Friday, February 6, 2015

Kathleen Collins' rediscovery LOSING GROUND inaugurates the FSLC series, Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986

A most interesting series of independent films made by black filmmakers in New York during the 18-year period between 1968 and 1986, TELL IT LIKE IT IS: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986 should provide a nice walk down memory lane for some of us older folk, while giving younger film buffs the chance to see what was going on back then. This 25-program series includes certain landmarks of black cinema -- two of Spike Lee's early films; Bill Gunn's ahead-of-its-time vampire tale, Ganja and Hess (of which, if you've only see the original studio-released Jack-the-Ripper cut, you've not seen the real thing); and the famous interview with James Baldwin (shown above) found in I Heard It Through the Grapevine -- while also offering a lot of films and people of which even TrustMovies has not been aware. So take a look at the entire program by clicking here, and then make plans.

Kicking off this series, and in fact getting an entire week's theatrical run is LOSING GROUND, an evidently "lost" film which has now been rediscovered and is being given its first theatrical release since its creation 33 years ago. Another of those rediscovered movies brought to us by the ever-more-necessary distributor Milestone Films, this one, unfortunately, proves a real dud. One of the first feature films to be written and directed by a black woman, Kathleen Collins, below, who died prematurely at the age of 46, the movie certainly has some worthwhile themes, among them, the search for genuine feeling and experience (termed "ecstasy" by the screenwriter) by a closed-off philosophy professor, even as her successful artist husband is growing involved with an enchanting new woman.

The biggest problem with this film, and I suspect the major reason why it has not been seen, is that Ms Collins had no feeling -- none at all -- for something approaching real dialog. Everything sounds "written," and as good a cast as she had assembled, the actors were completely unable to bring that dialog to life. The film is full of intelligence and also the kind of exposition by which we know exactly what people are thinking and feeling because they constantly tell us -- and each other. This is simply not the way life happens.

Further, the filmmaker was unable -- probably due to that dialog, together with her own lack of film experience -- to get her actors to produce something approaching actual behavior. Every moment seems planned and executed by the book. I suspect Ms Collins kept a firm hand over everything, which barely allows anything to breathe. God knows the actors have all done much better work elsewhere.

Though billed as a comedy drama, there is nary a laugh in the entire proceedings (at least not an intentional one), and almost no real drama, except what is implicit in the situation Ms Collins had set up but failed to bring to life.

For the record, the leads are played by Seret Scott and Bill Gunn, as the wife and husband (shown three photos above); with Maritza Rivera (two photos above) as the attractive neighbor; Billie Allen (above, left) as Scott's actress/mother (she and Ms Scott share the film's most believable scene, where some actual "behavior" sneaks in); and Duane Jones (below) as an actor with whom Scott ends up doing a student film.

The movie opens today, Friday, February 6, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater and shows there or at its Francesca Beale Theater through Thursday, February 12. Click here for more information.

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