By Andrea Thompson
“Losing Ground” is one of those great, recently rediscovered gems where phrases like “ahead of its time” and “underappreciated” are routinely tossed around. And why not? It makes a familiar story feel fresh and new by employing techniques that seemed to go mostly unused in mainstream films until relatively recently. For the few who have seen this film, there's another word it routinely brings to mind: unfair. It's quite accurate. If “Losing Ground” had been made by a white male director, there's a very good chance it would have launched a long and promising career. It's hard to imagine any other reason why both the movie and the director remained mostly unknown than the fact that said director Kathleen Collins was both black and female. When “Losing Ground” was released in 1982, it was one of the first films to be directed by a black woman, and it would remain Collins's only full-length feature when she died of breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 46.
Collins wrote and directed the semiautobiographical “Losing Ground,” which is both a portrait of a rocky marriage and a woman who is awakening to her own potential for pleasure. Much like Collins, Sara (Seret Scott) is a university professor who is adored by her students. Despite her prim exterior, they refer to her as passionate, even if she herself seems anything but when the film begins. A male student hits on her, possibly a female student, and both mention that her husband is lucky to have her.
Not that Victor (Bill Gunn, director of “Ganja & Hess”), a successful painter, seems much aware of his luck. When one of his paintings is bought by a museum, he chooses to celebrate by renting a house in the country, much to Sara's annoyance, who had planned to spend the summer in the city researching estatic experiences. Victor used to be an abstract painter, but once he goes up to the house in the country, he decides to eschew purity and begin painting people, especially the women. One of them, Celia (Maritz Rivera), becomes his model, and soon his lover.
This is clearly a familiar pattern to Sara, who is getting nowhere with her research. She is used to seeing other people in ecstasy, and feeling the pain of not being able to experience that for herself. The rush she gets when she writes and researches her way into the knowledge that she's correct is the closest she's gotten. But it's a cold form of ecstasy, and she knows it. In a conversation with her mother Leila (Billie Allen), a passionate actress, she asks her, “How can someone like you produce a child who thinks so very, very, much?”
For the first half of the movie, Sara's intellectual ruminations are the basis for the film's developments. In the second half, she agrees to act in a film one of her students is making, and that is when passion takes center stage. For Sara, acting is another form of research, a chance to experience the pleasure her mother and her husband experience so effortlessly. Small wonder Leila and her husband get along. Unlike other movies where the mother dislikes her daughter's clearly philandering husband, Leila was unaware of Victor's affairs (though she doesn't seem surprised), and enjoys spending time with him. They are kindred spirits.
The movie is of course eerily reminiscent of Sara's life, and Duke (Duane Jones), the man who plays her partner, is immediately attracted to her. Collins, however, refuses to let their relationship become a refuge. It is merely a kind of escape, and another commentary on the creative process. They may have chemistry and heartfelt conversations, since Duke is of a more intellectual bent like her, but his mindset is pretty familiar. Duke openly states that he doesn't want to be accountable to anyone. Throughout, they are beholden to the director, who is shouting directions in the background, telling Duke to walk, pick Sara up, and finally, passionately kiss her.
Nevertheless, Sara finds a kind of freedom in acting. In the film, she directly faces down the woman vying for the affections of her partner, angrily glaring and staring her down. The confrontation is heightened for the most dramatic effect, with passionate jazz music playing as the two women square off. In the absurdity which has become her real life marriage, when Victor brings home his new lover Celia, Sara politely shakes her hand and offers her something to drink. Her husband then openly displays his fascination with her while Sara is sitting right next to him. At least on camera there's more dignity, as well as the freedom to fight, even if she knows she'll lose.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is how “Losing Ground” suggests that the beauty of their natural surroundings in their country retreat encourages Victor's cruelty. Unlike other films, which often depict nature as a place of refuge where people can be more free and honest, “Losing Ground” theorizes that people who are fascinated by nature become more cruel, vulgar, and deceptive. It is not this beautiful setting - which so often seem to encourage passionate affairs - that allows Sara to finally blossom. During a break in filming, she comes home transformed, her hair down, in a red, vibrant shirt and flowing white skirt, leaving her husband Victor stunned, and immediately jealous of Duke. By the time he tries to reach out to her, the damage has been done.
Victor returns to the city just in time to see the end of the film. Sara's character is now a highly sexualized scorned woman out for revenge on the man who betrayed her. When she shoots Dukes character, Victor flinches, and shame overcomes him as he is finally forced to face the effect of his actions on his wife, with little hope that he can ever be forgiven or forgotten. The ending leaves it somewhat open, but the fate of Collins's own marriage seven years prior leaves little doubt to how this will turn out.
Needless to say, portraits of a black middle class with so little stereotyping, especially one directed by a black woman, are still rare. In spite of its very real accomplishments, “Losing Ground” was nearly forgotten. That it wasn't seem to be mostly due to the efforts of Collins's daughter, Nina Collins, who has worked to bring her mother's life and work to a new generation hungry for new types of stories. And in light of recent Oscar nominations that prove many of the great films women make still go somewhat unrecognized, both the work and audience support is still much needed.