With her first and only feature film—a hard-luck drama she wrote, directed, and starred in—Barbara Loden turned in a groundbreaking work of American independent cinema, bringing to life a kind of character seldom seen on-screen. Set amid a soot-choked Pennsylvania landscape, and shot in an intensely intimate vérité style, the film takes up with distant and soft-spoken Wanda (Loden), who has left her husband, lost custody of her children, and now finds herself alone, drifting between dingy bars and motels, where she falls prey to a series of callous men—including a bank robber who ropes her into his next criminal scheme. An until now difficult-to-see masterpiece that has nonetheless exerted an outsize influence on generations of artists and filmmakers, Wanda is a compassionate and wrenching portrait of a woman stranded on society’s margins.
Winner of the Critics Prize in Venice in 1970, Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) was, as the New York Times meekly puts it, “a critical hit but failed to create excitement at the box-office” (New York Times, September 6, 1980, 261).
Shot in cinema-verité style on grainy 16mm film stock, Wanda tells the story of the unlikely partnership between a coal-mining wife from Pennsylvania (played with sensitivity and brio by the filmmaker herself), dumped by her husband and the men she met while drifting, and a petty crook on the rebound (Michael Higgins), who convinces her to pull a major “bank job” with him. The film was released in one theatre in New York, Cinema II, and never shown in the rest of the country (Interview, Proferes). Ten years later, Wanda was “already forgotten in the United States,” but “much admired in Europe” (Kazan, 1988, 807). It was screened in the “Women and Film” event at the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival and in Deauville in 1980. Loden died of cancer on September 5, 1980, “the day [she was] booked to fly to Paris-Deauville. Her death was announced from the stage of the Festival” (Kazan, 1988, 809).
So there would not be another film by Barbara Loden. As in the case of Rimbaud, the tragic scandal was not only that a talented artist had died too young (Loden was 48) but that such a promising career had been reduced to silence. Yet, unlike that of the much-remembered poète maudit, Loden’s voice seemed doomed to historical erasure. Indeed Wanda was a “critical hit” – but only in the New York daily papers. At the time of its brief commercial release, Vincent Canby stressed “the absolute accuracy of its effects, the decency of its point of view and the kind of purity of technique that can only be the result of conscious discipline” (New York Times, March 21, 1971, Section II, 1). Roger Greenspun added: “It would be hard to imagine better or more tactful or more decently difficult work for a first film. I suppose it is significantly a woman’s film in that it never sensationalises or patronises its heroine, and yet finds her interesting” (New York Times, March 1, 1971, 22). This was followed by Marion Meade’s feature article on two films “written and directed by women who also play the leading roles,” Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1970) and Wanda. While praising this “remarkable development [that gives us] an unusual slant on the realities of women’s existence and feelings,” Meade seems uneasy about the “message” she reads in Wanda: “But now Barbara Loden arrives at the crux of the problem, which is, where do you go after you reject the only life society permits? And once a woman gains her freedom, what can she do with it? The answer: nowhere and nothing” (New York Times, April 25, 1971, Section II, 11).
The process of historical erasure may have started then. The meeting between Wanda and “serious” criticism did not happen, at least not in the United States (1). The Critical Index has a single entry on Wanda: an interview with Loden published in the now-defunct Film Journal in the summer of 1971 (Melton, 10-15). In From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell mentions Loden briefly, including her in lists of “American women known to have directed films” and of “remarkable women’s performances.” Opposing “the less complaint zombiism of Barbara Loden in Wanda” to the “zombie-like beauty of Dominique Sanda or Candice Bergen” (Haskell, 18), Haskell adds: “Then comes Barbara Loden’s Wanda to tell us that country bumpkins are no better off than city slickers… [and] just as susceptible of anomie as the big-city heroines” (Haskell, 366). And when the editors of a feminist anthology invited Andrew Sarris to write a correction to his contemptuous treatment of women in The American Cinema (Sarris, 1968) (2), he only mentioned Loden once (Kay and Peary, 385).
