Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we hang around the 80s New York film college scene to check the work of a filmmaker who remained obscure until recent revitalization at her daughter’s hands, one who deserves proper due beyond her superlative titles. From 1982, directed by Kathleen Collins, it’s Losing Ground! Join me after the break, won’t you?
I should like to recommend everyone with the time and inclination to give this video a watch. It’s a presentation on narrative film writing from Kathleen Collins in 1984, forty minutes lecture and an hour twenty open Q&A session, and while I think the entire thing well worth your time, at very least the lecture portion is important to our discussion today. To summarize: the dominant Christian schema of moral thinking centered around virtue and sin has penetrated modern culture enough that those who subscribe to it must force all sinful possibilities from their form as to remain pure. With so many of those who follow and control the Christian faith being of the economically and politically dominant white male class, this has resulted in women, persons of color, queer individuals, and practically anyone who can be considered an other becoming vessels for all the evil in the world to society’s eyes, often even their own. As a natural response to being demonized, those othered by mainstream society will often seek to swing in the exact opposite direction, and try to present/live as paragons of virtue, the model of uncompromised goodness, which is just as impossible and unhealthy as seeing oneself the embodiment of all evil. Kindness towards the self and a realistic outlook are necessary, and when applied to film writing, this means one must be careful how they conceptualize and present their characters. It is unwise to think first what your characters will represent, why they are Important, how they will be perceived and understood by a hypothetical audience; first and foremost, they must be generated and developed from how they are interesting to YOU, what the author finds relatable and fascinating and worth obsessing over as it pertains to their daily lives. To do otherwise is to subscribe to a way of thinking that reduces complicated people down to ugly stereotypes, and so weaken your work’s potential meaning in the process.
I open on Collins’ lecture because her conception of reductionism as harmful to narrative seems relevant to how we talk about her in the context of the National Film Registry, especially given her examples using writing about historical figures. We aren’t attempting to write about a fictionalized version of Collins or place her within any kind of narrative, but we are still attempting to conjure an understanding of her life, and it must be said here was a person with an incredibly full life. Drawn to study French literature and involved in civil rights activism during her college years, stumbling into a passion for cinema and its capabilities as a medium while studying philosophy in Europe, a dedicated editor of public broadcasting programs in her native New York, an accomplished and beloved early professor of film at CCNY, mother to two children. A fervored, uncompromising proponent for the moving image as something of real power when executed with an eye to maximizing all its visual strengths, and a self-professed mean hard-ass when it came to teaching her students the ins and outs of the technical side to filmmaking, though never without good reason or lacking in desire to see the medium bettered by her efforts. By the time of her too-early death from breast cancer in 1989 at just forty-six, Collins had directed two feature films and written an enormous body of unpublished work across scripts for theater and film, short stories, and poetry, none of which received any attention or attempted release for decades. In fact, her two features, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy and Losing Ground both languished in total obscurity, almost completely unseen in America outside one television screening each, briefly noted on the European festival circuit before effectively vanishing from history. It is only through her daughter Nina’s mid-2010s restorative efforts that the world once again has access to Collins’ work, and moreover a chance to see her unpublished works made public.
And here we come to the annoying demon of our work. It is so terribly easy to reduce Kathleen Collins down to the first African-American woman to direct a feature in the United States since Tressie Souders in 1922. Certainly articles published in the wakes of both Losing Ground’s 2015 restoration and its induction to the Registry in this last year are happy to champion this idea, briefly noting her eye for beauty and erudite characters as surprising for the time, more akin to a Woody Allen film than what you’d expect from a black woman of her day, and it all starts to feel a bit… dismissive? Disrespectful? Unintentionally so, but the repeated notation of her as worthwhile in relation to her white contemporaries starts to add up when you dig into writing around her. Collins’ master class up there features her talking about how distributors at the time didn’t want her features because they couldn’t possibly imagine black people like the ones starring in her stories, because they personally didn’t know any like that and so the possibility of anyone wanting to see them was lunatic to their minds. Passing representations of Collins as accomplished and important because she surprises by standing shoulder to shoulder with her white peers seem indicative of the same mindset she condemned, of making a person into less than what they are for the sake of easily digesting a historical paragon. There are layers to Collins you simply do not capture without fully engaging with her work, endeavoring to capture an understanding of just what she did in Losing Ground to make it so impactful, what she was trying to say. The same principles must apply to analyzing a real person’s work as creating a fictional life; if the greater meaning isn’t grounded in what it means to you personally, the entire exercise is lost.
