What is lurking below the surface of a highly intellectualized philosophy professor’s emotional control? We find out in Losing Ground, filmed in 1982 but recently released by Milestone Films, noteworthy for being the first feature-length film produced and directed by a Black American woman. Kathleen Collins, who died an early death of cancer in 1988, became passionate about film while doing graduate studies in literature in Paris. Collins believed a screenplay is a film essay. Knowing this was at the heart of any good piece of writing, she wrote Losing Ground. Kathleen Collins’s talent for cinematic story lets me see that under Sara’s constraint of feeling, choice of husband, and unraveling is a mother who was never there.
Sara’s (Seret Scott) is the story of a woman in an intense emotional battle. Her life is rationally ordered and predictable. She teaches. Her students admire her. She’s married to an artist. Sara writes and does her research.
Yet, what she teaches and researches are attempts to work out something deep and personally driven since childhood. For example: a philosophy class on Camus’ theory of the absurd: “Camus, perhaps the whole existential movement, is a reaction to the consequences of war. Chaos exists. War is chaos.”
We see Professor Sara, her blouse buttoned up to her neck. She fights against the turmoil of painful feelings by thinking things out in her mind. One feeling she fights, is exclusion. A student, George (Gary Bolling), approaches her after class and tells her he got the book by Genet on exclusion. Sara replies: “It’s the finest analysis I’ve ever read … it touches every feeling, every mental attitude, connected with exclusion.” Sara’s most unthinkable feelings result from being excluded by her mother.
When George says: “I think you’re terrific. I hope your husband appreciates you,” he touches a nerve. Her husband excludes her too. As George goes on, asking her to act in his senior film project and playfully linking her to actresses he admires, his interest is unfamiliar. And, Sara giggles uncomfortably: “Oh, no.” Someone sees her. Her mother and husband don’t.
Sara’s experience as a child was much like what she lectures about Sartre’s play No Exit: “There are people locked in a room with no windows and no mirrors who must endure each other’s company – and, this, Sartre defines as hell.” Sara’s hell: locked in life with a mother whose admiring mirror she was forced to be. She had no mother to help her.
Her mother’s traumatic failure plays out painfully in one scene. Sara, betrayed one too many times by her husband Victor, is in a telephone booth. She doesn’t know how to express her distress, but she tries. Sara calls her mom: “I’m on shaky ground. Order, that’s what Victor loves about me, that there’s no chaos anywhere.” Her mother replies: “That’s the quality in you that even I… count on.” Sara, shaken and scared, tries again: “Mama?” There’s no answer.
We see her silent mother on the other end of the line. With nothing to give. Mothers are our first loves and our first mirrors. If they’re attentive, they provide a containing skin to hold unsettling feelings. A skin created by understanding and empathy. When a mother provides this, feelings are safe and accessible. If a mother doesn’t, a child’s life is set on the wrong course in many different ways. This happened to Sara.
Sara’s mother (Billie Allen) is an actress who was never home. Nothing mattered but the attentions of her audiences and men. The world even now must revolve around her. She’s only concerned with what she can get from everyone, including Sara.
We see this at dinner: “You should stop writing all those dissertations and write a play about your mother.” When Sara replies: “It would be too eccentric. No one would believe it’s about a real person,” her mother lashes out coldly: “You’ve got those bags you get when you’re tired.” This cutting criticism isn’t unusual. She receives these barbs from Victor too. She doesn’t find what she needs in her marriage either.
In love, we can unconsciously choose what we know. Victor (Bill Gunn) is as controlling and self-centered as Sara’s mother.“Your husband is a genuine Black success,” Victor tells Sara when she arrives home from teaching. His painting was chosen for a museum’s permanent collection. And, he decides they’ll celebrate with wine and take a summerhouse in an area that suits his new body of work, not Sara’s research. The tiny lending library doesn’t stock anything she needs.
Their life is all about him. And, Sara’s childhood was all about her mother. Plus, Victor can also be cruel. When he paints Sara at the summerhouse, he says: “Your face is cold, analytical. Are you pretty or is it just the light?” She retorts: “Do you want a murder the first week in this house?” When he says, “That’s totally unlike you,” she laughs.
But this flash of anger is what’s hidden by her intellect. Quickly, though, Sara’s anger is shut down by self-criticism: “Nothing I do leads to ecstasy. You stay in a trance all day, a private ecstatic trance.” This was Sara’s mother, coming home from the theater after losing herself in her roles and in sex. She’d kiss little Sara goodnight in a trance – not even there.
Sara has chosen her mother. She was excluded by her mother’s attention to men. Now she’s an outsider watching Victor’s flirtations with his Puerto Rican model, a young girl named Celia (Maritza Rivera).
Victor wants to rent a summerhouse in upstate New York. In the car, Sara falls asleep and has a dream: “We were moving into this castle at the top of a huge mountain so high up it was smothered in fog.” Sara researches how to reach ecstasy; locked away in the ivory tower castle of her intellect high above her feelings. She’s spent her life trying to please her mother and husband to get meager crumbs of love. No, Sara can’t find ecstasy. But, really, it’s happiness, she can’t reach. How could she? No one can be happy all boxed into ideas. Especially when smothering how angry she feels about always being under someone else’s thumb.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet proclaims: “Murder has no tongue, but miraculously it still finds a way to speak … The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” George’s play is soon to unleash Sara’s rage. She’ll have her revenge. Unless it does her in. Sara leaves for New York City to take the role George offers in his student film. After all, she can’t stand watching Victor’s too-obvious preoccupation with Celia. And, it’s there. Between filming scenes, she returns to the summerhouse. There, she’s forced to watch Victor blatantly fondling Celia. Sara finally explodes. They fight and she leaves.
In the telephone booth, a distraught Sara dials her mother. Her mother’s total silence when she calls out, “Mama?” is too reminiscent of Sara’s unanswered longings as a child. When Sara hangs up, something’s shattered inside her. She returns to film the last scene for George and in Losing Ground. Her stage lover is with the other woman in their love triangle. There is always someone or something in the way. Sara walks onto the set with a gun just as Victor (panicked at their fight) runs up the stairs and sees her. We hear George directing her: “Ok, Frankie. When you’re ready, when you feel it, blow him away.”
She’s no longer the composed, shut down “no chaos” professor. Her face is tear-stained, she’s dazed and disheveled. The role plus all the hurt and rage from childhood, repeated with Victor, has taken over. Is Sara in character or is this purely Sara now, in the agony she’s fought her entire life? Does she or doesn’t she kill her co-star – standing in for Victor and her mother? If Sara isn’t completely undone by her wish for revenge, she might be angry enough to take back her life. If so, she’d gain ground instead of losing it. Yet, the film ends here. We never know if the gun is loaded.