(Barbara Loden, USA, 1970)


1. Woman in a Landscape (2016)

Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López


Oh you, who must leave everything that you cannot control

It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.

– Leonard Cohen, “Sisters of Mercy” (1967)


Barbara Loden’s Wanda has spent far too many years in semi-obscurity; it has frequently found itself written out of cinema histories, even (amazingly) the histories of feminist and radical political filmmaking. Despite several DVD releases – Isabelle Huppert lent her prestige to its distribution in France in 2004 – the most recent and best restoration, by Ross Lipman for the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2011, has taken 8 years to reach the DVD/Blu-Ray platform of Criterion, and assorted special screenings around the world, including the Cinema Reborn event in Australia.


To hijack the words of Edgardo Cozarinsky on Joseph Losey: like many of the best films made by women, Wanda has, for much of its existence, sat forlornly in "the deceptive light of a cult following”, more whispered about than actually seen and publicly discussed. Loden herself died from cancer in 1980, leaving behind several tantalising unmade projects. But, finally, the situation is changing for Wanda.


Wanda incontestably ranks among the cinema’s greatest works. Positif magazine recently listed Loden among those special directors who made only one feature film, but indelibly marked cinema history with it: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), Espoir: Sierra de Teruel (André Malraux & Boris Peskine, 1939), The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, 1970), The Forbidden Christ (Curzio Malaparte, 1951) and, most recently, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (2018). Although sometimes aligned with the work of John Cassavetes and his many flaky imitators, Wanda functions as the inverse of films like A Woman Under the Influence (1974): where Cassavetes’ style is explosive and hysterical, Loden explores a sullen, implosive energy.


The imploding star at the centre of this movie is the character of Wanda, played by Loden herself: a “floater” (as Loden described her), for all intents and purposes homeless, passive, utterly dependent on the often treacherous favours of random men, and undone by her need to be validated by them. The film poignantly conveys Wanda’s helplessness, her lack of initiative. As a character, she in no way conforms to the type of ‘positive heroines’ that were called for during the 1970s (and again today in the Bechdel Test era). Loden’s film is both bleaker and more astonishing than those easy options.


Loden described Wanda as being about a woman unable to adapt to her environment. There is never any home or family or community anywhere for her, never any sign of belonging. She fits in nowhere, never understanding the rules of any place or situation: “Life is a mystery to her”. Thanks to Loden’s extraordinary performance (she was a beloved and deeply influential teacher of acting, as made clear by David Krasner’s popular textbook, An Actor’s Craft), Wanda is a presence laid bare on the screen through a superb conjunction of body, behaviour and space; she becomes, for all time, an axiom of cinema.


Loden’s performance as Wanda radiates a suppressed intensity through minimal means: her gaze; the forward slump of her body; the turning of her head; her blank, affectless voice; and, above all, the physical prop of her hair, which is constantly arranged into different shapes, and just as constantly gets in Wanda’s way – one more part of her world that she cannot control.


Wanda is frequently shown on the move, traversing large distances by bus or car. Yet even when she is actually going somewhere, the film renders her voyaging as an irresolute drift, without clear destination or purpose. She is an estranged body in motion, wandering through city streets; she is glimpsed crossing vast industrial landscapes and barren coal mining fields. Loden often frames her own performance at very threshold of places and spaces, off-centre, waiting at a doorway or in a corner, almost disappearing off the edge; sometimes, even the camera appears to deliberately forget that she’s there, somewhere.


Dismissed by some (most egregiously by P. Kael) as “an extremely drab and limited piece of realism”, Wanda reveals itself to us today as a brilliantly directed, highly controlled and expressive work. In mise en scène terms, Loden shapes a very precise portrait of a woman who does not have any space of her own, and cannot make any space her own, either. Wanda often hides in plain sight: surrounded by others, denied any privacy or intimacy. And yet, at the same time, she is usually overlooked, avoided, unacknowledged. Wanda is an invisible woman.


She is also an unusual and ambiguous heroine. Instinctively rejecting dominant values of family and society, Wanda does so without any real consciousness. She is not presented as an anarchist or revolutionary; her rejection of the world entails no possible alternative to it. Loden was working against the positivist Zeitgeist of her time and culture – and her gesture of reaction or rejection is still salutary today, in the “Me Too” context. Wanda, as an exemplary figure, scuttles the clear-cut categories of woman-as-victim and woman-as-survivor.


In its time, Wanda escaped any tidy genre classification – which did not help its commercial chances one little bit.  It is not a ‘criminal couple on the run’ movie like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – which Loden regarded as phony and “idealised – full of beautiful things, beautiful colours, beautiful people”. But nor does Wanda play by any of the standard ‘indie’ templates of our time: it isn’t a quirky romance, a story of personal redemption or family reconciliation. We had to wait for certain later films by Chantal Akerman or Kelly Reichardt in order to get back to the profound, disturbing depths that Loden plumbed in her precious, unique gift to us.