So, all this down, we must ask, why is Losing Ground interesting and important beyond Collins’ First X-Person To… accomplishment?
Losing Ground tells the story of a marriage in collapse, whose partners do not yet fully recognize their troubles. Seret Scott plays Sara Rogers, a New York philosophy professor finishing off a term focused on Sarte and ready to begin a whole summer of research on ecstatic experiences in art for a personal project. Her students all seem to like her, and some (including Gary Bolling’s film major George) flirt with her quite openly, flirtations she entertains without ever seriously indulging, for much as she enjoys her job and the validation it brings her, she’s too devoted to her husband to think off doing otherwise. Such devotion is somewhat misplaced, however, as Bill Gunn’s Victor is not exactly as faithful towards his wife — a painter who’s just sold a piece to a major museum’s personal collection, he’s head over heels with his own success to the point of barely noticing Sara’s needs for privacy and quiet in the house, and indeed has taken the earnings from his sale to shop for a summer home in a small upstate hamlet, far from any library that might adequately serve Sara’s research needs. Moreover, he’s taken to walking the streets of said hamlet and painting the seemingly innumerable Puerto Rican beauties who live there, a decided departure from his abstracted preferences. Where Victor has particularly fresh eyes for Maritza Rivera’s Celia, Sara’s last days of work at the university’s library see her encountering Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead) as Duke, a mysterious yet easy-going and equally intelligent man who takes something more than a passing interest in her. Dinners with Sara’s mother Leila (Billie Allen) and loving embraces in their new home keep the peace for a time, but the audience can tell this is an unhappy home.
Collins work with cameraman and editor Ronald K. Gray ensures we know it every step of the way. It’s in how easily Victor steps out, the film following his free, lithe trots through the village to paint and dance and chat with pretty girls in sharp contrast to scenes of Sara engulfed in her research, the camera carefully tracking its way across numerous open books and miniature sculptures in a candlelit room like a self-made prison. Breakfast time conversation takes the form of the camera panning across the long table like a pendulum, uncertain whose side will win out the polite talk with tensed undertones. His world is all loosey-goosey, the careless wanderings of a middle-aged man who’s grown lowkey bored in his vows without admitting so much to himself, still thinking he can breeze through the world and neglect his closest confidant without consequence. Her world is decidedly tighter, more controlled camera movements and less active cutting, discomfort evident by how often she’s penned in by the framing or sits stiffly within the shot, yet Sara’s mind is as consumed with work as Victor’s play, so she does not seem to internalize any serious discontent, not even when she openly notes the irony of her spending so much time pouring over writings about ecstatic experiences and their conceptualization as such only after the fact without actually experiencing any herself. There’s an uneasy peace over the film, the status quo let unchallenged because the lumps and folds and slight sharp edges haven’t yet become so uncomfortable as to be noticed by the distracted mind.