This was followed by 20-odd years of silence, sometimes broken by Raymond Carney, who, in his two books on John Cassavetes (Carney, 1985 and Carney, 1994), mentions Loden as a director working along similar lines – “exploring realities available to him or her” (Carney, 1994, 146-7). Like Cassavetes or Robert Kramer, she was more appreciated in Europe than in the US, which Carney attributes to “the American critical tradition… [taking] for granted that art is essentially a Faustian enterprise – a display of power, control and understanding” (Carney, 1994, 271).
As Hollywood was changing during the ’70s and B-grade movies were virtually disappearing, ‘non-virtuosic cinema,’ or cinema of imperfection, was somehow pushed to the margins, and, while mainstream cinema continued to explore the undersides of the American experience, its approach also changed: it became slicker, and its conception of the outsider evolved from dark pulp fiction to candy-coloured pop culture. While film noirs of the ’30s and ’40s had produced a most alienated kind of urban outsider, the ‘new Hollywood,’ from the late ’60s on, set to glamorise the outsider or sensationalise violence. The stage was set by Arthur Penn’s 1967 version of the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow story (3), resplendent with box-office stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (4). So, when Wanda was released, Loden had to contend with comparisons with the film. For Canby, Wanda “has shared something approximating an adventure with a petty crook, Mr Dennis, who has tried, without success, to transform her into a Bonnie for his Clyde.” Ruby Melton’s first question to Loden was if Penn’s film had influenced her. “I wrote the script about ten years before Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde,” replied Loden. “I didn’t care for [it] because it was unrealistic and it glamorised the characters… 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” (Melton, 11).
So, in emphasising Wanda‘s “non-Faustian aesthetic” (Carney, 1994, 307, Note 220), in praising it as a “neglected small masterpiece” (Carney, 1985, 152), Carney stood alone. The eradication of Loden’s work in film history is such that the most recent edition of Halliwell’s Film Guide does not have a “Wanda” entry, even though the film is occasionally aired on cable channels such as the now-defunct Channel Z, Bravo or The Independent Channel (5). Even the feminist Women in Film: An International Guide mentions the film only when describing the Amsterdam-based distribution company Cinemien: “With other 350 titles currently in distribution… Cinemien’s work in feminist distribution… is unparalleled… About 10 percent of the collection is distributed nowhere else in the world – often not even in the films’ own countries of origin, [such as] Wanda” (Kuhn and Radstone, 82-83) (6). This neglect is all the more surprising that the main editor of the book, British feminist Annette Kuhn, wrote extensively about “the new women’s cinema” of the ’70s, in which “the central characters are women, and often women who are not attractive and glamorous in the conventional sense. Narratives, moreover, are frequently organised around the process of a woman’s self-discovery and growing independence” (Kuhn, 135). The films she praises are, in Hollywood, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1977) and Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977), and, in experimental cinema, Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers (1972), Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite (1978) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 32 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) – films that “hold out the possibility of a ‘feminine language’ for cinema” (Kuhn, 174-5). While Wanda has been ignored by every major text of feminist film theory published in English over the last 20 years, Akerman, Potter and Rainer have become household names. Granted, Akerman is a more assured filmmaker than Loden, but the alienation of her Belgium housewife-cum-hooker may be read as the reverse of that of Loden’s Pennsylvania housewife-turned-drifter: one was too good at keeping house, the other not good enough. The “market value” of both women depended on how good housewives they were, and how they could please men. Both found the equation unbearable, and devised various strategies to ward off their anxiety. One locked herself in her apartment and her routine, making sure there wouldn’t be any speck of dust on her table nor any hole in her schedule; the other started to drift in the sea of her own insignificance, clinging to unworthy men as a way to avoid drowning. Both showed unexpected moments of resilience, hidden reserves of strength that failed to save them, because the dices were loaded. Yet, there is a major, poignant difference between the two films, one that may explain why Jeanne became a feminist heroine par défaut and Wanda easily forgotten. In Akerman’s film, men are peripheral; they are mouths to be fed, cocks to be satisfied, but the film hints at the possibility of a utopian space structured by women’s desires, stories, needs and anxieties. Jeanne would never address any of her tricks as “Mister” and Akerman didn’t make her film under the terrifying gaze of one of Hollywood’s sacred monsters. In Wanda‘s narrative space, however, men cast a giant shadow.
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