Losing Ground

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York 1968-1986 showed a rather extensive selection of films by black independent filmmakers who worked primarily in New York City. The name “Tell It Like It Is” is well suited. The movies presented are fiercely independent, mostly coming from directors working from small budgets and toward little recognition. But these situations allowed at least one benefit: little money and low expectations meant there were fewer restrictions on expression and artistic control. The focus on the artist’s vision shines through. They bend form and play with genre, resulting in unique films that are uncompromising in their search for truth; truly, they tell it like it is. The opening weekend showcased three perfect examples: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Losing Ground, and Ganja and Hess.

William Greaves’ 1968 meta-documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm served as a fitting beginning to the series. The film takes place in Central Park, where William Greaves plays a fictionalized version of himself as the bumbling director of a documentary called Over the Cliff. He hires three film crews for this project: one crew to film the actors, another crew to film the first crew, and a third crew to capture anything that may relate to Over the Cliff’s theme of “sexuality.” The audience quickly understands that the crews and the director are not on the same page, with many crewmembers arguing that Greaves does not know how to direct. The brilliance of Greaves’ film comes from this mismatch of people’s understanding of the project. What ensues is a fascinating and one-of-a-kind documentary about both film production and individual and group response to instability. The late sixties were an era replete with racial tension, war protests, and social upheaval. However, the film never makes explicit reference to these topics. Regardless, as the director’s son David Greaves described at the FilmLinc screening, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is an artwork that is very much a product of its time, particularly in its presentation of uncertainty. The younger Greaves also highlighted the ultra-independent nature of this film. William Greaves produced this project with very little money, hired a crew consisting of friends, and did the editing himself. Greaves’ overarching authorship of the project contrasts starkly with the inept character he plays in the film. The finished film was ultimately not released in theaters. More than forty-five years later, this remarkable documentary has gained much praise, and it is now considered a seminal work of both black and independent filmmaking.

The Film Society’s focus on black independent filmmakers creates an opportunity for the discussion of intersectionality in the industry. The status quo within the motion picture business concerns itself mainly with white men. FilmLinc’s series, then, attempts to shift this cultural expectation. While the series focuses on black filmmakers as a whole, a section is directed at black women filmmakers specifically. The beauty of the series is in this effort to create a more open audience, one that both accepts and enjoys movies by intersectional minorities. The series contains a near comprehensive look at the role black women played in the independent film scene, showing films by Jessie Maple, Madeline Anderson, Pearl Bowser, and Kathleen Collins, among others. Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground received its theatrical debut at this series, and it is certainly long overdue. The film centers on Sara, a professor of philosophy, who spends a summer in upstate New York with her husband Victor, an abstract painter.  Sara returns to the city on a lark to star in a student film, while Victor changes his painting style and engages in an affair. The film is a poignant and funny portrait of a marriage, the rift between art and academia, and the life of a woman who is often overshadowed by her husband. Collins, who was also a professor and playwright, is considered the first black woman to produce a feature-length film, but her presence in this series is more than a historical point. Her film is legitimately great in its own right. Sara is a complex character that grapples with issues of gender and race. At the same time, the characters face problems in both the domestic sphere as well as in their careers. This thematic complexity is paired with Collins’ exquisite direction, making for an exceptional film.

Many of the directors showcased in this series may be more accurately described as intellectuals than filmmakers. Similar to Kathleen Collins, Bill Gunn was a playwright, film director, and novelist (he was also an actor, appearing as Victor in Losing Ground). Bill Gunn directed his first film Stop in 1970, but this has never been released by Warner Bros., which still owns the right to its distribution. The Film Society showed his proper debut, Ganja and Hess, a movie that is truly emblematic of the black independent movement during this time. The backers of the film intended to create another vampiric blaxploitation film a la Blacula. However, Gunn took this concept in an entirely different direction. A story of a wealthy archaeologist who is stabbed and becomes a vampire, the film is replete with motifs of the exploitation genre, mainly blood and sex. But these elements are far from gratuitous. Interwoven in montages with Christian, European, and traditional African iconography, Gunn uses horror and sex to craft a dense allegorical tale. It touches on addiction, class dynamics, imperialism, assimilation, and the effects of religion. This film cannot be reduced to simple theme or argument. It is thick; it is ambiguous; it is scathing. And this is what makes it such a triumph. Gunn takes pre-existing genres, plays with them, and creates an intellectually rich motion picture.

For as long as the film industry has existed, there has seemed an absence of voices outside the general majority; that is, one sees too few films on the big screen that are written, directed, or produced by minority filmmakers. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Losing Ground, and Ganja and Hess, among many other films, prove that inspired filmmaking is not limited to white men in the Hollywood system. Independent films, especially independent films by black artists, are worth sharing. Films provide us with the perspective of an artist, and these films from 1968-86 act as a lens with which to view the culture at an especially interesting time. These films are extremely valuable as a way to give the directors and writers a chance to be seen and heard.