Lost Objects: Barbara Loden’s Wanda
While there’s only one film to lean on, the legacy of filmmaker and actor Barbara Loden still feels unrivalled. From her erring performance in Wanda to the troublesome creative dynamic with her then-husband Elia Kazan, Katie Da Cunha Lewin looks back on what was lost and what remains of such talent.
The final scene of actor, writer and director Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda sees the titular character in the midst of a noisy crowd, being offered beer, cigarettes and hot dogs by the people around her. A live band is playing, and as they get louder, Wanda quietly drinks, smokes, eats and looks into the middle distance. A woman nearby looks at her quizzically whilst she offers her more smokes, more beer, seemingly waiting for some kind of response. But Wanda never says a word. The film finishes on her profound silence in a close-up of her face, serious and forlorn.
Wanda is a troubling and troublesome film, transfixing and deeply affecting its audience. It has long been a source of inspiration for many writers: Marguerite Duras notes that there is ‘a miracle in Wanda’ and sought at one point to distribute the film herself; in 2012, Nathalie Léger started out writing an encyclopedia entry on the film, which soon became a book-length ode to Wanda’s strangeness, its production history and Loden herself. There is a kind of mythology around the film now, partially because it is the only film that Loden ever directed, and because of her tragic early death of breast cancer at the age of 48. Though Loden had plans to direct other works, and had written copiously, between Wanda and her death she never made another film. Wanda remains singular because there is nothing to compare it to: there is not a uniform ‘Loden’ style.
Though this does not erase the power of the film, Loden cannot be created into an ‘auteur’, a term that gained traction during the 1970s and was applied to those big directors of New Hollywood, by critics who ossified the discourse of cinema. Loden didn’t evidence her mastery in this way, but her quieter artistry is just as deserving of attention. Shot on 16mm, with only a tiny crew, much of Wanda was improvised. The film is shot in a loose documentary style, and the meandering of the plot furthers this impression. Wanda is from a small coal-town in Pennsylvania, and has recently left her husband and children. They attend a court to divorce, and now free of her family, Wanda wanders. She mooches aimlessly through the town, drinking, hooking up with a man she meets in a bar and falling asleep in a movie theatre. When she meets Mr Dennis in the midst of a hold-up, the two informally take up together, steal a car and drive across the motorway. Mr Dennis is aggressive, rude, and suffers from debilitating headaches (which seems to be from the repressed guilt he feels about his crime-spree) and he and Wanda have uneasy and at times unpleasant relationship. Nevertheless, Wanda acquiesces to take part in his plan to rob a bank, but when it fails, she is alone once more.
The film is generically difficult, and like Wanda herself, difficult to pin down. The plot may sound like a riff on 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, but Loden’s film was well into production by the time of that film’s release, and, as Loden described, ‘Wanda is the anti-Bonnie and Clyde’. The film won the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film at the 31st Venice International Film Festival and was a critical hit, though coverage of the film was fairly minimal, probably due to its very spare theatrical release. It has become more obscure in recent decades, and this seems partially down to the work of Loden’s husband Elia Kazan, whose autobiography A Life, published in 1988, eight years after her death, seems to have gently chipped away Loden’s creative agency: Kazan makes several suggestions about his deceased wife, but most notably that he had a larger hand in making the film than it would appear or the credits would indicate. Though it is difficult to refute this idea directly, it seems to be rather bad faith on the part of Kazan to have taken ownership over the work of his ex-wife – and deeply sad that we do not have Loden to counter his claims.
But there is still the film itself, and Loden’s artistry is not just limited to her direction and writing, but extends to her portrayal of the character, who is our anchor in the rough sea of this strange film. Loden’s performance is truly staggering: Wanda often seems dazed, out of it, as if seeing everything through a fog. Her blonde hair sits messily on her head, her high ponytail falling either side of face, creating a kind of a screen between herself and the world. Wanda makes a brave leap by giving up her family and rejecting the role of the housewife, but it is difficult to truly understand what she wants. In a review from the time, The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael writes (in her characteristically acerbic mode) that Wanda is ‘so dumb we can’t tell what has made her miserable…. She’s an attractive girl but such a sad, ignorant slut that there’s nowhere for her and the picture to go but down’ and, later, that ‘Wanda’s small voice, her helplessness—are too minor and muted for a full-length film’.
But this judgement of Wanda seems to suggest precisely the opposite of what the film is asking; instead Loden presents Wanda as an enigmatically undesirous person, caught in a world in which to desire is to be. At one point Mr Dennis tells her, ‘if you don’t have anything you’re nothing, you might as well be dead’ to which Wanda responds, ‘well I guess I’m dead then’. This seems to be a rejoinder to a culture based on accumulation. What does it mean to own something? In owning something, does it not mean you are also owned? Throughout the film, Wanda sheds her possessions. She loses her curlers, the contents of her handbag and wallet, her old clothes, and lipstick. At one point, as she sits in a car along with Mr Dennis, he throws her newly purchased trousers and make up out of the window. Though it is another moment in which the rage-filled Dennis attempts to control Wanda, she calmly accepts the loss of her objects: she does not and cannot hold on to anything. Wanda carries no weight.
In much the same way, Wanda also cannot find a position she can occupy: at the beginning of the film, she has decided not to be a housewife or mother anymore. Later she talks of her decision to Mr Dennis, saying that her children will be ‘much better off’ with her ex-husband. This ex is unnervingly upbeat at the court case, when he announces with no affect that he is going to marry the woman who is ‘helping’ him look after the kids in Wanda’s stead. In this, Loden captures something of Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965), in the depiction of a world in which one woman can be easily replace another. However, by no means is Wanda announcing its central ideas or wearing its feminism overtly, and throughout Loden handles her character delicately. As film critic Bérénice Reynaud notes, ‘Loden wanted to suggest, from the vantage point of her own experience, what it means to be a damaged, alienated woman – not to fashion a “new woman” or a “positive heroine”’. This is key, in that Loden makes no claim for an ethics of wandering, or of a radical passivity, but that for Wanda, in attempting to let go or shed constraints, she finds an uneasy apathy that renounces the necessity of desire.
There is a kind of generosity in Loden’s filmmaking, mostly shown by her portrayal of the central character and her avoidance of making Wanda in any way representative: as writer Don DeLillo puts it, Wanda ‘is bare and unmediated, looking directly at a woman without studying her as a specimen of forlorn dysfunction.’ In the same way that Wanda asks nothing from life, the film asks nothing from Wanda.
Katie Da Cunha Lewin (@kblergg) is a writer and tutor based in London. She has a PhD in literature and is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, The London Magazine and Los Angeles Review of Books among others. She has taught literature, film and theory at a variety of institutions.