Friday, 2 June 2017

LOSING GROUND - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The Milestone Cinematheque Release of the work of Kathleen Collins is one of the most important contributions to the history of African-American Cinema and films by women. This is work to be lauded, appreciated and cherished.

Valuable addition to the history of African-American Cinema

Losing Ground (1982)
Dir. Kathleen Collins
Starring: Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, Duane Jones,
Maritza Rivera, Billie Allen, Gary Bolling, Noberto Kerner

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The first image in the astonishing 1982 drama Losing Ground by Kathleen Collins is that of Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), an African-American university philosophy professor, standing behind a lectern in front of a blackboard with, to the left of her, the words "existential thought" and to the right, the names of "Sartre" and "Camus". Correct me if I'm wrong, but other than the groundbreaking work of Charles (Killer of Sheep) Burnett, one can't think of too many (if any) films about the contemporary urban African-American experience during the late 70s/early 80s (and even beyond) in which we are not assailed by images of gangland violence and the sounds of gunfire.

Sarah's first words in the film are mid-lecture:

"...but in Sartre The question of absurdity has clear historical antecedents. For one, a violent need to explain war. Camus, Sartre, the whole existential movement is a consequence, or perhaps, a better way to put it, is a reaction to the consequences of war."

Gee whiz! We have a movie that opens without a side-burned soul brother barking out, "Take this, Honky Pig!" and blasting several rounds of buckshot out of a humungous automatic firearm.

I mean, really. What world are we in here?

The film then cuts to a close up of an engaged African American male student as Sarah's lecture continues off-camera:

"The natural order," she declares. "The natural order, if there is such a thing, has been violated." And then, as her lecture on existentialism continues, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a whole classroom comprised of young African-American, Asian, Hispanic and yes, even lily-white students. Many of them are clearly engaged in the lecture, but Collins wisely includes a young man more interested in grooving to some sounds on his Sony Walkman. It's little touches like this that are amongst a myriad of exquisite moments of sheer filmmaking pleasure we derive from this film that give us considerable cause to grieve that her work is so little known and that she was tragically taken from this Earth by cancer at the age of 48.

As both a screenwriter and director, it's obvious that Collins was the real thing. The story she chooses to tell here is a simple one, but always compelling and always surprising. Her central character is indeed a beloved professor and she is committed to her students as she is to researching and writing scholarly works. She lives, in apparent bliss, with artist Victor (Bill Gunn of Ganja and Hess fame), her handsome, virile husband who has recently moved from abstract expressionism to realism and convinces her to rent a house in the country for the summer vacation. Something is nagging at Sara, though. A paper she's writing sparks a need to explore, but unlike Victor, whose surface dalliances are with art (though eventually with a beautiful Puerto Rican model), she's looking deep inside.

What she finds is as heartbreaking as it is liberating.

Yes, a movie actually exists in which we see that
African-Americans can live in comfort and go to libraries.

Goddamn, this is a great picture! It's so wonderful to be plunged into the world of intelligent and artistic intellectuals - people who care deeply about both learning and expression.

For example, one of Sara's students is studying film. At one point she is genuinely pleased, yet perplexed as to why he's so interested in taking philosophy courses. George (Gary Bolling), an eager young African-American cineaste clearly wishes to broaden his intellectual horizons, but he is equally obsessed with casting her in his senior film school project.

Looking at her through a lens eyepiece, he says: "You look just like Pearl McCormack in The Scar of Shame, Philadelphia Coloured Players, 1927." That we have a character citing a very cool movie from the silent era with an all-black cast (and one of the few films of that time, or any time, to deal with contemporary African-Americans) is a really great touch. That the character tries to tempt Sara further by equating her with Dorothy Dandridge as a black teacher in Gerald Mayer's 1953 MGM "social-issue" picture Bright Road (which also starred Harry Belafonte as a school principal) is the cherry on the chocolate sundae that is Collins's screenplay.

Not only do we get some fascinating character subtext, but some delectable movie-geek trivia (for those of us so inclined).

And yes, Sara eventually agrees to act in George's student film. It is, you see, an arty cinematic treatise on the "Frankie and Johnnie" story (you know the one, the woman who finds out that her man is untrue and shoots him dead). It's her work in the film that opens Sara's eyes to some hard truths about her life.

Of course, there does need to be an actor to play the cheatin' Johnny and he reveals himself as George's Uncle Duke (Duane Jones, the African-American hero of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead), a dashing out-of-work actor who once studied to be a minister and is well versed in both performing and the words of the Lord. This tall, handsome figure is stylishly adorned in a fancy fedora and cape and he first meets Sara, not on the movie set, but in the university library. He approaches and asks why she's reading with such intense concentration. She replies she's doing research for a paper on ecstatic experience.

He says: "From a theological perspective, no doubt?"

"No, she responds. "I am, however, using religious ecstasy as a point of departure."

He quips, ever-so-charmingly and brilliantly: "Whose? Saint Thomas Aquinas and his rational repression of the experience? Or Saint Theresa, who was a truly remarkable woman? Or we can go back a little further to the deviant Gnostics, who were really pre-Christian in their thinking."

Yeah! This is my idea of romance! Bring it on!

He asks Sara what the thesis of her paper is.

"That the religious boundaries around ecstasy are too narrow."

He nods. "Christianity has had a devastating effect upon man as an intuitive creature," the charming Uncle Duke concludes.

Yes, the movie is replete with strange academic quipping. It's like a Howard Hawks comedy set against the backdrops of intellectuals and artists.

I'm down with that.

Not only is Collins's screenplay full of intelligent writing that delivers a marvellous sense of place and time, but as a director, her mise-en-scène is rife with a natural cinematic "vocabulary". It's never showy, but effectively subtle. When Collins presents Sara at points when the character is in a totally take-charge sphere, the frame always places Sara front, centre and almost bigger than life. When Sara is "subjugated", either by her husband or societal mores, she appears dwarfed by all around her.

Losing Ground is a great film. Yes, its meagre budget occasional betrays a few glitches, but for the most part the film is beautifully shot and infused with natural performances. It's as much a film of its time as it is also prescient and ultimately, well ahead of its time.


Losing Ground is a two-disc Blu-Ray and DVD release via Milestone Film and Video's "The Milestone Cinematheque" label and includes a commentary track by Professors LaMonda Horton-Stallings and Terri Francis, a 2015 Theatrical Trailer, Video Interviews with cinematographer Ronald K. Gray (46:30), leading lady Seret Scott (40:17) and daughter Nina Lorez Collins (26:24), an Interview with Kathleen Collins by Phyllis R. Klotman (1982, Color, 22 mins, Courtesy of Indiana University Black Film Archive), Transmagnifican Dambamuality (1976, 7 mins, B&W) Gray's celebrated lost student film.