by Patrick Preziosi
Art can be inherently political, but demanding didactic manifestations of intent and closed-circuit endpoints is anything but–– the most piercingly conscious works eschew such politeness in favor of a palpable atmosphere of unknowing. If things are really so in need of fixing, why lay out a film’s thematic arc so easily?
Of course, audiences and critics have demanded otherwise, and still do frequently. Unfair reputations plague projects for their willingness to wander, to operate within an ostensibly political realm, albeit one that may be more inscrutable upon first blush. Tidiness in ideas can get wrongly intertwined with tidiness in form. It’s why some of the most cogent documentaries are the most free-flowing, and even sprawling, and why some of the most prescient narrative films follow a more mutable ebb and flow.
Barbara Loden’s sole film, the 1970 masterpiece Wanda, thankfully isn’t in possession of such a discernable governing force, but it’s extratextual scaffolding is one of womanly solace and identification. Inspiration for the project came from a New York Daily News piece from 1960, which detailed the peculiar though devastating life of Alma Malone, a woman from the deep south, who in being an accomplice in her partner’s botched bank robbery, was given 22 years in prison. She thanked the sentencing judge, as jail was a guarantee for a bed and meals, everyday.
In this story, Loden saw her own roots, and a potential future for herself had art and her burgeoning acting and screenwriting career not interceded. It’s a strong, sobering realization, the kind that undergirds a film with necessarily equal amounts of sympathy, subjective experience, and all around understanding of the strictures class and gender norms impose on those less fortunate. The resulting Wanda is no screed, but a clear-eyed interrogation of circumstance, subsumed in the awkward, loping rhythms of a woman’s own state of confusion in what to do next, in how to act, in who to associate with, all to ensure the simple, fundamental desires Malone herself outlined: something to eat and a place to lay your head. Loden herself then in the titular role seals the film’s expert straddling of its autobiographical/fictional dichotomy.
Wanda’s beginning and ending never give the impression of an enclosed narrative-cycle; rather, the film itself feels like documented blip on a timeline that exists beyond when the camera stops rolling. It moves linearly from “A to B” unfussily, but in its deeply ingrained open-endedness, an introduction and conclusion become moot points. Wanda is chock full of these scintillating omissions, to the point where context and establishing points are left by the wayside, and Wanda herself is our sole anchor. This bravery, in hinging an entire film on a particularly unremarkable woman with no job, and who’s just been divorced and lost custody of her children, was initially misunderstood as laziness. The ire of critics upon its release however was still unforgivably venomous; Pauline Kael even called the character Wanda herself a “sad, ignorant slut.” Given Loden’s own identification with the source material, this stinging barb feels like it was hurled at the director herself.
The character Wanda herself is sad, but she’s not ignorant (and no slut, either), as in the coal-country milieu the film resides in, there’s really not that much to be ignorant about. Though Wanda is our centering focus, she isn’t one to blot out the other denizens of the different townships she moves through, all of whom are simply and similarly trying to scrounge for money, and maybe enjoy a hamburger and beer. Kael’s comment implies that Wanda should’ve been looking for something more, but there’s really not the promise of much else in the world of the film.
Because Loden doesn’t come crashing out the gate –– as she similarly never brings things crashing down –– there’s the subtle suggestion that there are stories similar to Wanda’s occuring parallel. Things even whirl to life with a casual sleight-of-hand, as a collection of establishing shots move us within a standalone, dilapidated house, featuring a grandmother on the porch, some crying children, and a harried looking mother being chewed out by blink-and-you’ll-miss-him gruff husband. There’s a brief sensation of wondering if this woman could be Wanda, but instead, the husband’s frustration gives away that Wanda herself has been sleeping on the couch, and he wants her out. From the jump, the women of this specific social sphere are hemmed in and tossed about, just as will happen to Wanda throughout the rest of the film. Loden’s ‘that could’ve been me’ moment extends to ‘that could’ve been anyone’, really.
From there on out, much of Wanda plays as coincidences dictated by circumstance; the film never feels to be playing along the lines of a preconceived storyline, contributing greatly to its all around verité feel, shot evocatively on 16 mm (then blown up to 35) by Nicholas T. Proferes. When the seedlings of a more audience-friendly ‘plot’ do materialize, their bleakly humorous machinations (featuring the abusive and ultimately inept petty criminal, Mr. Dennis, played by Michael Higgins) are never jarring, still retaining that brilliant, organic feel. Loden’s ultimately laconic approach to chronology is what makes the appearance of Mr. Dennis — introduced in the process of clumsily robbing the bar where Wanda was drinking earlier in the day, and has now returned to — play as totally expected, even when entirely surprising.
Wanda then becomes something of Mr. Dennis’ accomplice through their few days spent together. He repeatedly berates her (in his presence, “no slacks!”; dresses and other feminine clothing only), briefly passes her off as his wife to his father, but all in all, uses her for a wildly impractical heist scheme involving hostage-taking and some fake dynamite. As is to be expected, Mr. Dennis is killed whilst trying to pull the whole thing off, and in the now-iconic shot of Wanda (that’s been used as promotional material for the restoration and subsequent Criterion Collection release), Proferes camera falls on Wanda’s face of suggestive blankness among the crowd of onlookers who’ve gathered outside the bank Mr. Dennis has just been shot in. It feels like it could be the final frame, as Wanda’s relationship with Mr. Dennis has governed a large part of the film’s forward-motion; instead, there’s still about ten minutes of material left.
In keeping with the overall fluidity of the film, Loden cuts to a newscast retelling of the event off of a television in a sparsely attended, daytime bar (not unlike the dive Wanda first encounters Mr. Dennis in). Wanda is smoking a cigarette, head in her hands, while opposite her, some guy who looks no older than 30, outfitted in military garb, assures her, “you don’t have to say nothin’”. Say nothing she does, as the pair are next seen in his sanguine convertible, driving out to some depopulated quarry. As soon as he forces himself on Wanda, however, she resists, carrying herself with the least submissiveness we’ve seen in the film, and she subsequently escapes into the nearby woods, where she breaks down and cries for a devastating few seconds; here, she’s the most emotive we’ve seen her.
Here is where it seems like Loden has reached the end of her film, as she’s settled on an image so perfect, what with the light cutting through the trees, dancing over her body, wracked with sobs. But once again, the camera keeps rolling, and Wanda is now at some nighttime dive, standing unsuredly outside. She’s effectively stranded, even more unmoored than she was in the film’s beginning, and even as she’s compassionately ushered inside by another woman, she’s still adrift. The bar band plays on, the hotdogs and beers come, the men continue to impose themselves on her, and she doesn’t say a word, all before Loden cuts abruptly to a freeze-frame of such disquieting resignation. Loden, twice over, forgoes conventionally perfect endings that could have at least catered to critics’ straightforward demands of narratives tied with a finishing bow, in that they can superficially play as moments of overdue realization of mistakes past.
Opting for unreadability on the part of Loden’s protagonist though is what makes Wanda all the more penetrating, and prescient too. Multiple avenues are wandered down, as the trifurcated closing passage suggests a stomach-churning variation on a choose-your-adventure story, albeit all with the same result: perpetually adrift. An absence of both solutions and punishments, this is how Wanda furnishes its remarkable presentation of social empathy, and the enervated Wanda captured blurrily at the close may just be one of cinema’s richest symbolic figures.