Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 17, 2020 4:21 pm 
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Lost future

This film is important for what might have been. It is the first feature-length drama directed by a black American woman since the 1920's and won First Prize at the Figueroa International Film Festival in Portugal. It's sad that the director never got to make another and that two of the main cast members soon after died. It's a little like Cane River, also from 1982, by Horace Jenkins, which I saw at Quad Cinema in February, also from 1982. Cane Rever is a fascinating film whose lost negative was found a few years ago, lost before it was ever distributed, and its African American maker died without seeing it shown. Cane River's unique focus is on a love that develops in Louisiana between a football star from a well off mixed-race Louisiana family and an intelligent young black woman about to go off to college in New Orleans. (See Richard Brody's detailed description in The New Yorker.)

Losing Ground takes place in New York City and a Hudson River town upstate, and is about a middle class black couple; the early scenes sparkle with intellectual competition and flirtation which morphs into increasingly less veiled hostility (the pair are designed to be clashing sensibilities). She is Sara (Seret Scott), a rationalistic young philosophy teacher full of spunk but a bit chilly, and he is Victor (Bill Gunn), an instinctive, sensuous painter. Summertime is on the way, and to celebrate the sale of a painting to a museum, Victor chooses for the couple to go north to rent a house and studio. She is writing, somewhat ironically, about "ecstasy." He is focused on moving from abstract to figurative work and is excited to draw Puerto Rican ladies. He's interested in more than just drawing them. He finds one, Celia (Maritza Rivera), and his portraiture turns to pursuit.

The film begins with Sara teaching a last class, full of young male admirers whose interest she deflects. (Collins herself taught film at CUNY.) One of the most energetic ones is going to spend the summer making a movie based on the legend of "Frankie and Johnny" and he begs her to join in. Later, probably to compete with Victor and do something fun, Sara chooses to participate in making this movie alongside a tall, charismatic out of work actor called Duke played by Duane Jones, who was already famous for lead roles in Night of the Living Dead and Gunja and Hess (the latter directed by Bill Gunn).

The sadness is not only the loss of Cane River and Losing Ground, but their makers' early demise and hence inability to make further, hopefully better movies. Bill Gunn died at 59 just seven years after this film, and Duane Jones died a year earlier, at 51. Kathleen Collins died the same year, at 46. The African American mortality rate itself has been a barrier to cinematic achievement. Note however, that 1986 was the year of Spike Lee's debut feature, She's Gotta Have It, and Spike, who has been astonishingly prolific, is still around 34 years later (at 63) and got a career reboot with a raft of awards two years ago for BlacKkKlansman, starting with the Grand Prize at Cannes.

Losing Ground was shown in a 2015 series at Lincoln Center called "Tell It Like It Is," a survey of black independent film in New York from 1968 to 1986. A.O. Scott reviewed it for the New York Times then, as did Mike D'Angelo for The Dissolve. (So did Hoberman and Brody.) Scott describes it as "a study of emotional distress and creative striving among the black intelligentsia." He says it's "driven as much by mood and setting as by plot," and this is true. It's a delight to encounter these two idiosyncratic characters and their very personal way of talking, as well as Sara's wonderful mother. The settings are always enchanting, even when they move to the chateau-like rental in the Hudson River valley. But the action starts to slide and lose coherence. As Mike D'Angelo says, the "Frankie and Johnny" film, which occupies a lot of the second half, "seems to just involve a lot of mediocre dancing," and it's not at all provocative, nor does Victor's action with his Latina go very far. Final segments are embarrassing. As D'Anagelo wrote, like much "no-budget cinema of that period," this film has a "decidedly amateurish feel."

But he points to some neat lines. When Duke comes on the scene he says he has had a series of former lives, and concludes, "Apparently, this is my first incarnhation as a Negro. I must have built up a lot of karmic debt." It's not a complaint, but a quip. Similarly, Mike quotes Sara's mother saying of Victor, "I wouldn't blame you for being a failure. I'm not white." Everybody seems to be having tremendous fun in this movie. If only Collins had been able to make some more.

Now, we can watch it on the Criterion Channel.

Losing Ground, 86 mins., debuted at Irvington, NY in 1982, and showed at MoMA 1983, Lincoln Center 2015, American Film Society and Melborne.

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