The work of a great, original, natural filmmaker, Wanda continues to confound viewers that don’t recognize honest human reality when they see it. A woman dispossessed, uprooted and adrift no longer has a self-definition, just a basic drive to subsist and find someone who values her. Morals? It’s hard enough just to survive. Director-actress Barbara Loden isn’t Wanda, yet she is — her film erases the distinctions between movies, theater and reality, something John Cassavetes never quite accomplished.
The Criterion Collection 965
1970 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 103 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 19, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins, Jerome Thier, Jack Ford.
Cinematography, Editing: Nicholas T. Proferes
Produced by Harry Shuster
Directed by Barbara Loden
Consciously or unconsciously, most American movies pre: 1970 promote the status quo success story. People living below middle-class status were often patronized; in many socially-conscious movies they were either problem cases or overly sentimentalized, idealized. The dispossessed and disenchanted people we saw on screen were either undeserving, or found help one way or another and regained their social equilibrium. Who wants to see a movie about hopelessness? I can’t help but think that Criterion purposely timed their release of Barbara Loden’s Wanda to coincide with that of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, as a compelling ‘low self esteem’ double bill.
Well, some film artists continued to strive to film life as it was lived, apart from the credo of the Production Code. Independent film festivals got a boost in 1970 with Wanda, a resolutely dour road movie that confronts American optimism with a vision of despair and worthlessness. The Wanda we meet is not the kind of woman that can be explained in a sentence or two. At one point, the bitter and drunken Mr. Dennis tells Wanda that the important thing in life is to go after what one wants, otherwise “You’re nothing.” “Then I guess I’m nothing,” replies Wanda, without a bit of irony. But everything we see tells us that Wanda has potential for better things.
The grainy 16mm photography and catch-as-catch-can audio take Wanda to a level of documentary reality. Ms. Loden went on record as wanting to counteract Hollywood’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ image of indigent banditry as a liberating lifestyle. We want to reach out to Wanda but honestly wonder what might break her self-imposed cycle of misery. On the other hand, the Wanda we meet is compellingly warm and human, a woman cut loose from acceptable roles and just trying to survive, to subsist. What with the ballooning homeless problem, becoming indigent is no longer an exceptional thing: see It Was a Wonderful Life. To her credit, director-actress Loden doesn’t suggest that she’s making a generalized social statement — Wanda is always an individual.
Pennsylvania coal-country housewife Wanda (Barbara Loden) has become unstuck from the traditional role of spouse and mother. She cannot raise the will to care for her children or her house in the coal fields, and so allows a judge to grant her husband (Jerome Thier) a divorce and full custody. Wanda drifts on the road, sleeping with any man that picks her up or buys her a meal. Her utterly aimless existence is often as simple as, ‘where can I sleep, where is there a bathroom I can use?’ When her purse is stolen in an all-night movie theater, Wanda enters a bar looking for help. She meets Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), but is at first too distracted to realize that he’s robbing the place. Wanda accompanies the perpetually angry and abusive Mr. Dennis across the state as he pulls off small robberies and car thefts. She sticks with him because he tells her what to do. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Dennis drinks himself to sleep and gives her zero praise, she finds a purpose in just trying to please him. After Mr. Dennis visits his aged father, he finally expresses some bona fide human emotions and prepares Wanda to help him with a more complicated kidnap-bank robbery scheme. After a token resistance Wanda takes her place as Mr. Dennis’ accomplice.
The fascinating Barbara Loden was something of a cause celebre in her time, a model-turned actress who engaged the interest and respect of director Elia Kazan and eventually directed plays of her own. She is memorable in a small but amusing role as a Tennessee secretary in Kazan’s wonderful Wild River: when TVA agent Montgomery Clift asks for advice on how to remove a stubborn old woman from an island about to be flooded, Loden’s pragmatic character looks him in the eye and says, “I’d let her drown.” Kazan gave Barbara a much larger part as Warren Beatty’s promiscuous, shocking sister in Splendor in the Grass, and she was marvelous. But rather than continue with larger screen roles she instead concentrated on the theater.
