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Dark of the Soul: Losing Ground

Eileen O'Connell in "Losing Ground"

One of the more depressing things I’ve seen in this parts in recent years, right up there with a drive down Genesee Street through the East Side of Buffalo, came during a curiosity visit a few years ago to the then-new casino in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Along with the usual “gaming” tables and slot machines we’ve all seen in hundreds of movies, this one also has a room crammed with video terminals. In front of each was a person armed only with a plastic card with credits for the amount of money they had put on it. You sit, plug in your card, and press a button on the terminal to start the game. No pulling of levers, no rubbing elbows with other gamblers, no dice to blow on for good luck, no chips or currency to give you an image of what you’re losing. Game ends, you press the button again. Repeat until you’re out of money.

It’s an astonishingly efficient way of separating people from their money. But what made it that much more depressing was that no one at these machines looked remotely like they were enjoying themselves. They reminded me of the cocooned humans in The Matrix, who only dream that they’re having lives while alien machines harvest their energies.

Video poker terminals are ubiquitous in Las Vegas bars these days. One of those bars is the setting for Losing Ground, an arresting independent film about the human propensity for addiction. It puts us into one of these shabby roadside taverns and sits us there for 90 minutes to watch the people who frequent the place.

There aren’t many, just a handful of them. If the bar has a name we never hear it; these people probably frequent it primarily because they live nearby. Several feel that they’ve plugged so much money into this machine or that—one fellow dropped $3000 here just the day before—that it “owes” them; each losing game, they tell themselves, must be bringing them that much closer to a winning game.

Losing Ground was written and directed by Bryan Wizemann. The script is adapted from his play, which he developed with the aid of Tom Noonan. You may recall Noonan as the writer, director and co-star of 1994’s What Happened Was…, a movie set in real time on a single set about a date between two office workers. Noonan is clearly the film’s godfather: all of the cast has also worked with him in productions by his Manhattan theater group.

Wizemann’s film is also set in real time and, like Noonan, he’s less interested in plot than character observation. The dramatic motion of Losing Ground is slight: everyone is desperate to win, though it’s unlikely any of them will. When one gambler does hit a jackpot, the emotional trauma she’s gone through makes it impossible to feel any joy for her. All she’s really won, it’s clear, is a chance to gamble awhile longer without having to scrounge for more money.

Losing Ground isn’t a melodramatic anti-gambling screed. It’s about people trying to plug up the holes in their lives, unable to recognize the true natures of their problems. The script doesn’t give us much back story, just enough to let us connect with them. (A pair of revelatory speeches near the end, while sharply handled, seem to be here primarily to give two of the performers a showy moment.)

Shooting for a minimal budget with digital video in a Brooklyn bar, Wizemann made one brilliant choice that defines the movie. He shoots the interior of this bar in darkness, illuminated only by some neon beer signs and the glow of the terminals. The few times the outside door is opened, the sunlight is like a knife on our retinas; at times you can barely see anything at all—though Wizemann and cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard are clearly choosing what to show us and what not. With perpetual noise from the highway outside the building’s thin walls to remind us what a façade this is, the film viscerally evokes the atmosphere of a circle of hell populated by people desperately willing themselves into blindness.

Losing Ground opens a new series of independent films at the Screening Room, the cozy digital projection theater that has been operating for the past decade in Amherst’s Northtown Plaza. (The proper address is 3131 Sheridan Drive, though it’s easier to find if you enter the plaza from North Bailey.) At a time when Hollywood offerings are so worthless that advance screenings are becoming a rarity, opportunities like this and the programs offered by Emerging Cinema at the Market Arcade are a godsend to anyone who wants to get out of the house to see a good movie.

Losing Ground will be shown at 9:15pm on Friday, Saturday and Tuesday. For more information, call 837-0376 or visit