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Before Kathleen Collins was a filmmaker, she was a fiction writer. Collins had titled her collection of short stories Losing Ground, and “loved the title so much” she saved it for a feature film.
Even in her fiction, Collins was thinking about the art of point of view and its role in film. The first two short stories in her collection are titled “Exteriors” and “Interiors.” As she might do in a film, Collins explores character from explicitly limited perspectives. The first story is narrated through descriptions of a scene and directions for some imagined cinematographer, and the plot is driven by the gain and loss of “the feelings that lit up the room.” The second story, “Interiors,” is more traditional in form, but its sharp split in perspectives between “Husband” and “Wife” highlights a separation between characters that reminds me of film editing. The story, “When Love Withers, All of Life Cries,” is written like a script, complete with stage directions to help the characters’ “acting”: “Miriam (seeing him clearly)”; “Ricardo (dry as a bone).” Collins was resourceful across media, bringing aspects of film to her stories.
Although Collins’s story “Treatment for a Story” references film in its title, the story is dominated by sensory details that can’t be easily expressed in a film’s audio and visual medium, such as: “the stale masculine smell.” Or, for instance, the overwhelming heat of summer can be portrayed in film only through indirect cues, through sweat, or the color tone of the image. The scene takes place in darkness, which would make it invisible to a camera. Collins’s blend of film and literature highlights how traditional conventions of storytelling can miss subjective experiences. The main character in “Treatment for a Story” feels “as if she did not belong there.”
Decades after her death, Collins’s stories were published in 2016 under the title Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? It’s striking that the stories published now align so well with the short story tradition of contemporary American writers. Her play with form, especially using dialogue and epithets to make characters into allegorical figures, anticipated similar experiments in current fiction.
The themes explored in Collins’s stories remind me of those expressed by Jhumpa Lahiri, Miranda July, or Zadie Smith. In the work of all of these writers—to some extent—characters can be defined by their extreme vulnerability so that even the narrative style exhibits a tense mix of ecstatic faith and exhausted disappointment. For all these writers, too, the stories in a single collection might tread the same ground. The same character tropes or contexts reprise in later stories, allowing for a layered exploration of their relationships and emotional responses.
In film and fiction, Collins’s voice stands out for its irony. Although Collins’s characters are often artists, she almost always focuses a critical lens on the artistic lifestyle. One of the husband characters in a short story explains his unfaithful behavior by observing that he needs life to be “whimsical” to have meaning: “I have to have room to improvise… life has so many tuneless days.” The main character of Losing Ground is always searching for “ecstatic experience,” bitterly envious of the artists in her life. Often a Kathleen Collins character’s imaginative lifestyle will be her destruction. She’ll be “a stroke victim from an overdose of idealism,” as Collins describes it in one of her short stories.
Collins brings an ironic approach to race and civil rights politics as well. Her title story, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” takes place in the wryly dubbed “year of the human being, the year of race-creed-color blindness,” 1963. All the characters’ race descriptions are in quotation marks. Collins often explores her characters’ race-based experiences with humor or wry self-consciousness. Her characters are acutely conscious of the effect of race on their lives, and they’re exhausted by it.
Maybe the deepest irony in Losing Ground is that the film is ecstatic, even as its main character Sara is constantly criticizing herself for being too dull and dry. The film is deeply saturated with color, the sets full of lush house plants and summer sun. The camera lingers on moments of charming intimacy between lovers, family, and friends. Sara’s search for ecstasy is itself an aesthetic experience. Even as Collins highlights the irony of that search, she also gives us the beauty of it.
© Amelie Lasker (9/12/20) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Sara (Seret Scott).
Middle Photo: Sara’s mother (Billie Allen) and Sara (Seret Scott).
Bottom Photo: Victor (Bill Gunn) and Celia (Maritza Rivera).
Photo Credits: Milestone Film & Video