May 12, 2015

“Rediscovering” a Classic for the First Time at “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986”

The Film Society of Lincoln Center earlier this year ran an important series entitled "Tell It Like It Is: BlackIndependents in New York, 1968 – 1986."  Running over the course of two weeks (February 6-19) and programmed by Jake Perlin and Michelle Materre, Tell It Like It Is featured a startling twenty-five screening programs.  Included were screenings of relatively well known films such as She's Gotta Have It (1986) and Ganja and Hess (1973), known but rarely seen movies like Spike Lee's NYU Master's thesis project, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), and many lesser-known (at least to this writer!) pictures including Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), A Dream Is What You Wake Up From (1978), and special evenings with filmmakers Jessie Maple, Kent Garrett, and Madeline Anderson.  Indeed, even when not pointedly labeled as “special evenings”, almost all of the programs were accompanied by introductions and Q&A sessions with some person or persons involved with the production of the film, or related to the filmmaker.  Where possible (at least ten of the shows) films were shown on film (some 16mm, some 35mm), but many titles were projected from DCPs or in other non-specified forms of “digital projection”.
Film Society’s website for Tell It Like It Is says that “[r]epresenting highlights of New York–based independents, activists all—producing these films in a time when minority film production was not supported and frequently suppressed—this program is full of major works by some of the great filmmakers of this (or any) era in American film history.”  And indeed, unsupported and suppressed at these films often were, many of them have not been readily available for viewing.  Several of the programs exhibited were originally shown on television, and few – including both the television and the theatrical works – are available on any form of home video today.  Many never were.  And while Film Society also asserts that the series “is comprised of key films produced between 1968 and 1986, when Spike Lee’s first feature, the independently produced She’s Gotta Have It, was released theatrically—and followed by a new era of studio filmmaking by black directors”, the programming of the series seems to aim at least as much to canonize great but underappreciated films as it does to revive widely recognized classics.
Indeed, one of the movies to open the series was Kathleen Collins's Losing Ground (1982), a film that ought to be a recognized classic, but which had never until now received the recognition it deserved.  Billed as "one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman"[1], the film was completed in 1982 and aired once in 1987 on WNET, but otherwise went unreleased until now.  A year after that one television showing, Collins died tragically young from cancer.  But her daughter Nina, who introduced her mother’s movies on the opening night of the series, recently took out the negatives to Losing Ground and the director’s earlier film, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, and had new digital masters produced because "it was important for black history, andfeminist history, and because it was my mother's".  The films were then picked up by Milestone Films, an independent distributor that specializes in championing un- and under-seen older works, with a particular focus on films by minority filmmakers (Milestone is the company responsible for bringing such films as Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba [1964, revived by Milestone in 1995], Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep [1978, brought out by Milestone in 2007], and Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles [1961, Milestoned in 2008]).  They opened Losing Ground at Tell It Like It Is, where its run was extended to the entire duration of the festival, and are now promoting it for further screenings around the world, apparently ahead of an eventual home video release.  Important question: If a film sits in the can, unreleased for a third of a century, and then finally receives a theatrical release, is it eligible for Academy Awards in the year of its eventual release?  If so, I hope Milestone is gearing up for an Oscars campaign, because this movie is sensational!
The film stars the underused Seret Scott as Sara, a City College professor of philosophy married to Victor (Bill Gunn, Ganja and Hess), a slightly older artist who is simultaneously achieving great critical success as a painter and coming into a midlife crisis.  Just as he has made a great sale of a non-representational work to a major museum, he begins to consider that his true calling may be representational work, after all.  As her academic year draws to a close, Sara makes plans to spend the summer researching and writing a dissertation on the ecstatic experience; at the same time, as Victor’s sale is being finalized, he gets the idea that they should rent a summer house in some lower Hudson Valley town (much of the film was shot in Nyack), where he will have loads of lovely architecture, natural landscapes, and beautiful women to paint.  This conflicts with Sara’s plans, since in the pre-internet days in which the film was made, scholarly work like hers was bound to the kind of physical research libraries available in New York City, but not in most towns upstate.  She is angered by his disregard for the needs of her work, but agrees to have a go at doing her work outside the city, driving back to New York as needed.
