by Allan Fish
(USA 1970 105m) DVD1
p Harry Shushter d/w Barbara Loden ph/ed Nicholas T.Proferes
Barbara Loden (Wanda Baranski), Michael Higgins (Mr Dennis), Dorothy Shupenes (Wanda’s mother), Peter Shupenes (brother-in-law), Jerome Their (Mr Baranski), Charles Dosinan (Father), Marian Thier (Miss Godek), Anthony Rotell (Tony), Joe Dennis (Joe), Frank Jourdano, M.L.Kennedy,
In the ‘Halliwell’s Who’s Who in the Movies’, Barbara Loden receives this typically succinct entry; “American general-purpose actress. She was married to director Elia Kazan.” She appeared in small roles in two of his films – Wild River and Splendor in the Grass – before turning thirty and made just one other contribution to the cinema, this one stand alone film as writer, director and star. Suffice it to say it joins the ranks of the great movie debuts, the select list of cinematic masterpieces directed by women and as one of the great films of an almost foetal American independent cinema.
Wanda is a thirty-something loser who, in the words of her husband, is a “lousy wife, always bumming around drinking…” She allows him his divorce, turning up to court late, in curlers and holding a fag. Left to her own devices, she goes into a movie theatre to watch a Spanish language pot-boiler, only for her wallet to be stolen while she slept. She then pops in a nearby bar and asks to use the bathroom, not realising she is interrupting a robbery performed by an incompetent middle aged petty thief. She hooks up with him, following him like a lapdog and putting up with his petty abuses – including a memorable confrontation about onions in a burger – and watching naively as he tries to commit petty larcenies on anything from grocer’s stores to hotwiring cars. That is until he gets delusions of his own mediocrity and plans to rob the Third National Bank using Wanda as the getaway driver.
Wanda is never an easy film to watch, nor does it intend or wish to be. It has a faintly improvisatory quality that recalls Andy Warhol and Mike Leigh, while its urban desolation and utter absence of hope make it equally a kindred spirit to the work of Ken Loach. David Thomson was quite right when he observed that it was “full of unexpected moments and raw atmosphere, never settling for cliché in situation or character”, but there is more here than that. More even than the gentle pun Thomson also intimated, she rather represents all the lost souls of America, human tumbleweed caught up in a momentum it can neither explain nor control. She’s naïve, honest, and frankly, utterly imbecilic. In one sequence her lover decides to steal a car, tries several before finally getting into one, and even as he’s looking at the stuff inside and getting ready to drive off, she unbelievably still asks him, with absolute seriousness, “whatchya doin?” Even at the very end, when she acts as the getaway driver, she gets caught in a traffic jam and has to ask a cop the way to the bank. And her partner is little better, his life consisting of larceny, popping his pills and pouring Jack Daniels down his throat by the bottle.
Most astonishing, however, is Loden’s visual command. For a debutante, her camera craft is astonishing, especially considering the fact that it was originally shot on 16mm. Much has been said about the final, desolate image of Wanda sitting, smoking her cigarette in a bar not even knowing where she is, totally oblivious to the world and its cruelties, but equally impressive is a long shot of her walking between the slag heaps near her home, her movement and location a perfect analogy for her state of mind, her predicament and her self-esteem. To this add a sublime use of colour; the whole film has a thin veneer of colour-coding, high on the turquoise greens similar to those of the old Two Tone Technicolor days of the early thirties, while she is also not afraid to let her images speak for themselves. The camera isn’t fussy, and the often inertia she captures perfectly mirror her protagonist’s soul. Wanda isn’t a flawless film, but that very roughness around the edges is part of what makes it such a chastening experience, and its heroine full of what Time Out’s David Pirie called a “soggy and directionless amorality.”