Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wanda













WANDA         A-
USA  (102 mi)  1970  d:  Barbara Loden 

She’s trapped and she will never, ever get out of it, and there are millions like her. 
—Barbara Loden in an interview with The New York Times

If you don't want anything you won't have anything, and if you don't have anything, you're nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.      
—Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins)               

Released 6-months after Five Easy Pieces (1970), this film flew completely under the radar, as it didn’t and still doesn’t have the same kind of financing, made for a fraction of the budget, without featuring any big name stars, and told in a much more cinematically austere manner.  In fact, this style of film is reverentially slow and ultimately joyless, completely differentiated from what mainstream audiences will ever see, as you’ll have to look to find this one playing in art houses.  The film does seem to have something of a revival after forty years, where filmmaker John Waters included it in his annual selection for the 2012 Maryland Film Festival taking place in Baltimore.  It’s a scathingly lonesome piece of filmmaking written and directed by Barbara Loden, who also stars in the film. While she’s the wife of Elia Kazan, who began as the scantily clad sidekick on The Ernie Kovacs Show who got a pie in her face and was sawed in half, then starred as Warren Beatty’s promiscuous sister in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961), as well as a fictionalized version of Marilyn Monroe in Kazan's Broadway stage production of After the Fall (1964), written by Monroe’s former husband, Arthur Miller, actually winning the Tony Award for Best Actress, this is the only feature film she ever directed, making two short films several years later, but this is her own project all the way.  Shot on 16 mm and blown up on 35 mm, it’s a blisteringly real film with little to no background information that follows the exploits of Wanda Goronski, having deserted her husband and two children, sleeping instead on her sister’s couch right next to the immense grounds of a Pennsylvania coal mining plant.  These introductory shots of Wanda, all in white, walking across a coal-filled, black industrial landscape is reminiscent of Haskell Wexler following Verna Bloom, the lady in the yellow dress, through the huge crowds and various clashes of demonstrators with police in Medium Cool (1969).  Shot and edited by Nicholas T. Proferes in an innovative, cinéma vérité, slice of life style, this is a peculiarly bleak film, one of the very few American films directed by a woman to be theatrically released at the time, along with Allison Anders, Shirley Clarke, Elaine May, Joan Micklin, and documentarist Barbara Kopple.  

Winner of the Pasinetti Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, the film was critically recognized, but barely seen for decades, supposedly inspired by a story Loden read in the newspaper about a woman thanking a judge for sentencing her to twenty years in prison.  It’s an unflinching portrait of a woman with no ambition and low self-esteem, whose very character is personified by no personal drive whatsoever.  Early on, she’s late for a court appearance, showing up with curlers in her hair, seemingly indifferent about the court taking her two children away from her, where she indicates they’re better off with their father.  The rest of the film vindicates the wisdom of that decision, spending her time in bars getting picked up by people she knows nothing about and who definitely want to know nothing about her.  It’s as unflattering a portrait of a woman as you’ll find, yet the film is told in a tender and sympathetic manner, often with long takes, hand-held camerawork, minimal editing, and the gritty authenticity of location shooting, where Wanda barely speaks, but has no harmful intentions, yet she’s routinely taken advantage of, something she’s evidently used to.  After a series of pick ups, she happens to drift into a bar after closing, where the impatience of the bartender is revealed to be a stick up in progress, with the real bartender is tied up on the floor behind the bar.  Without realizing the circumstances, seeing it as just another pick up, she tags along with this guy, identified as Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), who brings her along in his car, which happens to be stolen.  His volatile temper and tyrannical behavior is a contrast to Wanda’s quiet ambivalence, where she’s barely aware of life outside the coal mines.  The film makes an abrupt turn and quickly veers into a road movie, where Wanda realizes the guy she’s hooked up with is a small-time crook, stealing from cars and robbing gas stations along the way.  While he continually berates her and orders her around, she behaves like she’s finally connected to somebody, like this could amount to something.       