This arrangement goes alright for awhile, but when Victor becomes overly affectionate toward his beautiful young model, Celia, Sara decides she has had enough and decides that on her next trip to New York, she will take up a previously declined invitation to star in the thesis film of one of her adoring students.  Victor is at first surprised and a little condescending toward her intention to act, but doesn’t fight her.  But he becomes enraged and frustrated when she calls him on the phone and projects that she will be gone filming for five days.
On set she grows close to – and begins to find herself attracted to – Duke (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead), the uncle of the student whose film she is acting in.  The film they are shooting is a wordless, balletic adaptation of the traditional ballad “Frankie and Johnny”, telling the story of a married man drawn away from his wife by a dancing girl, and the wife’s efforts, shall we say (in the spirit of avoiding spoilers for either Losing Ground or “Frankie and Johnny”!), to get him back.  The scenes from the film-within-a-film – which is more or less presented to the audience as a ridiculous but heartfelt work by a goofy, joyful young man – are among the highlights of Losing Ground.  Shot on the huge concrete “academic platform” of one of the CUNY campuses, they simultaneously evoke the not necessarily desired minimalism of a student film and an abstracted space outside of reality, and are thus able to function both literally and expressionistically.  The “Frankie and Johnny” film story has obvious parallels to Sara’s own life, and in a series of powerful scenes, the story and themes of the larger film are explored and commented upon through these flamboyantly costumed and choreographed dance scenes.
When Collins’s films opened the Tell It Like It Is series, they were shown in the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center’s largest (it has 268 seats) and oldest cinema, with a live introduction by Nina Collins.  The release was a critical and box office success, resulting in its extension to the end of the month.  By the time of the screening I attended – late in the series around 5 PM on a Friday – the film had been moved over to the much smaller Howard Gilman Theater (seats 85), which was filled to about one quarter of capacity. Not surprisingly for an audience of that size at that time of day and at that point in the run, the reaction was appreciative (laughter and small gasps where appropriate), but not overly vociferous.  But in talking with coworkers and friends over the course of February, responses to the series were positive.  Many acknowledged their unfamiliarity with the films, but expressed great pleasure at the opportunity to expand their horizons, and then genuine appreciation for the films they had seen.  Correspondents who saw Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and Ganja and Hess, and others who attended screenings of Losing Ground, all expressed a sense of slight dismay that they had not previously been aware of the films they saw, and great admiration for them afterward.
That many of these films have not been available until now is frankly an injustice.  The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s efforts in locating and clearing the prints and digital files to put the series together are to be admired, and it is deeply gratifying that the wonderful people at Milestone are reintroducing the world to Losing Ground and The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy; the more so since it appears they will be publishing them on home video.  The opportunity presented by series of this kind for many people to see great works that they might otherwise have missed can be critical in forming new “canons”.  With the success of Tell It Like It Is, there is reason to believe that some of the films shown could at least be said to have been beatified, if not yet canonized all the way.  Hopefully with this newfound attention, many more of them will find new avenues of distribution on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital streaming services.

For additional information on the film, including a synopsis, cast and crew lists, biographies, personal stories about the film’s production and about Kathleen Collins, an excellent interview with Collins, and much more, see Milestone’s exhaustive press release here:

[1] The prize for the first is a bit tangled, given the independent nature of most films made by black women in those days and non-uniform definitions of the term “feature”.  One contender is Collins’s other film, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), which she intended to be about thirty minutes long, but which grew to fifty – “feature length” by the Academy’s standards, if not your average moviegoer’s!  Another narrative film, Jessie Maple’s Will (which was also recently restored, and also played in Tell It Like It Is!) was released in 1981 and ran to a solidly feature length running time of seventy minutes, so while Collins may have made the first, she may not have, and Losing Ground was, in any event, not it.  All of this is record-book business, however, and must in no way be taken to diminish the merits of any of the films.

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