Posted by Susan Doll on September 5, 2011
Each month, my film-discussion group meets for a lively brunch to discuss a topic agreed on in the previous meeting. At the end of September, we will meet to talk about the films and careers of selected female directors. One of the films on the suggested viewing list is the early indie film Wanda, which will make its TCM debut this evening at 7pm CST/8pmEST. An uncompromising portrait of a working class woman born and raised in a Pennsylvania coal town, Wanda is the only film written and directed by actress Barbara Loden, who died of breast cancer in 1980.
Loden also starred in the title role as Wanda Goronski, whose choices in life are limited by her lack of education and economic opportunity. In her world, a woman’s only hope for a better life rests on the shoulders of a miner willing to marry her. But, it’s too late for Wanda, who has failed at marriage, so she lives on the fringes of an already marginalized region. In court to finalize her divorce, Wanda willingly gives up her two children to their father noting that they are better off with him. “I’m just no good,” she tells the judge. With no personal ties or job responsibilities, Wanda drifts with the wind, becoming further alienated from mainstream society with each misadventure. She goes with any man willing to pick up the tab, matter of factly putting up with their callousness and cruelty as though it were expected. Eventually, she stumbles across a thief in the process of robbing a beer joint, though she doesn’t realize the trouble she’s stepped into. Wanda joins the thief, whose name is Mr. Dennis, on the road for no other reason than she has no place else to go.
If you are expecting the pair to redeem themselves because they fall in love, then Wanda isn’t the film for you. Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) does take a passing interest in instructing Wanda on how to dress and wear her hair, but he is merely passing on his philosophy of life, noting, “If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, then you’re as good as dead.” Mr. Dennis wants to make the proverbial one last score by robbing a bank, and he tries to train Wanda to be his accomplice. A relentless melancholia grips the movie from the first scene, telegraphing that the climax and resolution will not be happy.
Though 40 years old, the film’s depiction of one segment of the working class running out of options is relevant in this repressed economy, in which partisan politics takes precedence over solutions and compassion, and the working class is left farther and farther behind. As a blue-collar woman uninterested in or ill-equipped to handle a family and unable to hold a job, Wanda falls to the lowest rung on the ladder in our society. So, she is alienated from its institutions and conventions. They don’t help her because she doesn’t fit in with the norms; and, she does not feel beholden to them. This film will not suit everyone’s taste because of its bleak tone and plot, but I admired it for not pulling any punches and for not romanticizing or glamorizing the characters. In one interview at the time of the film’s release, Loden stated that Wanda served as a response to Bonnie and Clyde, which she rightly noted had romanticized the real-life story of two criminals on the road, turning them into rebels against the system. Wanda is as raw and harsh as Bonnie and Clyde is idealized and glamorized, despite that film’s violent ending.
The minimalist visual style of Wanda suits the sober material. Cinematographer Nicholas Proferes, who had worked with documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers, served as Loden’s director of photography. Proferes achieved Wanda’s brutal realism by using techniques associated with cinema verite or direct cinema. In some scenes, handheld camerawork gives the film a sense of spontaneity and immediacy, such as the scene in which Mr. Dennis visits his elderly father one last time. The camera follows the pair unobtrusively as they visit a tacky tourist site called The Tower of God. The camera peers from behind pillars and walls like a voyeur as we overhear a conversation that is private and painful. The natural lighting adds a gritty look, making central Pennsylvania look bleak and uninviting. East Coast reviewers unfamiliar with the vast land between the two coasts assumed the normally hilly, green Pennsylvania was “parched” or “desolated” and referred to it as such, not realizing they were responding to Proferes’s cinematography.
The technique that really defines Wanda’s style is the use of long takes in long shot. The long shots of the characters in the landscape connect the people to the environment, as when Wanda—a tiny speck in the distance—walks slowly across a dirty, gray coalfield, which has determined the course of her life. The technique also slows down the tempo of the film to a measured, human pace, which mirrors Wanda’s goalless meanderings. Also, the film features only cuts, with no dissolves or fades to soften or romanticize the content. Its documentary-like style and less-than-sympathetic protagonist anticipated the visual and narrative experimentation of the 1970s, but it’s stark style and harsh interpretation of the material was far beyond any Hollywood film, even in the era of the Film School Generation.
The raw content and stark style of Wanda represent brave choices on Loden’s part, and they are matched by her performance in the title role. With little or no makeup, she looks anemic, and her hair is either stringy, rolled up in curlers, or unkempt. The character is passive and indecisive, lacking the initiative to take control of her life and turn it around. When she does make a decision, it is a foolish one. Though Wanda is not immoral or villainous, she is unsympathetic, which makes it difficult to identify with her—going against one of the basic traditions of American filmmaking.
Even though I have seen many a slow-moving, alienating film in the course of my job at Facets Multi-Media, Wanda was a challenge to watch because of the passive character and the sparse style. However, I liked and admired the film because it was a perfect meld of style and content, plus the character of Wanda stayed with me long after I originally watched the movie. As a woman, I ponder what could have lead Wanda to this point in her life, because Loden purposefully withholds any easy social or psychological explanations for her behavior. Identification with the character is short-circuited in favor of reflection. And, I suspect that the nature of that reflection is dependent on the viewer’s personal life experiences and world view.
I also appreciate the film’s position as an early example of a modern indie film. Unlike today, in which the independent film scene is an established, recognizable outlet for personal filmmaking for both newcomers and veteran auteurs, the independent film scene in 1970 was slight, and it lacked definition and direction. It encompassed everything from avant-garde filmmaking to grind-house horror and exploitation. Innovative independent narratives were produced during this time, but there was no standardized distribution and exhibition, and no established organization to preserve or archive the raw materials. Loden had completed a draft of her script in 1964, but it took six years to find financing to make the film. An investor named Harry Shuster put up the $115,000 budget for a one-third interest in the film. The Foundation for Filmmakers, an organization founded by Loden and her husband, Elia Kazan, owned the other two-thirds. Wanda was released in a limited theatrical run in New York City in 1971.
If Barbara Loden’s name sounds familiar, you might recognize her as Warren Beatty’s sister in Splendor in the Grass, my favorite Elia Kazan film. Her portrayal of fast-living Ginny Stamper walks the line between unlikable floozy and neglected poor-little-rich-girl, and I was at once attracted and repelled by her character when I first saw the film as a young girl. Born in rural North Carolina in 1932, Loden was raised by her strict grandparents after her parents divorced. Desperate to escape the confines of small-town life, she moved to New York City at age 16. She worked as a pin-up model and nightclub dancer before marrying film producer Larry Joachim (Murder, Inc.; the original The Green Hornet) who got her a recurring slot on The Ernie Kovacs Show. While studying acting at the Actors Studio in 1957, she was discovered by Kazan, who later cast her in Wild River (1960) as Montgomery Clift’s cold-hearted secretary and in Splendor in the Grass (1961) as Beatty’s promiscuous sister. The high point of her acting career occurred in 1964 with her performance as the Marilyn Monroe figure in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, for which she won a Tony Award. Loden married Kazan in 1967, and though the relationship was rocky, they remained together until her death.
Today, Wanda looks as fresh and uncompromising as it did 40 years ago. While the independent scene is the only outlet today for films by women or about women, few indies can compare to Loden’s bitter portrait of a woman on the margins. I recommend it for those who enjoy challenging films, for those who long to experience a woman’s point of view in cinema; and for those who appreciate a filmmaker with a story to tell.
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