LOSING GROUND (1982)

  • Director: Kathleen Collins
  • Writer: Kathleen Collins
  • Starring: Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, Duane Jones, Billie Allen, Gary Bolling, Norberto Kerner, and Maritza Rivera
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel

Of the movies we’ve covered so far on Movie Valhalla, Losing Ground is the one that feels the most like someone’s student film, and it’s not really close. It is perhaps no coincidence that, in fact, someone’s student film figures prominently into the plot. This isn’t meant as a criticism, really. What I mean to some extent is that it is far more concerned with its high-minded themes (the relative virtues of artistic abandon and intellectual analysis, for one) than with its plot, which is sort of about the marital conflicts of its central couple, played by Seret Scott and Bill Gunn. Those two lines of the movie, the erudite and the domestic, for the most part work in harmony with each other. The basic problem with the marriage of Scott and Gunn’s characters is that they are people who derive joy from very different things. They do rub up against each other in weird ways sometimes, though. This is a movie where Scott’s character catches her husband attempting to cheat on her and screams the following line at him: “Don’t you get your dick out like it’s a paintbrush!”

Losing Ground is another movie that makes a claim that I’ve seen at least a version of a few times for movies we’ve covered, that it was the first feature-length film directed by an African-American woman. That more people have not heard of it is mostly a product of the fact that it was barely shown in theaters at the time of its release, even in New York, where it is partially set and shot, and is also one of the art house capitals of America. Unfortunately, it also remains the only feature directed by Kathleen Collins, who was mostly known at the time as a playwright in New York City. I say unfortunately because her career was tragically cut short due to her death in 1988 from breast cancer at the age of 46. However, the movie was restored and reissued on DVD and even in a few theaters by Collins’ daughter in 2015, and critics loved it. The New Yorker called it “one of the great discoveries of 2015,” while The New York Times said it was “like a bulletin from a vital and as-yet-unexplored dimension of reality.” You can now stream Losing Ground on the Criterion Channel, alongside the films of Godard and Tarkovsky.

That “as-yet-unexplored dimension of reality” is one where we get a long scene of Sereta Scott’s character typing on her old typewriter about “the roots of art in ecstatic experience.” In another scene, the great Duane Jones (star of Night of the Living Dead and Ganja & Hess) appears, wearing a cape, in a library where Sereta Scott is researching for her current paper and announces that he has been reincarnated throughout history but “this is the first time I have been reincarnated as a Negro. I must have had a lot of karmic debt.” In another scene, her artist husband (played by Bill Gunn, the director of Ganja & Hess) describes to an artist friend (Norberto Kerner) how he has moved beyond representationalism, to which his friend replies that he still takes inspiration from the trees. The whole thing is basically like this.

The impetus for the story of the movie is Scott and Gunn renting a big stone house, almost castle-like, way out in the suburbs of New York City, for the summer (the exteriors were shot in Rockland County, New York). Gunn believes it will be great for his art, but Scott moves there only reluctantly, commenting that she will have nowhere to do the research for her current academic paper. Gunn comments that she can “drive into the city once a week.” She attempts to make the best of it, waltzing into the small local library and announces she wants to order some books through their library exchange program for her research. “What is your subject?” the librarian asks. “Ecstatic experience!” she announces matter-of-factly. The librarian stares at her for a moment, then flatly says, “OK, fill out this form.”

As the movie continues, Scott and Gunn’s married couple drifts apart. She is jealous that he and her mother (Billie Allen), who is a stage actor, seem to “get” each other more than she does as the daughter. She asks her mother if she’s disappointed in her, and the mother replies, “I wouldn’t blame you for being a failure. I’m not white.” OK lady. He finds a Puerto Rican lady in town (Maritz Rivera) who he uses as a model, while the two of them argue, kind of (“Don’t move!” “Once I am finished, I will never move again!”). Scott, meanwhile, ends up schlepping back to the city for several days on a whim to star in the student film of one of her philosophy students (Gary Bolling), who tells her she “could be the new Dorothy Dandridge!” as if that’s something a college student in 1982 would say. Of course starring opposite her in the movie is Duane Jones (who turns out to be the students’ uncle), and at one point the student director shouts at them, “I know I haven’t prepared you two for this, but can you kiss?”

Though its story is hardly earth-shaking, Losing Ground ignores a lot of the restraint that larger budget movies know they are supposed to have, and that is part of the reason why I think I enjoyed it. Which I really did, even if parts of this essay seem like I’m complaining about the movie. I’m not, I’m trying to explain how it’s different on a fundamental level from pretty much any other film you’re going to watch. It’s so much in its own “dimension” that everything it does is interesting, while at the same time it’s not “weird” or “quirky” in the way that turns a lot of people (not me) off. Despite its feeling very much like a student film, I still recommend Losing Ground.

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