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A Landmark Of Indie Film, 'Wanda' Creates Space For Empathy

Barbara Loden in "Wanda." (Courtesy Janus Films)MoreCloseclosemore
Barbara Loden in "Wanda." (Courtesy Janus Films)

The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s restoration of Barbara Loden’s seldom-screened 1970 masterpiece “Wanda” is one of the cinema events of the year. Showing all weekend at the Brattle Theatre, this uncompromising landmark of independent film has long been one of my personal holy grails — a “lost movie” frequently mentioned in hushed, reverent tones by filmmakers worth admiring, but nearly impossible to locate via legal means in our current quagmire of convoluted streaming rights and the collapse of physical media. This little-seen film’s reputation has grown so outsized among young directors in recent years it calls to mind that Brian Eno joke about how the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records but everyone who bought one started a band.

To watch “Wanda” today is to be knocked over anew by the film’s unsettled emotional terrain, which slips and shifts beneath your feet from scene to scene. Writer-director Loden stars as the title character, a depressed housewife in Pennsylvania coal country who abandons her family and drifts from one perilous situation to another in a depressive funk. Wanda shows up late for divorce court, smoking a cigarette with rollers in her hair. She’s often seen from a far distance, trudging along on foot as a tiny speck amid the gargantuan, ruined industrial landscapes.

Loden doesn’t ask us to root for Wanda, nor even to like the character very much. We just bear witness to reckless decisions and her mysterious drive toward oblivion, presumably borne out of an internalized self-loathing in a world that doesn’t have much use for a woman who doesn’t want to be a wife and mother.

Barbara Loden in "Wanda." (Courtesy Janus Films)
Barbara Loden in "Wanda." (Courtesy Janus Films)

It’s worth noting that in the very same year Bob Rafelson’s great “Five Easy Pieces” cemented Jack Nicholson’s stardom as a piano prodigy chasing self-destructive urges in a similar blue collar limbo. The two films speak to each other in interesting ways, Smilin’ Jack’s oft-imitated macho bluster answered here by Loden’s shrinking further into herself. Both characters desperately want to vanish, but of course the guy’s gonna be a lot louder about it.

The middle section of “Wanda” finds Loden’s wandering waif shacking up with a small time crook who likes to be called Mr. Dennis, even in bed. Played with uptight authoritarianism by Michael Higgins, he’s a peculiar Clyde to her Woolworth’s Bonnie and the cockeyed dynamics of their odd and and abusive relationship play out across a mini-crime spree that provides a pulpy interruption to the movie’s otherwise interior march. Loden shoots a bank robbery from angles I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a movie before, to brilliantly destabilizing effect.

Michael Higgins and Barbara Loden in "Wanda." (Courtesy Janus Films)
Michael Higgins and Barbara Loden in "Wanda." (Courtesy Janus Films)

A Tony-winning actress married to the brilliant director and terrible human being Elia Kazan, Barbara Loden grew up dirt poor in Appalachia until she ran away to New York City and became a showgirl at the Copacabana. “Wanda” was the first and only film she made. Shot on a shoestring with a crew of four and a cast of mostly first-time actors, the film’s shaky 16 mm photography on grainy reversal stock serves as a pointed rebuke to glossy studio productions of the era. Loden was working in the same rough-edged vein as indie pioneer John Cassavetes, who had just self-distributed his electrifying “Faces” two years before, and the backers of this film attempted a similar upstart release strategy.

“Wanda” won the International Critics' Prize at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, reportedly much to the consternation of Loden’s awful husband, who after her death in 1980 obnoxiously claimed that he wrote the film himself “to give her something to do.” (One cannot watch the movie without wondering how much of Mr. Dennis was inspired by Mr. Kazan.) Perhaps predictably, “Wanda” was rapturously received in Europe and rudely dismissed on these shores. The great French novelist Marguerite Duras called the movie “a miracle,” while New York critic Rex Reed complained that it was about “an ignorant slut.”

But then old “Sexy Rexy” could always be counted on to miss the point entirely. Of course Wanda is an exasperating character who makes terrible choices. She’s the kind of person you see all the time in real life but never at the movies. Loden isn’t asking that you admire the character or applaud her decisions. “Wanda” just wants you to acknowledge that she exists. Spend a little time in this person’s company and maybe even leave the theater with a feeling for what she’s going through. That’s what art’s for.


"Wanda" is screening at the Brattle Theatre from Friday, Oct. 26 through Sunday, Oct. 28. 

Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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