Wanda November 4, 2019
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
arbara Loden, best known today for being the wife and sometimes-collaborator of the generation-defining filmmaker Elia Kazan, wrote and directed just one feature-length movie herself. It was a masterpiece called Wanda. Released in 1970 to positive critical reception that's gotten more rapturous with time, it’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder what its maker's career might have looked like had she
Loden really hated what she once described as “slick pictures.” “They're too perfect to be believable,” she told the New York Times in 1971. “I don't mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music — everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” Wanda, unsurprisingly, evades slickness; it's about as pebbles-on-the-ground gritty as a film can get. It has been compared, in style and in tone, to the films of John Cassavetes, which all have a grimy, naturalist flair. To compare Wanda to Cassavetes’ work might make it seem like Loden is the lesser of the two, but with one film is it clear that she was as much of a master.
Wanda was shot on 16mm. It looks like a home movie. (How couldn’t it, with a budget of $100,000 and a crew comprising a mere four people?) It was mostly improvised, both in its dialogue and its narrative, on nearly a scene-by-scene basis. Its sound design is frequently bad, but only in a way that’s imitative of real life. You can't hear your listening companion very well if you're chatting outside on a windy day, now can you? Wanda's actors give performances imbued with such little detectable performativity that it’s as if we were taking in living, not performing.
With Wanda, Loden sought to make a movie, both stylistically and in story, that was reflective of a plight many Americans faced — specifically lower-class, socially and sexually repressed American women. There are millions just like the title character, Loden once said. “I tried not to explain things too much in the film, not to be too explicit, not to be too verbal,” she said in the same Times interview. “My subject matter is of people who are not too verbal and not aware of their condition.”
Loden is also the star of the film, and is in every scene as the eponymous protagonist. Wanda moves so vividly and seamlessly that you almost don’t notice it isn’t taking place in real time. It covers a particularly eventful few days in the life of the titular Wanda, who is an unsatisfied housewife living in an arid town in eastern Pennsylvania. She has left her husband and children as the feature opens (in one scene, she shows up late to the divorce hearing); she then wanders and wanders, then ends up briefly acting as the professional accomplice and romantic partner of a bank robber (Michael Higgins) who emotionally and physically abuses her. Once fate puts the kibosh on that, she continues to wander. The movie ends inconclusively.
Wanda ambles, but its aimlessness is magnetic. This is a film made with such convincing naturalism that it not only refashions the conventions of the character study but also the expectations of quote-unquote women’s pictures and lovers-on-the-run movies. Loden is miraculous in the title role. Wanda doesn’t know what she wants out of life, doesn’t know how to express herself, and is at a point where she figures that even if she’s in the midst of a dangerous and/or lose-lose situation it’s better than being a housewife or a factory worker, roles at which she’s dishearteningly failed. Loden makes Wanda’s uncertainty and might-as-well-try-this-because-I’ve-got-nothing-better-to-do worldview easily graspable. Loden's creation affects us so much because we can tell that she doesn’t know what to do with herself. A familiar feeling with which we can sympathize if not, for people who’ve had some experiences similar to Wanda’s, empathize.
Loden has a great eye and ear. She’s said that the character is loaded with autobiographical details (she made the film after suffering a period of comparable ennui). She, too, had once lived in a small nothing of a town; she knows what it’s like going on and on caring mostly about the day to day, sometimes forgetting to critically observe. Loden was also motivated by a newspaper article she read in which a small-town woman became involved with a bank robbery. While watching the film you can tell what Loden has experienced, how she’s digested it, and what’s probably been cinematized. Wanda is a composite — not just a reflection of Loden in some ways but also an amalgamation of people who’ve also reached their mid-30s, have seemingly done all they can professionally and personally, and started obsessively wondering to themselves, now what? Wanda is a portrait of a woman who tried to answer the latter question rather than sit and stew in a vat of domestic fatigue. You could say nothing really happens in the movie. But because there’s an all-inclusiveness in several of Wanda’s experiences, it feels like everything’s happened.
Wanda is the type of artistic statement so singular it could define a legacy — which is what it’s pretty much done for Loden. Aside from the film, the uttermost acclaim Loden got during her career came via After the Fall, the 1964 play written by Arthur Miller and directed by her husband. She won a Tony for her performance, which unfortunately can't be seen for oneself all these years later. Loden's film career is otherwise virtually entirely made up of movies helmed by Kazan, many of which saw her in minor roles one tends to forget. Loden made a couple of short features after her 1970 catharsis, but it's Wanda, so uncanny and idiosyncratic, which follows her most aside from her legendary relationship.
Wanda has continued resonating more with a cult audience than with a larger, pastime-seeking public. But what a thing to be remembered for. Loden died in 1980 from breast cancer, at the age of 48. I wonder how her life might have evolved had she not died so young, been afforded more opportunities to write and direct, not been as defined by her spouse as she was, not been billed as something of a female counterpart to John Cassavetes and instead been analyzed on her own terms. How would Loden's life and career have unfolded without so many constraints and disappointments? Wanda itself seems sparked by such a question. In a way, it explores it, then tries to conquer it. A