This is until Victor brings Celia home to paint her, and the sound of booming Latin music across the entire property drives Sara to distraction. It’s an understated sort of distraction, simply throwing her book down and wearing an, “I’ve about had it!” expression on her face, but it drives her to an action she’s put off for the entire feature thus far, accepting George’s offer to star in his thesis film. As chance would have it, Duke is George’s uncle and was roped into playing the male lead in the project, so a good portion of the late second and whole third act is consumed by watching the pair perform interpretive dance through an in-movie movie camera. Collins previously used this technique to illustrate the perspective of a ghostly father in The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, though I’d argue the effect is more mature and interesting in Losing Ground. The freeness of presentation and movement previously denied to Sara becomes manifest when she dances opposite Duke, her body language and manner of speech more enthusiastic in conversations with her husband and mother, even the carefully controlled tracking shot of herself and Duke walking behind trees and chatting about this and that for a silent shot seems natural and easy in a way none of her previous scenes do, even accounting for George’s directions shouted from off-screen. Of course, the necessary artificiality of doing all this for a student film shoot makes one realize Sara’s extremified reactions may well be the result of pent-up frustrations taking any outlet they can get, especially given the shoot’s focus on retelling the “Frankie and Johnny” revenge ballad, rather pertinent to her bubbling resentful feelings towards Victor. All the same, Sara’s side of the film comes to waltz and laugh through life in the same way as Victor’s, each blissful in their own private sphere.
Again, though, this center cannot hold while it is tainted with unhappiness. As Sara moves closer to Duke through her acting work, cuts back to Victor find him less easygoing and carefree than before, his scenes opposite Celia marked by mounting frustrations with her own capricious ways. Then Sara invites Duke over for dinner and an overnight party, and we begin to fully appreciate just where this unhappiness comes from. At first blush, throughout most of the picture, you might assume Sara felt so discontented because she had her work and thusly could not engage with her husband like she used to, leaving him to wander astray. At the party, in uncomfortably static penning shots, we instead see Victor’s own discontent manifest in full bloom — he’s trying far too hard to make sure everyone’s having fun, insisting everyone have a good time before suddenly trying to rigidly enforce who can dance with who, all the while showing a decided refusal to fully engage with Duke as a presence in his home. He dances so emphatically and claims all are merry and bright while the rest of the party goes chill at his attempts to assert dominance. All this time he’s filled the air with conversation about his love for abstracted ideals, for personal freedoms and following your muse, defying convention and being the libertine artist… but when push comes to shove, he wants everything done and controlled exactly to his liking. HIS freedoms and comfort matter more than anyone else’s, and if he won’t admit as much in so many words, he’ll damn well make it clear through his actions. While we never saw any of this evident in the early going, it quickly becomes easy to extrapolate the specter of such in those ever-so-mildly tense introductory scenes. A final attempt at peace with a sleeping bag-bound night under the stars followed by frolicking in the pool not only fails to restore the norm by way of Victor’s unfailing focus on himself over all others, it reveals to Sara Duke’s own presumptuous attitudes as he tries to proposition Celia for sex right in front of Sara.
To Sara’s eyes, it seems everyone around her is engaged with a mode of life that needlessly breaks down established, necessary barriers in pursuit of basal pleasure, a kind of ecstasy far, far removed from the religious sort she studies. The libertine consequences-be-damned perspective does not seem to be for her, as it only puts her in contact with men who would gladly discard her in favor of another partner if it feels good in the moment. Vulgarity and desire seem to define the things she’s after, not any higher grace or greatness or psychological impulse a whit above the urge to have sex, all of which comes out in a screamed rant to Duke when he tries to whip his dick out like it means a damned thing. Still, though, we have not made our final breakthrough; still it seems there’s a possibility the status quo of her marriage will spin on, however uneasily and unevenly, simply because it has always been so. No, there’s nothing so diamond bullet-level impactful until the very last scene of the movie, which coincides with the very last scene of George’s shoot, a shoot which Victor walks onto in pursuit of his wife to demand what the hell she’s been doing. The Nellie Bly of this silent “Frankie and Johnny” play approaches, ready to claim her man away from Frankie’s arms. Johnny takes no notice of the woman he’s doing wrong. Sara as Frankie takes direction to raise her gun, ready it, steady it, and opens fire on Duke. The camera cuts to the reactions of all parties, between the representation of a lover lain dead on the ground before his mistress, Victor’s sorrowful final understanding, and Sara’s half-agonized face, a single tear running down her face as she at last experiences an ecstatic moment of her own.
