As Pacific Film Archive prepares for the return of in-person screenings, they continue to offer a series of worthwhile, interesting and downright essential streaming options. This week’s column focuses on a film that falls into the third category — a forgotten gem that’s being made available to PFA patrons at no charge.
Polymath Kathleen Collins, an African American poet, filmmaker, civil rights activist and professor, only made one feature-length film, Losing Ground, before her untimely death at the age of 46 in 1988. Though the film reflects her experiences working at City University of New York — where she taught film studies — it’s not an autobiography.
Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor specializing in logic. Her husband, Victor (the incredible Bill Gunn), is an abstract painter and inveterate ladies man looking to escape steamy New York City for a cool summer hideaway where he can really concentrate on his work. On the surface Sara and Victor are a cinematic odd couple, but Scott and Gunn make their relationship perfectly believable.
After relocating to a stunning upstate rental property, Victor’s roving eye settles on Celia (Martiza Rivera), while a trip to the local library introduces Sara to actor Duke (Night of the Living Dead‘s Duane Jones), whose knowledge of esoteric Christianity is a pleasant and unexpected surprise for the erudite scholar. While Victor hastily ditches the abstract in favor of the representational and asks Celia to pose for a portrait, Sara returns to the Big Apple to work on a student film project, where she finds herself cast opposite the handsome Duke.
Collins’ screenplay establishes Celia and Duke as Victor and Sara’s artistic muses and summer distractions; Victor seems eager to push the boundaries of propriety while Sara shares a sizzling on-set kiss with her new acting partner. Losing Ground‘s enigmatic denouement hints at a final and irreparable rupture in Sara and Victor’s relationship, though it could also be read as nothing more than the last shot of the film-within-a-film.
Shot on what looks like 16mm short ends blown up to 35mm, Losing Ground was completely overlooked on its original 1982 release but has since earned a well-deserved reputation after being restored by Milestone Films, airing on Turner Classic Movies, and streaming via The Criterion Channel. Beyond being one of the first narrative features directed by an African American woman, it’s a brilliant character study that completely defies expectations — and also provides an opportunity to see Gunn and Jones back together nine years after their appearance in Ganja and Hess, a feature written and directed by Gunn and remade by Spike Lee in 2014 as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
Prospective viewers should be aware that Losing Ground’s grainy, full-frame print is not going to look good on a high-definition screen: The film looks like a fuzzy VHF television broadcast from 30 years ago. Nonetheless, this unique and richly rewarding piece of independent cinema is a compelling piece of art — and the price is certainly right.