By Eric Hynes

Losing Ground
Dir. Kathleen Collins, U.S., Milestone Films, 1982

When a historically important film emerges from obscurity—as Kathleen Collins’s neglected, never theatrically released Losing Ground (1982) has done thanks to Milestone Films, the Film Desk, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center—it’s almost inevitable that its historically important elements will overshadow its singularities, its idiosyncrasies, its autonomy. But as crucial as it is to reclaim Losing Ground as a vital, vibrant, retroactively canonical independent film by an African American female director—made when African American female directors were even scarcer than they are now—it’s no less crucial to view Collins’s film on its own defiantly individualistic terms. The film doesn’t shrink from its own significance—after all, it opens with a smart black woman addressing a classroom of rapt university students—but within the narrative it’s a starting rather than an end point.

From that first scene we know that Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) is black, female, and a professor of philosophy. (Collins spends zero time explaining or establishing what it means that she’s any of these things—they’re evident facts.) And by the end we only know that we, and she, have just begun to learn who she is, and who she might become. Collins introduces us to Sara and her painter husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), at a pivotal point in their lives. To celebrate Victor’s sale of a painting to a New York museum, the couple takes a sojourn upstate for the summer, which reinvigorates Victor and destabilizes Sara. Victor’s artistic interests have shifted away from pure abstraction toward the representational—to landscapes and people and particularly the brassy Puerto Rican woman down the street. Meanwhile Sara feels exiled in the rural setting—the local library doesn’t have the academic titles she needs—yet seemingly provoked by advances from students and colleagues (which come as a surprise due to her studied air of professorial brittleness), she’s also suddenly stirred by thoughts of the “ecstatic experience,” first as an intellectual pursuit and then, eventually, as an emotional and physical one. She consults the literature, she visits a clairvoyant, she visits a church, then ultimately submits to an artistic process in which she can give up control in order to gain some measure of it.

She wishes to experience things more directly, without an intellectual filter, and he wishes to engage with the messy actuality of the world rather than from the remove of pure abstraction. Victor strays beyond their marriage to feel into his transformation, which she seems to expect and even begrudgingly permit—this clearly isn’t the first time he’s discovered himself by discovering the charms of another woman. What truly causes conflict, and thus is clearly a new challenge for them, is her corollary transformation, her feeling into a new understanding of herself. She accepts the lead in a student filmmaker’s movie, and thrills to playing a more expressive, sexualized version of herself—one who dances and swoons, and exudes rather than caps charisma. It’s not that she fully becomes a different person, it’s that the clothes of this person fit far better than she’d anticipated. Victor’s machismo can’t bear the loss of control, or the sight of Sara’s handsome, baritone-voiced costar, but most unlivable is the loss of his wife’s dependability, her steady blandness that gave purpose and shape to his eccentricity and buoyancy. If she no longer makes sense to him, it seems he can’t make sense of himself either.

Yet it's not just marital or societal subjection she's up against—it's also her own personality and character. It’s not that she’s a product of anal retentiveness: her own mother is an actress and avowed sensualist who has an easy rapport with Victor, and seems utterly baffled by Sara’s intellect. Her mother and others hint that her light-skinned daughter’s academicism is a "white" pursuit, an effort at upward mobility "castle building.” (She’s even typecast in the student film, which the director describes as “a take off on the theme of the tragic mulatto.") But Collins never lets it be that tidy, never anchors the movie or her character in externally imposed definitions, even if others can’t help but project those impositions.

All told, it’s a rich stew for an adult drama. Each of them strains against both how they're perceived and how they perceive themselves, and both Gunn and Scott project contemplation and engagement with all this instability and irresolution. There's awkwardness in how some of this is expressed and dramatized in the film—much of Scott’s line readings come off as line readings—yet there's truth in the awkwardness. Since Sara is a character that performs a self as much as she inhabits one, why wouldn’t artificiality be present in how she talks, why wouldn’t she move through space as if she’s trying to hit a mark? It’s unclear if Scott is channeling awkwardness or if Collins cast the nasally, angular actress in order to harness it, but what at first seems disconnected from the film’s purpose emerges as integral. By film’s end, Scott is performing a tango in a leotard, as regal, self-inhabited, and singularly appealing as anything else we’ve seen before us. Collins isn't just contemplating liberation and individualization, she's sussing it out dramatically, filmically. (Her only other film, the 49-minute short, 1980’s The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, is no less interrogational of form, and no less liberated artistically. Collins had the temerity, it would seem, to make it not about African Americans, but rather three orphaned Puerto Rican brothers—also living upstate—who are haunted by their deceased father, whose point of view is represented by the camera itself.)

All the while, Bill Gunn does as Bill Gunn does, stalking the set with Cassavetean magnetism, playing around with pauses and grins and chuckles so that even stilted moments seem at least naturally so, and wearing an assortment of yellow terry-cloth t-shirts, red Izods, and black overalls like he was in the proud and glorious altogether. His cocksureness and onscreen charisma present an insurmountable challenge to Scott, but the text of the film eventually rises to acknowledge this fact. Collins doesn’t intend for Sara to out-dick Victor, to become the brand of barker and carouser that he’s permitted to be thanks to his masculine birthright. What she intends is for Sara to notice and feel, finally, the inequality—an inequality not of desire, but of license. "Don't you take your dick out like it was artistic. Like it's a goddamn paintbrush,” she says, in the film’s penultimate scene, when Victor aggressively toys around with another woman in front of Sara. “Maybe that's what's uneven. That I got nothing to take out."

As in that doozy of an excoriation, dialogue in Losing Ground can be a bit bull’s-eyed, the themes a touch too underscored. But at the same time, these themes are too rarely explored in cinema of any kind, from any era, for the film to suffer from being overly emphatic. And though Collins was an African-American female filmmaker who was working basically alone in that capacity, what she does is scarce for any filmmaker of any race or gender. She’s articulating and dramatizing that which is habitually inarticulate and not seemingly dramatic. She explores what makes any of us who we are, and what any of us might learn or become if we knew ourselves a little better. As the title says, Sara is losing ground. But she’s also gaining air, and there’s literally no knowing where it will take her. It’s the not knowing that seemed to motivate Collins, the potential for creating characters that are as opaque and confused and irreducibly human as any one of us are—or could be, if we’re brave enough to admit it. Instead of a character comprised of what others need and expect her to be, Sara is at least beginning to understand herself from the inside out. And with this sole feature film, Kathleen Collins, who died in 1988, was beginning to do the same with her art.