Indeed, as Bérénice Reynaud summed it up: “Wanda explores the opaque, ambiguous territory of unspoken repression that has so often defined the condition of women”. Not to mention the condition of Wanda itself as an unseen and forgotten object. It’s time to fully reclaim and redeem this masterpiece.


2. Blu-ray review (2019)


It’s been a long time coming. After languishing in muddy prints and several equally drab-looking DVD editions, Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) has finally been restored to its best possible form and made available through Criterion – a stamp of cultural approval that ensures a far wider audience for this film than it has ever enjoyed before. (It also ensured a wacky and not particularly accurate disguised-homage to Wanda in the concluding “what happened later” flurry of the TV series The Deuce in 2019.)


This revival almost didn’t happen: chief restorer Ross Lipman of the UCLA Flm and Television Archive tells the sobering tale that, when the original materials were discovered (by chance) sitting in the corner of a closing-down laboratory in 2007, they were one day away from being tossed into the dumpster.


Film history is full of horror-stories-turned-into-miracles like that, but take extra note of the time lag involved here: after the first screenings in its renewed form in 2010, Wanda still had to wait another nine years for proper Blu-ray treatment. In the interim, all those fans who had come to love Wanda and agitated on its behalf in social media were receiving mixed signals: at least one US distributor commented that the market for a new release of Wanda on disc was too specialised and negligible to bother with. I hope that perception will be proven wrong now.


John Lee Hancock’s creditable Netflix feature The Highwaymen (2019) has been touted as a salutary “revisionist” take on the criminal outlaw myth promulgated by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But it does well to remember that Wanda was on that case almost 50 years previously (Loden detested Penn’s movie). Although it eventually evolves into the sad and shambling tale of the robbery misadventures of Wanda (immortally played by Loden herself) and her bossy companion, known as Mr Dennis (Michael Higgins in a splendid performance), the film doesn’t begin there. Early scenes chart the step-by-step unmooring of Wanda from all the usual support structures of social life: family, job, friends, money. Throughout most of it, Wanda stays strangely blank, alienated, and passive – although there is always something more bubbling under her surface.


Personally, I have come to regard Wanda as among the cinema’s greatest masterpieces; with Cristina Álvarez López I made an extensive audiovisual essay and wrote several texts about the film (including this one for the Spain-based, multilingual journal Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema) as a testament to that obsession. But I did not see it for the first time until the early 2000s. How could I – like so many critics, a professed champion of John Cassavetes, of independent cinema, of experimental women’s filmmaking, and the like – have managed to miss this milestone?


My own cinephilia coincided with the rising wave of feminist film and theory in the 1970s – but, in that period when Chantal Akerman, Vera Chytilová, or the women of the New German cinema were rightly extolled, Loden’s name was (in my experience) never mentioned, and was scarcely to be found in any of the canonical books or articles. Even the 1980s-style, proudly transgressive “post-feminism” — that dragged less fashionable surrealist and/or punk figures such as Kira Muratova or Nelly Kaplan into the spotlight — missed out on Loden.


However, this was a problem not merely of prevailing zeitgeists in film taste or cultural/intellectual fashion; there was also a material reason for the overlooking of Wanda. It wasn’t easy, back then, to even get hold of the film in order to see it, and the two shorts Loden subsequently made were even less attainable. Virtually disappearing from screens both as director and actor, Loden became cherished, in her too-brief lifetime, only by the relatively small circle of students to whom she taught acting – a phase of her life and work invaluably documented in the hour-long documentary by Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler, I Am Wanda (1991), included on the Blu-ray.


The critical rediscovery of Loden’s sole feature has also been a slow process that constitutes an intriguing history in itself – although the supplementary documents furnished on the Criterion disc exhibit little interest in this history. (To be fair, and in line with the company’s recent practice, there is further, somewhat more comprehensive material to be found online on the Criterion website, including Lipman’s account of the restoration process.)


Although there were scattered appreciations of the film in the early 1970s, Wanda had to wait a full 25 years until the Austrian Film Museum published the first version of a book edited by the enterprising curator-critic Alexander Horwath in 1995, entitled The Last Great American Picture Show (an expanded edition from Amsterdam University Press followed in 2004). Bérénice Reynaud’s brilliant contribution to that project, “For Wanda”, not only revealed her groundbreaking research into the film’s production (with special input from its cinematographer-editor, Nicholas Proferes), but also proposed an analysis (in part drawing upon ideas from Lacanian psychoanalysis) that has stood, for a long time, as the most insightful and probing account available. (Postscript: As of early 2022, there is one new book – Still Life: Notes on Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) by Anna Backman Rogers from punctum – and another forthcoming from Elena Gorfinkel in the BFI Classics series.)


