engaged in numerous intellectual pursuits herself. She attended Harvard and the Sorbonne, earning a master’s in French literature in her early 20s. She wrote short stories and plays, and served as assistant director on a couple of Broadway musicals in the 1970s. Though she worked with accomplished black actors and directors, Collins balked at the idea of being labeled a black artist. “I refuse all labels, such as ‘black woman filmmaker,’ because I believe in my work as something that can be looked at without labels,” she said. This might explain why Losing Ground contains relatively few extended conversations about race, though there are numerous references to how few black academics, filmmakers, and painters there are in America.
Losing Ground suggests that people of all races face the same challenges when it comes to finding enlightenment, and that one of those challenges is the allure of the sensual. When Victor decides to start painting the people he meets around his summer home, he enters into a flirtatious relationship with the young Puerto Rican woman he hires as his model. This aggravates Sara, who retaliates by accepting the invitation from one of her students to act in his thesis film. The film-within-a-film mirrors Sara’s personal crisis—she plays one half of a vaudeville dance team whose partner is tempted to join a new act. Collins presents the student-film shoot comically, but extends sensitivity to the young filmmakers. The shoot ends up being crucial to Losing Ground. It’s through performance that Sara finally finds her own ecstatic experience, which occurs suddenly and brings the film to an appropriately mysterious conclusion.