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Losing Ground

Losing Ground(1982)

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teaser Losing Ground (1982)

Kathleen Collins, the writer and director of the remarkable 1982 movie Losing Ground, was truly a woman for all seasons. Before her untimely death in 1988, at the tragically early age of 46, this enormously creative African-American artist was active as a civil-rights campaigner, arrested more than once for helping black Southerners register to vote; a professor at City College of the City University of New York, where she taught screenwriting and film history; a film editor and playwright; an author whose short stories were published posthumously in a 2016 collection; and a wife and mother. Above all, she was a filmmaker. Her semiautobiographical feature Losing Ground was largely overlooked when it was new but has since been rediscovered, reexamined and hailed as "a bulletin from a vital and as-yet-unexplored dimension of reality" by New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott, one of the many critics stirred to uncommon excitement by Collins's terrific film.

Sara, the protagonist of Losing Ground, is an African-American thinker, writer and professor whose intellectual energy is like that of Collins herself. At the beginning of the story, her focus is confined to purely scholarly pursuits - philosophy, literary analysis, critical theory - rather than the blend of intellectuality and creativity that Collins cultivated in her own career. So it's appropriate that we first see Sara in the classroom, instilling her enthusiasm for French literature and existentialist ideas in students who seem personally as well as educationally enthralled with her.

Sara's husband, Victor, is a painter with a different sort of personality. If she represents logic, reason and rationality, he represents the exclusively creative side of the coin, getting his best inspirations from intuition, instinct and serendipity. Exhilarated by success when a museum buys one of his paintings, he suggests that they spend some vacation time outside the city. So they rent a sprawling old house in the country where most of their neighbors are Hispanic and Sara's main concern is how she'll get the steady flow of books she needs for her research and writing.

The plot takes a major turn when Sara runs into a former student who's directing an experimental film based on "Frankie and Johnny," the sad old song about doomed love. He offers her a role and she accepts it, somewhat to her own surprise. Acting in the movie - and working with Duke, an unsuccessful but intelligent professional actor who stars alongside her - brings out offbeat, spontaneous aspects of her nature that she has generally pushed away until now. She begins to bond closely with her acting partner, and at the same time Victor slips into an extramarital affair with Celia, a beautiful woman who's posing for him. Intertwined with these romantic developments is a running discussion of how "abstract" ideas and "concrete" realities relate to one another in art, in imagination and in life. This is worked out directly in conversations between Victor and his mentor, Carlos, and indirectly in the growing marital tensions between Sara and her straying husband.

A key word in Losing Ground is "ecstasy," which comes from a Greek root meaning to "stand outside" oneself in a state of wonder or exaltation. Sara is researching the spiritual and theological possibilities of ecstasy, which seems to be in shorter supply in the modern world than it perhaps was in the ancient past. Ecstasy is what Sara and Victor are searching for in different ways, and if they fail to find it, blame may go to Victor's habit of gliding through situations and encounters with more easygoing good nature than deep-seated engagement, and to Sara's habit of intellectualizing things instead of simply and straightforwardly experiencing them.

Crucially, however, Collins's involvement with cerebral matters like these doesn't make her film conspicuously cerebral in itself. It's unquestionably a thoughtful, intellectually probing work, but first and foremost it's an emotionally affecting human drama that cares profoundly about the moral and psychological dilemmas of its characters, and makes it easy for audiences to care about and identify with them.

Some critics point to Losing Ground as the first feature film ever directed by an African-American woman, and while historical firsts can be difficult to verify, it's certainly one of the first. Collins names herself as director of the movie but credits cinematographer Ronald K. Gray with the "cinematographic direction," acknowledging his contributions to the nuanced compositions and subtle colors of the film, which never looks cheap even though it was made as a low-budget independent production.

Another striking element of Losing Ground is the amazing amount of expertise embodied in its cast. Sara is played by Seret Scott, a longtime theater director and actress who appeared on Broadway in Ntozake Shange's award-winning play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and has screen credits in Louis Malle's film Pretty Baby (1978) and various television shows. Victor is played with tremendous charm by Bill Gunn, the writer and director of the African-American vampire film Ganja & Hess (1973) and an actor in numerous TV series. Playing the out-of-work actor Duke is Duane Jones, star of George A. Romero's paradigm-changing horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Sara's mother is played by Billie Allen, a distinguished actress and director with many Broadway and TV credits.

The collective intelligence of the people in front of and behind Collins's camera enriches the story and subtexts of Losing Ground, which is entertaining, surprising, and challenging by turns. Whether or not it gives you ecstasy, it's a one-of-a-kind movie that thoroughly deserves the enthusiastic reception that has greeted its rediscovery.

Director: Kathleen Collins
Producer: Eleanor Charles
Screenplay: Kathleen Collins
Cinematographer: Ronald K. Gray
Film Editing: Ronald K. Gray, Kathleen Collins
Music: Michael D. Minard
With: Seret Scott (Sara), Bill Gunn (Victor), Duane Jones (Duke), Billie Allen (Mother), Gary Bolling (George), Noberto Kerner (Carlos), Maritza Rivera (Celia)
Color-86m.

by David Sterritt

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