Losing Ground (1982)
Directed by Kathleen Collins
February 6-12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Thirty-two years years after its completion, Kathleen Collins’s comedy-drama Losing Ground enjoys a week-long engagement as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s revelatory “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986” program. This perceptive, rousingly feminist study of a strained relationship between philosophy professor Sara (Seret Scott) and her mercurial painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn) was never theatrically released. It screened once on PBS’s American Playhouse, before effectively disappearing, while Collins sadly died from cancer in 1988 at just 46 years old. Like everything else in FSLC’s extraordinary collection of films—including work by William Greaves, Amiri Baraka, Jessie Maple, and Gunn himself—its day in the sun is more than overdue.
Losing Ground begins at a crossroads for the central pair, who are celebrating their tenth anniversary. Buoyant from a recent museum sale, Victor implores Sara to join him for a summer retreat upstate. She acquiesces, but matters are soon complicated by Victor’s roving eye, and Sara’s commitment to her academic research on the pursuit of the “ecstatic”—a state stubbornly at odds with her bookish, serious persona. Collins’s sharp script is peppered with compassionate insights about long-term relationships, and reflexive dialogue about what it means to be a black creative. Scott is a marvel at balancing a cool exterior with interior passions, while the sinewy, charismatic Gunn gives a layered performance. Though his Victor may permanently look like he’s just remembered the punchline of a really funny joke, his outwardly sunny demeanor is a thin skin stretched over the interior of a deeply insecure artist. In spite of its low budget, Losing Ground is also an aesthetic triumph. The gauzy cinematography fosters a dreamlike atmosphere (characters’ dreams are constantly referenced in the script), while only the sax-slathered, 80s-sitcom-style score significantly dates it. The highlight is a single-take, multi-character dance sequence every bit as emotionally nuanced as the famed “Night Shift” sequence in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008). That such an assured, complex piece of cinema has lain untouched and unseen for years only contributes further to its rueful aura.