Losing Ground

Losing Ground ★★½

"Did you catch that subtle mise-en-scène, mi amigo?"

Shot in 1982 though not released in any meaningful capacity until 2015 (via efforts from the filmmaker's daughter Nina), Kathleen Collins' Losing Ground boasts the unfortunately revealing distinction of being the first feature film directed by an African-American woman since the 1920s. Though situated between the hyper-specific milieus of New York City academia and the downtown loft scene of abstract painters, the characterizations are nonetheless pretty flimsy throughout.

Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) teaches philosophy at a local college and is married to Victor (Bill Gunn), a nonrepresentational painter recently enjoying a measure of success. As a gift to himself for having sold a canvas to a museum, he proposes that they rent a house outside the city for the summer. Victor realizes that this will compromise Sara's ability to work on a paper she's been researching, but he is unmoved because he doesn't respect the intellectual nature of her work in the first place and appears to even accuse her of a form of uppity white code-switching ("What's the matter? Hegel and the boys let you down?"). Sara reluctantly accedes to Victor's summer plans, whereupon he quickly finds a Puerto Rican muse named Celia and becomes even more distant from Sara. In retaliation Sara returns to the city to appear in a film by one of her students. Both in the film and in real life she is subsequently courted by the filmmaker's ruminative uncle (Duane Jones in a ridiculous cape), who she inexplicably invites back to the summer house. Relationship fireworks of a predictable nature ensue.

It gives me no pleasure to report that Collins' screenplay is rather thuddingly unstimulating, a problem that is only highlighted by Scott's increasingly tetchy line readings. I'm merely singling her out because she has more screen time than any other character. Only Bill Gunn overcomes the oddly stilted dialogue enough to fashion a somewhat believable human character.

Some stray notes:
-THE NATURAL ORDER—IF THERE IS SUCH A THING—HAS BEEN VIOLATED
-YOUR HUSBAND IS A GENUINE BLACK SUCCESS
-NO KANT OR HEGEL AT THE LENDING LIBRARY
-A KIND OF PRIVATE ECSTATIC TRANCE
-WHAT DOES ALL THIS ETHNIC HUMOR HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?
-I MUST HAVE BUILT UP A LOT OF KARMIC DEBT
-STILL BUILDING YOUR CASTLES?
-I'M JUST TELLING YOU WHAT SHE IS
-IS THIS PUERTO RICAN HISTORY WEEK?
-YOU WOULD HAVE SOME GODDAMN BIBLICAL NAME
-I ALWAYS FORGET YOU CAN'T DANCE
-I'LL DANCE BY MY GODDAMN SELF
-GIVE ME SOME BAG!
-LIKE IT'S SOME GODDAMN PAINTBRUSH

In my New York movies ranked list.

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