Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970) - A Film For Her
by Eduardo Abrantes
Wanda is a bum. A presence of numbness and fading beauty steeped in full on white trash mythology. An absent-minded worker. A late sleeper. An unwanted guest. An occasional prostitute. An unfit mother of two. An uncaring wife. And in this film we learn all this even before her curlers come off. After they do, we find out she's also having a bad hair day.
It is a straight story. Wanda, a coal-mining wife sinking deep into oblivion and abandonment, without a home, a job, with a failed marriage and a neglected family, drifts through city streets and outskirts. She has little money, drinks (not enough to ever actually appear drunk) and with time to waste she proceeds to waste it.
Her less than fulfilling encounters with men eventually lead to her meeting a nerve wrecked, angry, neurotic man who looks like a salesman and is in fact a thief. They hit the road in stolen cars with stolen clothes, drift some more together and when he decides to rob a bank, she tags along. It turns out badly. She ends alone.
Wanda was filmed in 1970, over a period of ten weeks in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Written and directed by Barbara Loden (1932-1980), co-directed by Nicholas Proferes, assisted by Christopher Cromin, and with sound and lighting by Lars Hedman - a four people ensemble that operated pretty much as a self-contained documentary crew. It was shot in 16mm reversal, afterwards blown up to 35mm, using a hand-held camera without much additional lighting, ensuring an image at once heavy with grain and thick with saturation, assuming moments of under and over-exposure to ever changing light conditions, again in true grit social-conscious documentary style.
But Wanda is a work of fiction, a piece at once raw and delicate, depending greatly on the awkward chemistry between the two main characters, Wanda (Barbara Loden herself) and Mr. Dennis (the petty thief played by Michael Higgins). The dramatic interaction between the two actors was fuelled by improvisation and by the concise portrait of an uncaring world, a portrait essentially built on the absentee character of that same world.
And yet the two main characters had values of sort. Mr. Dennis loved his father and was ashamed before him of the criminal drifter he'd become, he also tried to instil in Wanda a sense of worth and ambition, even of aesthetic refinement - with him she'd wear no slacks, only dresses, and a hat covering her unkempt hair. Wanda herself seemed to resume her moral stand in the phrase "I'm no good", while trying her very mediocre best to please her strict companion.
At the time of Wanda's shooting Barbara Loden was the wife of the director and producer Elia Kazan. He had been impressed by her acting and took her as a protégé, giving her feature status in his 1961 Splendour in the Grass, playing Warren Beatty's alluring sister. Wanda was her only film, and biographers suggest her inability to develop further projects had quite something to do with Kazan's personal and artistic overbearing influence. Barbara Loden apparently had a real crave for accomplishment as a filmmaker, but even though Wanda was acclaimed by the critic, it was mostly ignored by the American public. It received some greater measure of recognition in Europe, where even ten years later it was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival and in Paris-Deauville in 1980. Barbara Loden was invited to attend the event but died of liver cancer the day of her departure.
Is Wanda a road movie? A crime fable of two misfit lovers? A study on the precarious condition of the poor and powerless? A woman's descent into self abasement? Or hope? What revelation is offered to us after this film's viewing?
The comparison with Arthur Penn's 1967 successful Bonnie and Clyde was somehow unavoidable upon the release of Wanda. "People like that would never get into those situations or lead that kind of life - they were too beautiful… Wanda is anti-Bonnie and Clyde," said Barbara Loden at the time.
In Bonnie and Clyde violence was glorious, Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty) were glorious, united by fate in a glamorous death ballad. Wanda's partner in crime is no fervent Clyde but a brute, whose first signs of budding affection towards her are swiftly followed by his not too violent demise in an idiotic bank robbery. It is through reflection, while the camera pans on her convoluted facial expression, that we picture the bloody body being carried off towards the ambulance, and have his death confirmed later, on a TV newscast, in a bar where she sits at the counter. No mention of her as an accomplice. Her Clyde died without a Bonnie.
In this film there are key moments, which could sum it up but do not. Moments like the faraway panoramic shot of Wanda as a white speck moving slowly by foot across a dark valley, a coal excavation site with its geography of black hills and sparse machinery; or the roadside drunken interlude of Wanda and Mr. Dennis, where the remote control airplane comes like some weird noisy eagle of desert lore, a pointless totem bird of unattainable freedom.
The sheer cohesion obtained by the editing rhythm, which is slow but tight, keeps this film on track. Some scenes are dragged into embarrassment, shared with the main character, but suddenly sharp, abrupt, cinema vérité-style cutting releases the tension that is soon regained. A strangle-release cinematic approach.
There is no light at the end, for strangely Wanda is not a tunnel. It is an increasingly dramatic funnelling of possibilities for one woman, a successive cancellation of hope, yet it never goes for full choke, albeit a lingering increase of pressure. There's some strange sense of beauty and meaningfulness present throughout it. A pervading sense which nonetheless is contradicted by the factual presentation of events which this film consists of.
Doom never comes, if we choose to withstand the heart-shattering last scene, one of dead spirit amidst folly - late at night, Wanda silently eating and drinking on a crowded bar with a loud and intoxicated mob that took a liking to her. What brought her there? The silent recognition of need from another woman.