Concerning the creative and emotional restlessness of a philosophy professor across an extended sabbatical, Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground is undoubtedly a summer movie, a tale of indolence and indecision in which the sticky specter of heat is an invisible inciting factor. Nearing the completion of a book project, thirtysomething intellectual Sara (Seret Scott) appears to be entering the prime of her life, with artist husband Victor (Bill Gunn) riding similarly high following a major sale. But rather than inspiring a victory lap, this small triumph nudges the couple outside of their comfortable dynamic—she the coolly rational mind and he the passionate beating heart—and toward different artistic and personal directions, as the film explores the enlaced connections between professional and emotional sectors.
Buttoned-down beneath staid business wear and big glasses, Sara plans to spends her summer completing research on ecstasy, the philosophical concept by which the mind shifts from singular experience toward recognition of a greater collective consciousness. Victor is a little less cerebral; he craves the idea of communing with nature along the Hudson, in a town the two have visited before, where he can play the lothario artist and flirt with the local Puerto Rican girls. Suddenly at cross-purposes, the couple passes the season spending more and more nights apart, with Sara using her time alone in the city to take on a lead role in a smitten student’s amateur film production. It’s here that she strikes up a romance with the suave, mysterious Duke (Duane Jones), a fellow scholar who’s playing opposite her in the movie, while the increasingly jealous Victor’s attempts to shore up his manhood culminate in his clumsy seduction of new muse Celia (Maritza Rivera).
The inherent tension of this scenario is ratcheted up gradually, across patient, theatrically composed scenes, and while Losing Ground affects the familiar soul-searching feel of many modern indies, it’s clearly a product of a previous generation’s fondness for the unashamedly highbrow, with well-spoken characters spouting shards of psychoanalytic jargon. In this atmosphere of eloquent academic combat, the most potent fears are the tacit ones, and undeclared doubts about the future are balanced by the looming weight of the past, embodied both by Victor’s suggested history of infidelity and Sara’s actress mother, who she resents but can’t help wanting to emulate.
The focus on the past colliding harshly with the future is refracted in the student film, a dance reimagining of the Frankie and Johnny folk legend; its reduction of bodies to stock types mirrors the progress of Victor’s own work, which becomes defined by an effort to exorcise representational content for some ill-conceived notion of pure formal expression. As with the ghosts of criminality and aged civility that haunt The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, Collins’s one previous directorial effort, Losing Ground is full of departed elements which weigh heavily on characters current lives.
Race is never an overt narrative or interpersonal factor, neither here nor in The Cruz Brothers, but both movies consider the inequalities of the past as inseparable from those of the present. Unfortunately, measured reflections on trauma and philosophical strife don’t make for easy headlines, and the difficulty of pigeonholing such complex, low-key work led to a serious lack of exposure for Collins, who never directed again, dying from breast cancer only six years after the completion of the film. A similarly tragic fate befell Gunn, a fellow theater stalwart who died from encephalitis in 1989, and whose even more voluminous directorial and script work has still never been fairly recognized. Hazily fixated on the phantoms of the past, Losing Ground is now itself a relic of such a time, an unfortunate memory of the continued ignorance of so many talented, unfairly marginalized voices.