The Wanda we see onscreen is the picture of oppression and powerlessness, hardly anyone’s idea of a hero, a quiet and mousy character who never raises her voice, who rarely speaks if not spoken to, and the kind of person who is largely ignored by society.  Coming from the coal belt, she’s uneducated, has no work skills, and is not in a position to change her life on her own.  When guys pick her up, they don’t want to talk to her, just have sex and be done with her afterwards, usually leaving her alone on the side of the road.  For the price of a few beers and maybe a cheap meal, that’s all she gets out of it, certainly not money or love.  Mr. Dennis whisking her out of town for God knows where is probably the biggest adventure in her life and she has no way of knowing how it will play out anymore than she knows where he’s taking her.  Apparently as they were shooting a scene in an open field where Dennis is laying low drinking whisky out of the bottle, some locals were flying their remote controlled model airplanes, where Loden quickly had to integrate the planes into the scene, adding a certain improvised poetry to the moment, as it’s the first suggested expression of freedom or flying away from all her troubles.  One of the more peculiar scenes is Mr. Dennis visiting his own father in a makeshift Tower of Babel, surrounded by Biblical expressions, where the public pays for guided tours through the underground catacombs.  The religious music that plays is rather stunning, as otherwise there’s only the use of natural sound.  The father realizes the path of his son is a road filled with sin and wants no part of him, while Wanda soon finds herself involved in a kidnapping scheme to rob a bank in Scranton.  While her instincts are clearly to have nothing to do with it, as morally she knows it’s wrong, she also doesn’t want Dennis to leave her, so she’ll help him if he needs her, the first spark of something she finally cares about.  As pathetic as it sounds, this is as close to a relationship as she’s likely ever had, even by a guy that robs banks, mentally and physically abuses her, and crudely orders her around.  This uncompromising portrait is not altogether sympathetic, as Wanda seemingly has no free will of her own, yet she’s caught up in a world beyond her control, hopelessly without any means to improve her condition, reminiscent of the exploits of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), a 13-year old child that is already craftier and more educated than Wanda will ever be.  The real heartbreak of this film is that in the half century since the Truffaut film, life hasn’t gotten any better for the Wanda’s in the world, where the freeze-frame at the end reveals how she remains frozen in time. 

Now considered a landmark in American independent filmmaking, what’s unique from this period is the scarcity of American films centered on a working class female character, especially one depicting such a grimy working class milieu.  While the film is a cyclical story of a drifter who leaves her family, has meaningless one-night stands, becomes the hostage of a petty crook, ultimately becoming his mistress and accomplice in crime, only to find herself alone and drifting again at the end, perhaps none the wiser.  Unlike Kerouac’s On the Road, for instance, a book where men took to the road as a means of liberation and transcendence from the dull factory jobs and boring routines of working class America in the postwar 40’s and 50’s, the price one had to pay for the American Dream, there is no joy or liberation whatsoever in Wanda’s dour journey.  Rather than feature the exuberance of the road adventure, Loden’s portrait couldn’t be more poignantly understated and relentlessly downbeat.  Designed to counteract the mythical Hollywood portrayal of a romantic outlaw couple on the run, as represented by the hugely successful Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this film undermines any hint of romanticism with a dull and unrelenting passivity from Wanda, a lead character that gets brutally slapped across the face, who has for years become numb to the surrounding world around her.  This unflinching look into an unseen lower stratum of American women who find themselves similarly drifting through life, aimless and alone, is all the more tragically powerful by being told in such an everyday, matter of fact manner.  At the end, standing alone outside a loud and boisterous bar, once again penniless and spiritually void, there’s a peculiar recognition of that sunken, crestfallen look that feels like a holdover from the Depression days, where another woman instinctively seems to understand and invites her inside.  This subtle gesture acknowledges a sisterly kinship for what it means to be alone, on the outside looking in.  According to Bérénice Reynaud For Wanda, from Senses of Cinema, October 2002, a regular contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma magazine since the mid-1980’s, “Wanda's historical importance [is that] Loden wanted to suggest, from the vantage point of her own experience, what it meant to be a damaged, alienated woman – not to fashion a ‘new woman’ or a positive heroine.”  

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