Critics have learned not to overstate the influence of the Kazan connection on Wanda. Loden put the film together on her own with a major camera and editorial assist from filmmaker Nicholas T. Proferes, a sometime D.A. Pennebaker associate who had worked with Norman Mailer on his experimental films Beyond the Law and Maidstone, and who also filmed Kazan’s independent drama The Visitors. The concept and direction of Wanda are all Loden’s.
Wanda is an absorbing character study that leaves us empathizing with a woman who isn’t easy to understand. From a feminist standpoint Wanda might be seen as a pitiful worst-case scenario, a demoralized soul convinced that she’s worthless. Bored to the point of brainlessness as a coal miner’s housewife, she’s unable to make herself care about anything. Arriving late at her own divorce hearing, Wanda’s husband complains that she does nothing and won’t take care of the kids. She passively agrees that they’d be better off with him anyway. The judge simply cuts Wanda loose. As far as the male-dominated authorities care, she’s an abject failure.
Proferes’ camera uses long takes of Wanda walking on a coal road and sitting in bars. She acts indifferent but clearly retains a desire to be wanted. She’s an easy pickup for a traveling salesman who later ditches her at an ice cream stand, without a word. Men take her to bed but don’t want to talk to her. She drifts into a Spanish-language movie theater (displaying a poster for El Barón del terror), falls asleep and wakes to find her few dollars stolen. She now has just the clothes on her back.
The sociopath Mr. Dennis is an ‘ordinary looking guy’ who smokes cigars, drinks too much and treats her even worse than the others did. He doesn’t understand Wanda’s passivity or her tendency to hang on to loose men as would a lost dog. Wanda accepts Mr. Dennis’s verbal abuse silently and even weathers a few drunken slaps. She only slowly realizes that Mr. Dennis approaches crime as an odd job challenge, taking what comes. He steals cars and holds up liquor stores. He takes clothes out of other peoples’ cars, sorting out what he wants to keep and dumping the rest into a Goodwill donation box.
Is this the lowest common denominator human relationship? Wanda and Mr. Dennis barely connect yet make a fascinating, fatal pair. She accepts him without question, and he presumes she’ll go along with whatever he says. The most startling scene comes when Mr. Dennis visits his father, who knows full well that his son is a loser heading for more trouble. Mr. Dennis tries his best to put on a false front, but it does no good; Wanda is amazed to see her partner express everyday normal emotions.
That ‘old folks’ reunion and the extended bank robbery caper that follows give Wanda a few similarities to Bonnie and Clyde. The robbery sequence is handled in vérité fashion, as is a particularly effective hand-held scene of Mr. Dennis checking door locks in search of a car to steal. Loden pauses for a few conventional narrative effects as Mr. Dennis and Wanda case the bank and invade the house of its manager (Jack Ford). Loser that he is, Mr. Dennis fouls things up, but Wanda saves the day almost inadvertently. Of course, from that high point the flimsy caper goes completely downhill.
The film’s wrap-up is marginally, mysteriously positive. As he prepares toenter the bank Mr. Dennis tells Wanda that she ‘did good,’ his only words of praise in the film. She responds with a broad smile. It’s chilling to think that life can be that grim, yet from the world we know it should be obvious that people will do anything for acceptance, for scraps of approval.
Wanda’s absorbing characters hold our attention, but we’re drawn in by the blunt honesty of Loden’s direction. We watch Wanda with a mixture of dread and fascination, straining to detect an indication that she’s meant to be a feminist martyr or some kind of symbol. That Loden doesn’t burden Wanda with any such agenda makes her seem all the more real … another ‘impenetrable’ stranger that would likely bloom with meaningful human contact. She needs an empathetic counselor or parole office, or just another sane person with whom she can relate. Wanda could be a homeless person begging for money on skid row. Even if the story she gives is an obvious lie, her desperation is genuine.
