Seret Scott is a wonder in this film.
Seret Scott is a wonder in this film. Courtesy of Milestone
We almost lost Kathleen Collins' Losing Ground (1982) to time. One of the first feature-length dramas directed by a Black woman, the film never got a full theatrical run. It sat virtually unseen after Collins' tragic, early death in 1988 until 2015 when her daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, restored and reissued the film. In the past five years, Losing Ground has started getting its due as "one of the most important and original American films of the second half of the 20th century." As it should.

The semi-autobiographical story follows Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor struggling to write a paper on "the ecstatic." She's also grappling with her fraying marriage to her charming painter husband, Victor (Bill Gunn, an absolute revelation and indie king in his own right). After relocating to upstate New York for the summer, both of them start looking for love and passion in other places, and the two must reconcile with their fractured relationship.

For The Stranger's Film Club's final installment, Stranger staff writer Jasmyne Keimig and Stranger philosopher-in-residence Charles Mudede reflect on two aspects of the groundbreaking film, its visual art and architecture.

Losing Ground is painterly as fuck.

Losing Ground is a wonderful film that's as much for the eyes as it is for the heart. Art is the film's foundation, and each scene has a studied, painterly quality. Not rigid or obviously meticulous like a Wes Anderson film, but a dreamy watercolor-like sensibility that eats into its scenes. The characters are often composed against swaths of upstate New York greenery or thrown against the concrete backgrounds of academic buildings. The camera's soft focus makes their skin tones warmer, wrapped up in the bright pinks and purples of the early 1980s.

Look at all those neutral tones.
Look at all those neutral tones. Screenshot from Losing Ground

I found myself absorbed by Victor's artworks, which say a lot about who he is as a character. The film's premise kicks off after one of his works is acquired for a museum's permanent collection, giving him the money to take a whole summer off in upstate New York. We get a glimpse of Victor's oeuvre in one of the opening scenes—giant, abstract paintings that are decidedly neutral in tone. All gray, ruddy purples, murky blues, browns. The type of art that museums would have no qualms about buying.

In a time when the New York art scene boomed with street art and Neo-Expressionist art, buoyed by vibrant personalities like Basquiat, Victor's work seems stodgy, academic, and uninspired. His turn toward the figurative—and his rejection of his mentor's influence of the "pure" abstract form—makes sense as he desperately paws for a new avenue of inspiration. As the film humorously points out, this ends up taking the form of a beautiful Puerto Rican woman, Celia (Maritza Rivera), who lives near Victor's summer home. Victor tries to jealously hog Celia for himself, lashing out at his wife Sara's ambitions to discover the ecstatic within herself. The film is a portrait of a fragile male ego as much as it is a portrait of a disintegrating marriage. JASMYNE KEIMIG

The liquid architectures of Losing Ground

I have only this to add to Jasmyne's analysis of this gem of American cinema. A major part of the film's story is couples dancing with architecture. In this way, Collins visualizes an assertion made by the early-18th century German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music." The most celebrated architect of the 20th century, Le Corbusier, said something similar in 1945 when he first saw New York City from a descending commercial liner: “It is hot—jazz in stone!”

Now, if buildings can be conceived as frozen music, then it is natural to dance within and outside of buildings. The buildings and bodies visualize or embody music. And this, indeed, is what happens in Losing Ground. There is hot salsa dancing in an old country building and elegant jazz dancing next to a corporate tower caught in the transition from modernism to postmodernism. And so we have the liquid architectures of Celia and Victor (who dance around the old town, and its ruins and brick buildings) and, more significantly, the liquid architectures of the film's star, Professor Sara, and the man who suddenly entered her life, Duke (Duane Jones).

I love the way this film looks at Seret Scott
Sara against all that post-modern architecture. Screenshot from Losing Ground.

But the dancing between Celia and Victor is not the same as that between Sara and Duke. Now recall that seemingly uninteresting line in the classic rock tune "Hotel California" that goes like this: "Some dance to remember, some dance to forget." Celia and Victor, and particularly Victor, dance to forget. But Sara and Duke do not dance to remember or forget. For them dancing is a mode or voyage of discovery. Or, put in the language of the philosophy of organism, they dance to become.

This is why Sara is attracted to Duke. He is her intellectual equal. Her husband, however, is not, which is why he desires young women and the obvious oblivion of booze. The mind's matters do not really matter to him. His is a world of flesh, wine, and downright beauty. This difference pulls Sara and Victor's marriage to the breaking point and defines their respective dances, the liquidity of their somatic architectures.

But there is sadness in Sara and Duke's dance. This sadness explains the movie's end and stems from the kind of building they are trying to become. What is this architecture they see in each other's moves? I think Sara the philosophy professor knows. It looks a lot like Axel's Castle. CHARLES MUDEDE