This is ecstasy. It’s not a spiritual connection to God found in rapturous joys of the flesh. It’s not pleasure beyond words, in the sexual or emotional sense. It is nothing so high-minded as the tomes an essays she interrogated over many sleepless nights would present. It is only the crystallization of everything she’s been building towards the whole movie, something no amount of research or academic understanding could capture, something possible only in a moment of heightened artistic engagement at the crossroads of the real and the fictional. A single bullet of realization, struck right between her eyes, one lingering thought as the music goes quiet and we fade to black: “I am not happy.”
Everything in Losing Ground is a movement towards this realization. Sara experiences the feeling of being stuck, of being torn away from the tools she needed to distract herself from troubles at home, of trying to make do with lesser resources while her husband gallivants with younger, more exciting women, of deciding to take an impulsive leap into representative (and slightly vengeful) art herself, of fully internalizing the consequences of living as such for the sake of something other than yourself. All of this without straying from her world of intellectual discussions on the implications of various literary theories, the intersection between performative art and theology, the meaning in a dance and how it relates back to a person’s innermost soul, all the favored topics of a learned college woman pursuing the essential experience of an ecstatic moment. It’s just, like she reads in the shot of religious tomes and iconography scattered about her study like imprisoning artefacts, ecstasy is not necessarily joyous or pleasurable, and it is rarely understood as the ecstatic until the aftermath. To climb down from our perch and speak in common terms, this is the story of a bright, capable woman who sees her husband cheating on her, tries to get back at him, and comes to the sudden, deeply painful realization that if she goes much further, she’ll be the lady in the song who shot her man down because he done her wrong… except she won’t even have the wherewithal to shoot Victor in any sense more real than symbolically killing an actor in a movie shoot. At the final moment, we see the eternally relatable moment of someone finally opening their eyes and acknowledging their own inherent, long-standing unhappiness with a relationship.
And in achieving this, we fade to black, and leave on the difficult, near-impossible to answer question of what comes next. This is, after all, the moment of highest engagement, the deepest universal experience in a film built on making the experience of an educated upper-middle class black couple relatable to all who watch their story. What comes next is not for us to see; only contemplate, and internalize, and feel truly as life.
So in film, so in life. I find it impossible to believe one can say they knew the totality of Kathleen Collins simply by watching a few of her films and ruminating over them for a few hours as I have, even when supported by some modest research into her background and non-filmic works. Nor do I believe we could do her much justice in simply noting a work profound as this is incredible as one of the first works from a female African-American director in nearly sixty years. We have seen, we have contemplated, and we have come to our own conclusions in our own way, but what ultimately matters most is that we have tried to understand Collins’ work, and come to see some impression of a person who cared deeply about capturing these everyday moments for persons who were not (and still often aren’t) afforded time before the camera, and using this backdrop to draw a deepseated fear to the surface for the incredible power in simply acknowledging such as present in ourselves. Here was a woman who believed in the power and necessity of communicating this with a camera. Here was a woman who worked to ensure this could be possible outside her limited circle of academic peers. Here was a person who wanted to connect no matter the physical or temporal or experiential distance from her work. Here was somebody who worked, and thought, and loved, and lived, and died before her time. One can only hope the same attributes will be ascribed to each and every one of us when we’re gone, for if they are true in one, they must be true in all. To believe and feel such must be in itself ecstasy.
If you in the audience have any experience with Kathleen Collins’ work, what’d you make of her films and writings? Any inclination to check her out if you’ve not heard of her before now? Let me know below, and keep an eye out for the next Registry feature! I’ve decided to take a week or two to rest my brain, so when we return, we’ll watch as Wayne Wang collaborates with novelist Amy Tan to explore the world of four Chinese-American women, and their journeys to find their way in the world while reconnecting with their mothers. From 1993, adapted from Tan’s hit book (which keeps wrecking me every time I open it to read a new chapter), it’s The Joy Luck Club! Presently available for streaming on Hoopla and Roku, or rental and purchase through Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and AMC! Catch you then!