Critics lauded Wanda at film festivals, and it won a best Foreign Film prize at the 1970 Venice Film Festival. But its theatrical life was limited to art bookings in New York. Barbara Loden did not make another feature film, although she planned others right up to her death from cancer ten years later. Critic Berenice Reynaud wrothe that being the wife of the famous Elia Kazan turned out to be a liability for Loden. Kazan didn’t particularly support or even encourage her, and some critics assumed that her career was his doing. But Wanda has been a special discovery ever since, and held up as a perfect ‘improvised’ movie. Barbara Loden was quoted by Richard Brody as saying that she hated slick movies where everything was packaged and polished so that nothing resembled real life. She didn’t use jargon-laden artfilm-speak, but instead described normal fake filmmaking as being ‘like formica.’
Savant was surprised to learn that the talented Michael Higgins is the same actor from the excellent film trilogy of Horton Foote play adaptations: Courtship, On Valentine’s Day and 1918. In each Higgins plays the elder, stern paterfamilias of a Texas family. Higgins is terrific here, chomping his cigar and drowning his anxieties in alcohol. When filming in a field off a Pennsylvania highway, Loden and her three-person film crew were bothered by some people flying a model airplane. Loden and Higgins turned the interruption to their advantage by having the drunken Mr. Dennis climb on top of his car to shout at the plane. It’s a piece of improvisation worthy of John Cassavetes.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Wanda is far superior to a pre-restoration 2006 DVD from a company called Parlour Pictures. It is billed as a new 2K digital restoration performed by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with support from The Film Foundation, and Gucci. Back on August 17, 2010 I reported on the AMIA’s Hollywood symposium called The Reel Thing. The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Ross Lipman showed a new restoration of Wanda which is presumably what we’re seeing here. I wrote:
“Lipman specializes in experimental and avant-garde restorations, and showed examples of his attempts to get good 35mm prints from the film, which was shot on 16mm reversal stock. He also discussed his attempt to ascertain the film’s correct aspect ratio, and discussed what should be a foremost concern in film restoration, whether correcting what might be flaws in this picture’s audio mix was a good idea, or a slippery slope towards ignorant revisionism.”
Finding first-rate research on Barbara Loden has long been difficult, a problem that Criterion’s disc producer Kate Elmore has partially corrected. The level-headed Loden gets through a rather tentative session with Dick Cavett, gracefully resisting his glib small talk; their personalities don’t seem to merge. Two excellent extras assemble a better image of Loden as a serious artist. An audio recording of an AFI seminar reveals her explaining her methods to a student audience. The hourlong 1980 documentary I Am Wanda attempts to capture some of her magic; it was filmed at a time when both Loden and the director Katja Raganelli knew she was dying from cancer. We see Loden working with actors, and answering questions from behind her desk.
Another extra is a genuine rarity, Loden’s 1975 educational film The Frontier Experience wherein she directs herself as a pioneer woman. The spare script is by Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Chilly Scenes of Winter). The 25-minute short is an austere memento of harsh conditions for homesteaders in depopulated corner of Kansas in 1869. Loder keeps everything basic and un-hyped — survival is a skin-of-one’s-teeth process, without a single glamorous event. Memorable moment: suffering through a harsh winter, a daughter rips open her mattress, stuffed with corn husks, in search of random kernels to eat. No dialogue is necessary.
The foldout essay is by Amy Taubin. Every paragraph contains a revelation about Loden: “When asked about Wanda, Loden often responded that she used to be just like her: ‘Until I was thirty, I had no identity of my own.'” Barbara Loden should be remembered in the present culture-storm championing the female imperative in filmmaking. She was a remarkable creative dynamo.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: I Am Wanda, an hour-long documentary by Katja Raganelli, from 1980; audio recording of Loden speaking to the American Film Institute in 1971; segment from Loden’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, 1971; The Frontier Experience (1975), a short educational film directed by and starring Loden; trailer. Insert folder with an essa by Amy Taubin.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 14, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson