Being and Somethingness

Wanda, directed by Barbara Loden, 1970

Wanda, the brilliant feature-length film written and directed by Barbara Loden in 1970, in which she plays the eponymous character, has been on a welcome road to rediscovery. Wanda has had its admirers in the past. The writer Marquerite Duras, the actress Isabelle Huppert, and the filmmaker John Waters have been consistent in their praise for the film and its director/actress. But the reassessment has taken on new energy in the past year with the English translation of Suite for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Léger’s superb extended essay as a Dorothy project, and has continued with the posting in March of a video essay called Woman in A Landscape, by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López. The voice-over is a bit crusty, but the analysis of the film is perceptive. In a short 13 minutes, it packs a remarkable amount of insightful criticism on both the film’s method and meaning. But the anticipated appearance of the film in the Criterion Collection promises to be the real game changer. Wanda will go from a largely ignored film to a necessary one, and Barbara Loden will take her proper place as an important independent American woman director on the basis of a single, uncompromising film.

A number of factors contributed to the near disappearance of her small masterpiece. It was Loden’s only feature-length film and she died of cancer at the age of 48, a decade after it was made. Her husband, the film and theatre director Elia Kazan, was not entirely enthusiastic about promoting it and when he did, it was less a tribute to Loden’s multi-layered abilities in getting the film made, than an opportunity for self-aggrandizement (he claimed to have written the initial screenplay). While it did receive some favourable reviews and won the award for Best Foreign Film at the 31st Venice Film Festival in 1970, Wanda had only a short run in New York after its release and no national distribution. Pauline Kael was not among its champions. While she recognized the admirable performances of Loden and Michael Higgins, she was dismissive of the unforgiving tone of the film. “The movie is such an extremely drab and limited piece of realism,” she’d written, “that it makes Zola seem like musical comedy.”

Wanda’s lack of acceptance was partially determined by the enormous success enjoyed three years earlier by Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s road movie about a glamorous pair of bank robbers played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The amorous playfulness between Bonnie and Clyde was radically different from the abusive relationship between Mr. Dennis and Wanda. Kael described it as “a minimal love affair of a passive, bedraggled girl from a mining town and a nervous wreck of a small-time crook.” Loden wouldn’t have disagreed with the characterization since in her writing and acting she deliberately moved away from the unrealistic dimensions of Penn’s story. She told an interviewer for Film Journal in 1971 that “people like that would never get into those situations or lead that kind of life—they were too beautiful.” She described her film as “anti- Bonnie and Clyde.”

To set the tone, Loden and her cinematographer, Nicholas Proferes, foreground the bleak, coal-saturated landscape around Scranton, Pennsylvania, an environment that Loden described as causing “this very ugly type of existence.” The sense of detailing is perfect throughout; the Bud beer can and the cheap glass figurine on the dresser in her sister’s house; the plastic curtains on the motel room window, the packages of Clorets behind the cash register in a bar, the AAA sticker on the underside of a car visor in a parking lot, and the Gilbey’s Gin advertisement on the side of a city bus. In the washroom of the bar where Wanda accidentally walks in on Mr. Dennis’s robbery, the mirror is broken and we see the stained cardboard backing where the glass had been. Wanda is able to see only half of her face. When she goes to dry her hands and finds there is no paper toweling, the way she nimbly picks up her purse with her wet fingertips is exactly observed.

Enveloping all this detail is the unbeautiful and ubiquitous presence of black anthracite. Every time a character looks out a window, they see heavy machinery loading coal into trucks, and the sound of mining—from a proximate mechanical roar to a dull vibration in the distance—is relentless. The lm opens with a figure dressed in white walking through an industrial landscape. The scene holds for two minutes and only when the distant figure gets close do we realize who we were watching. Wanda’s hair is in curlers and she wears a thin kerchief on her head. Close-up, her wardrobe is pale turquoise.

These details are one way to guarantee that Loden’s film would not slip into the romance of crime, as was remaining in Scranton and Waterbury, CT, where the robbers visit Holy Land, a theme park with a scale model of Jerusalem, Calvary and the catacombs. The locations help to sustain the documentary feel of the film (as did shooting hand-held on 16 millimetre, a film stock that produced an overall graininess). The other guarantee is that Wanda didn’t indulge in the aestheticization of violence made famous by Bonnie and Clyde, most notably in the slow-mo, marionette-like dance of death of the final shootout. Wanda is without any visible gun violence; the death of Mr. Dennis is not even shown, the bomb he leaves with the banker’s family is a dummy, and in the two robberies he commits no one is shot or physically harmed. Mr. Dennis is verbally abusive and he does slap Wanda in one scene, but their relationship develops in a nuanced and extremely subtle way.

Both Loden and Higgins were stage actors and because the film was neither storyboarded nor rehearsed, they had to discover their characters in the performance. What they find is a love affair in a minor key.

There are two occasions in the film when we see affection between them, two more where Wanda breaks free of her crippling passivity, and they are closely connected. The first occurs when Mr. Dennis bungles the hostage-taking of Mr. Anderson, the bank manager, and Wanda has to come to his aid. For the first time in the film she is ferocious, fighting with Anderson, wrestling the gun away, and taking control of the situation. In the car as they prepare to go to the bank for the robbery, Dennis says to her, “You did good. You’re really something.” Wanda’s face registers an almost radiant appreciation; she has never been praised before and she is in thrall to the novelty of the experience.

The second indication that Wanda and Mr. Dennis have developed a relationship that goes beyond abuse is her reaction when she arrives at the bank, only to be held behind a police cordon. As she realizes that the robbery has gone badly and that Dennis is probably dead, her expression phases through a complex range of emotions, including anguish, confusion, fear, desperation and heartbreak. Loden’s performance here is astonishing; it’s as if she has been able to gather together all the emotional facets of her life into a single, concentrated moment and they play out as a taut and seamless progression of reactions.

The most complicated issue the film raises is how are we to view Wanda. She is so much an anti-heroine that she runs the risk of being invisible. There is something disturbing about her overwhelming passivity; she thanks the floor manager of the sewing factory where she asks for work after he tells her that she is too slow to be useful, and her uncontested acceptance of her husband’s wish for a divorce edges towards mythic territory when she tells the judge her children will be better off without her. (She repeats that feeling when Mr. Dennis asks about her past, on the road). Wanda is convinced she is “no good.”

Loden sees the character she wrote and played in a different way. “In my opinion Wanda is right and everyone around her is wrong.” In another interview in FILM magazine in 1971 she said, “I made Wanda as a way of confirming my own existence.” Loden’s comments on the parallels between Wanda’s life and her own are telling. “I was like the living dead,” she told Michel Ciment in 1975. “I lived like a zombie for a long time, until I was 30.” On The Mike Douglas Show in February, 1972, in which she appears with Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Loden eloquently summarized what her film character was trying to do. “She doesn’t know what she wants but she knows what she doesn’t want…Life is a mystery to her and she’s trying her best to just drop out. A lot of people do this and they become very passive. We have this kind of person in our society who lets everything walk over them.” When Loden told Ciment that she felt “very close to Wanda emotionally,” she could as easily have commented on their psychological closeness.

It’s this inseparability Marquerite Duras is referring to in 1980 when she remarked to Elia Kazan in Cahiers du Cinema that “there is a miracle in Wanda. Usually there is a distance between the visual representation and the text, as well as the subject and the action. Here the distance is completely nullified; there is an instant and permanent continuity between Barbara Loden and Wanda.” Loden’s own admission about the motivation to make the film in the first place nods unpleasantly in Kazan’s direction. “It never occurred to me to make a film,” she told Mike Douglas. “I had no ambition that way. I had written a script and I expected someone else to make it and my husband kept insisting I should be the one to make it because I knew the material better than anyone else. He made me to do it. He forced me.” On the same program, John Lennon asked if she had any trouble directing men and Loden says she did. In pinpointing the cause, she quickly sees the problem as hers. “That was because I was afraid that they wouldn’t accept what I said. I wasn’t quite that authoritative in my own self.”

In the film, Wanda does assert a sense of authority in the shadow of Mr. Dennis’s death. She has been drinking in a bar with a young soldier who ends up driving her to the coal pits for some afternoon sex. He has a red convertible and the scene of the small car moving through the large landscape reprises the white- figure walking sequence at the beginning of the film. Wanda is passive when he begins to have sex with her but that acquiescence gives over to voluble and dramatic rage. The sounds she makes come from a deep inner core and they are the first articulation of her refusal to be a victim. (Loden said her psychoanalyst told her in her life she had played “the role of victim and the orphan.”) When Wanda escapes from being assaulted, stumbling off into what appears to be a forest in the middle of the surrounding industrial wasteland, our inclination is to view it as a passage through the garden and into a new life.

The idea is tempting but ill advised. Wanda progresses only by increments. At the end of the film she is back in a bar, drinking with hospitable strangers. A man we don’t see lights her cigarette and then gently tucks another one behind her ear. She nibbles on a meat sandwich, smoking and listening to the live music. The look on her face is non-committal; it intimates that a choice might be made. The film freezes on that inward gaze of contingency. It is a possible ending. ❚

Volume 36, Number 1

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #141, published March 2017.

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