Losing Ground December 12, 2019
1 Hr., 26 Mins.
osing Ground (1982), written and directed by Kathleen Collins, is some kind of forgotten masterpiece. But it’s true, too, that it was never in much of a position to be remembered. When it debuted on the festival circuit in 1982, it saw some acclaim. But because it never saw a theatrical release and for a long time wasn’t available on home video either, even those who saw it during its brief screening period weren’t in much of a
position to put into motion a breakthrough for Collins.
Watching the film almost 40 years later on DVD, it came before me as a movie one has to stop themselves from speaking about in hyperbole. The feature, one of the first made by a black woman filmmaker, makes a good argument for Collins’ genius. What else might she have given the movies had she not died, of breast cancer, a few years later?
Losing Ground, shot for $125,000, is semi-autobiographical for Collins. It stars Seret Scott, a friend of the director, as Sara, a philosophy professor at New York’s City College. For about a decade, Sara has been married to Victor (Bill Gunn), a painter a couple of years her senior. We suspect their union has even in recent years been a happy one. But we sense that some fissures have started to form just a little before the movie has begun. Victor, whose commercial success has proven itself elusive, has just found out that one of his paintings has been sold to an elite museum bound to give his name the recognition that’s long evaded him. Sara is writing a mammoth academic piece about aesthetics — particularly focused on what it means to (and how one might achieve) ecstasy. These middle-class artists have, naturally, become freshly preoccupied with their work.
In Losing Ground, the work of one of them will be unfairly stymied. As Sara has begun drafting her piece, Victor decides he’d like to move to a countryside home for the summer as a way to reward himself for his achievement. Sara, unwilling to put up a fuss, is essentially coerced into the temporary move, despite her worries that her research will be hampered. (The nearest library is founded on a slow-moving loaning system.) Quietly, we sense that she’s thinking to herself that Victor’s years-long problem of prioritizing his work over hers has reached its highest point.
The simmering dysfunction comes to a boil when, a little into their “vacation,” Sara is offered a part in a student movie being shot back home and takes it. In the time apart — something that vexes Victor to no end — the latter takes an interest in a much-younger local Puerto Rican woman, Celia (Maritza Rivera), whom he likes to paint. Sara, in return, notices that there’s almost certainly a romantic connection with her co-star Duke (Duane Jones), an actor who has for himself an academic mind that thrills Sara. We’re not sure she’s been in a relationship where this has happened.
That Sara is probing the nature of ecstatic experiences through her writing is a fitting, and cleverly handled, bedrock in Losing Ground. She’s trying to get to the root of a much-sought-after human experience while also finding it a prominent and indefinable fixture in her own life. Sara is searching for an ecstatic high in her marriage, her academic work, and as a person more generally — she’s a black woman in her 30s, and enough time has gone by where there feels like there has to be more. At one point in the film, Sara tells her mother, an actress named Leila (Billie Allen), that she’s losing ground. This scares her. Sara has almost always been sensible and together to an unwavering degree. Even Leila admits, well-aware that it’s probably not what Sara wants to hear right now, that something that keeps her strong in life is knowing that Sara’s sturdiness is there to fall back on.
In Losing Ground, we watch Sara, in real time, realize that she cannot naturally reach the sort of ecstasy she’s writing about in her current situation. Some parts of this dilemma have chances to be changed, even if it’s painful; some parts really can’t be. Sara can’t get to an apotheosis in her marriage if there are certain things she’s had to give up over the years to make it work on the surface; and in her academic work myriad things bother her. No matter what she achieves her being a black woman makes the likelihood that her efforts will be overlooked higher — and when you’re writing dense philosophical material, how much of an impression will this thought-purging culturally make anyway? Sara is a fully formed character played with an engaging knowingness by Scott. She’s a woman at the pinnacle of her intellectual game but cannot easily put into words or even actions what’s bothering her, and what she can do to revise it.
The prospective romance that comes up between Sara and Duke is exciting in many ways because of its unknowns. We don’t know, at the end of the movie, if Sara takes the plunge we think she might and leave Victor for Duke. It seems like, based on what she knows about him, that Duke would be better suited to her than Victor is. He’s appreciative of her formidability and seems up to the late-night philosophical conversations she seems inclined to have. But it’s a risk. That the fate of this romance remains ambiguous snakes its way into the movie’s invocation of ecstasy’s slipperiness. We never know in life which moments will get us closest to it. Embarking on a life with Duke could potentially get Sara to something like it, but for all she knows it could push her away from it too.
Midway through Losing Ground, Victor paints Sara as she reclines next to an open window one evening. The colors in this shot are sensational — all Technicolored and enhanced by the cinematography's sultry dew. Sara’s face is all glowy — bathed in gold, as if she were sitting under a yellow streetlight at night. The scene is an early high for the film’s overarching visual pleasures. Collins is a proponent of hyper-pigmented West Side Story (1961)-style fashions and often juxtaposes these colors with blunter backgrounds like cityscapes and rocks. But the tableau is also notable for what it causes Victor to say. He notes that he’s begun to see Sara in a different light. In this case he means it literally. But this off-the-cuff comment stuck with me. This movie is about, among other things, Sara seeing herself and her life in a different light after she notices that the ground beneath her isn’t as solid as it used to be. Wisely, Collins knows that once one’s ground has begun to shake, there isn’t a lot you can do about it. Most of the time. A