Reynaud’s text wields a dramatic wallop because it is, in the strongest possible sense, redemptive. It not only reclaims what was then a lost, forgotten film for our attention, but also shines a fiercely lucid and critical light on the many factors – cultural, historical, political, psychological – that have conspired to keep it hidden in the shadows. (Loden’s husband, Elia Kazan, although he did his bit to promote Wanda after his wife’s death from cancer in 1980, does not come off at all well in this analysis.) For Reynaud, the story told within the film – the story of the gradual but deathly repression of a woman, and the crushing of her spirit – came to be tragically mirrored by the fate (and treatment) of the film itself.


“For Wanda”, even in a shortened form, has not been reused by Criterion. What we get instead is an excellent new text by Amy Taubin. It is bereft of any bibliographic reference to key essays (by Reynaud, Gorfinkel, Sophie Charlin or Dirk Lauwaert) beyond an allusive nod to the “seldom dismissive” reactions in recent years, but it mentions both Marguerite Duras’ enthusiasm for Wanda (anthologised in her 1980 book Green Eyes), and Nathalie Léger’s recent, acclaimed “creative biography”, Suite for Barbara Loden (another redemptive literary gesture). This tends to fit the non-academic editorial approach generally taken (a little too defensively and over-cautiously, in my view) by Criterion.


Taubin, however, enjoys a special privilege among the current crop of critics, including most Wanda fans: as a New Yorker plugged into both the best and worst of the city´s cultural scene, not only did she see (and immediately like) the film in 1972 at the First International Festival of Women’s Films; eight years earlier, she had even witnessed Loden (basically playing Marilyn Monroe) on the Lincoln Center stage in the Kazan-directed and Arthur Miller-written After the Fall (Susan Sontag wrote about the same production in her classic collection Against Interpretation) – a performance which, Taubin assures us, she read “against the grain”, as a “heartbreaking” record of Loden’s “struggle to break free of the prurience and condescension with which Miller and Kazan treated the character.”


The other extras provided by Criterion include an interesting audio recording of Loden addressing students at the American Film Institute in 1971, and a not-terribly-informative TV clip (also from 1971) of her being interviewed by Dick Cavett, who is an irritating mix of sophistication and smug jokiness.


Just as Gérard Depardieu had spearheaded the re-issue of Cassavetes’ movies in France in the early 1990s, Isabelle Huppert took up the cause of Wanda for its 2003 theatrical and DVD release by MK2. Alas, none of the extras assembled then – including an even zanier Dick Cavett segment also featuring John Lennon & Yoko Ono, and the original audio of Michel Ciment´s in-depth 1970s interview with Loden for Positif – are recycled or adapted by Criterion.


Of the two “educational” shorts that Loden made in 1975 on very low budgets for the Learning Corp. of America, The Frontier Experience (1975) appears here (why not also The Boy Who Liked Deer?). The Frontier Experience has its staunch defenders, but I find it an oddly minimalistic and fragmented piece – so severe and elliptical that it resembles, at moments, a Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet film! Whatever its points of undoubted interest as a kind of feminist Western (it anticipates, for instance, aspects of Kelly Reichardt’s work), it feels like the mere sketch for a much bigger project of which Loden may have dreamed. Criterion offers no background or discussion on it, alas.


In at least one regard, the waiting period leading up to this release of Wanda has been beneficial: its staggered technical restoration went through both photochemical (i.e., analogue) and digital phases. In his notes on the restoration process, Lipman ponders the eternal question which has to be faced anew for every such project: is the “cleaning up” of a film’s image and audio tracks, particularly in the realms of independent and experimental cinema, tantamount to transforming it into something “slick” that it never was to begin with – and hence betraying it? Wanda is familiar to its devotees in all its muddiness and scratchy, sometimes muffled sound. Its famous, unforgettable final shot – Wanda in the grainy darkness of a bar, drinking, locked inside herself, already almost immobile but then further stilled in a freeze-frame – existed at the very edge of legibility, as if both Wanda the character and Wanda the film were, yet again, on the verge of disappearing forever.


All the material poignancy and expressiveness of Wanda’s low-budget, independent production is still evident in the restoration; however, the colours are certainly better, the image’s definition is much sharper, and the sound is far less fogged. Moreover, this is exactly how Loden intended it to be, judging from the disappointed comments she made in interviews from the 1970s about the degraded quality of prints circulating at the time.


At last, the public redemption of Wanda has a chance of really happening. Will it bust into the Sight and Sound canon poll of 2022, I wonder?

© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, March-April 2016 / January 2019 / March 2019 (plus updates)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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