A small, forgotten masterpiece

Winner of the Critics Prize in Venice in 1970, Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) was, as the New York Times meekly puts it, “a critical hit but failed to create excitement at the box-office” (New York Times, September 6, 1980, 261).

Shot in cinema-verité style on grainy 16mm film stock, Wanda tells the story of the unlikely partnership between a coal-mining wife from Pennsylvania (played with sensitivity and brio by the filmmaker herself), dumped by her husband and the men she met while drifting, and a petty crook on the rebound (Michael Higgins), who convinces her to pull a major “bank job” with him. The film was released in one theatre in New York, Cinema II, and never shown in the rest of the country (Interview, Proferes). Ten years later, Wanda was “already forgotten in the United States,” but “much admired in Europe” (Kazan, 1988, 807). It was screened in the “Women and Film” event at the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival and in Deauville in 1980. Loden died of cancer on September 5, 1980, “the day [she was] booked to fly to Paris-Deauville. Her death was announced from the stage of the Festival” (Kazan, 1988, 809).

So there would not be another film by Barbara Loden. As in the case of Rimbaud, the tragic scandal was not only that a talented artist had died too young (Loden was 48) but that such a promising career had been reduced to silence. Yet, unlike that of the much-remembered poète maudit, Loden’s voice seemed doomed to historical erasure. Indeed Wanda was a “critical hit” – but only in the New York daily papers. At the time of its brief commercial release, Vincent Canby stressed “the absolute accuracy of its effects, the decency of its point of view and the kind of purity of technique that can only be the result of conscious discipline” (New York Times, March 21, 1971, Section II, 1). Roger Greenspun added: “It would be hard to imagine better or more tactful or more decently difficult work for a first film. I suppose it is significantly a woman’s film in that it never sensationalises or patronises its heroine, and yet finds her interesting” (New York Times, March 1, 1971, 22). This was followed by Marion Meade’s feature article on two films “written and directed by women who also play the leading roles,” Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1970) and Wanda. While praising this “remarkable development [that gives us] an unusual slant on the realities of women’s existence and feelings,” Meade seems uneasy about the “message” she reads in Wanda: “But now Barbara Loden arrives at the crux of the problem, which is, where do you go after you reject the only life society permits? And once a woman gains her freedom, what can she do with it? The answer: nowhere and nothing” (New York Times, April 25, 1971, Section II, 11).

The process of historical erasure may have started then. The meeting between Wanda and “serious” criticism did not happen, at least not in the United States (1). The Critical Index has a single entry on Wanda: an interview with Loden published in the now-defunct Film Journal in the summer of 1971 (Melton, 10-15). In From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell mentions Loden briefly, including her in lists of “American women known to have directed films” and of “remarkable women’s performances.” Opposing “the less complaint zombiism of Barbara Loden in Wanda” to the “zombie-like beauty of Dominique Sanda or Candice Bergen” (Haskell, 18), Haskell adds: “Then comes Barbara Loden’s Wanda to tell us that country bumpkins are no better off than city slickers… [and] just as susceptible of anomie as the big-city heroines” (Haskell, 366). And when the editors of a feminist anthology invited Andrew Sarris to write a correction to his contemptuous treatment of women in The American Cinema (Sarris, 1968) (2), he only mentioned Loden once (Kay and Peary, 385).

This was followed by 20-odd years of silence, sometimes broken by Raymond Carney, who, in his two books on John Cassavetes (Carney, 1985 and Carney, 1994), mentions Loden as a director working along similar lines – “exploring realities available to him or her” (Carney, 1994, 146-7). Like Cassavetes or Robert Kramer, she was more appreciated in Europe than in the US, which Carney attributes to “the American critical tradition… [taking] for granted that art is essentially a Faustian enterprise – a display of power, control and understanding” (Carney, 1994, 271).

As Hollywood was changing during the ’70s and B-grade movies were virtually disappearing, ‘non-virtuosic cinema,’ or cinema of imperfection, was somehow pushed to the margins, and, while mainstream cinema continued to explore the undersides of the American experience, its approach also changed: it became slicker, and its conception of the outsider evolved from dark pulp fiction to candy-coloured pop culture. While film noirs of the ’30s and ’40s had produced a most alienated kind of urban outsider, the ‘new Hollywood,’ from the late ’60s on, set to glamorise the outsider or sensationalise violence. The stage was set by Arthur Penn’s 1967 version of the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow story (3), resplendent with box-office stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (4). So, when Wanda was released, Loden had to contend with comparisons with the film. For Canby, Wanda “has shared something approximating an adventure with a petty crook, Mr Dennis, who has tried, without success, to transform her into a Bonnie for his Clyde.” Ruby Melton’s first question to Loden was if Penn’s film had influenced her. “I wrote the script about ten years before Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde,” replied Loden. “I didn’t care for [it] because it was unrealistic and it glamorised the characters… People like that would never get into those situations or lead that kind of life – they were too beautiful… Wanda is anti-Bonnie and Clyde” (Melton, 11).

So, in emphasising Wanda‘s “non-Faustian aesthetic” (Carney, 1994, 307, Note 220), in praising it as a “neglected small masterpiece” (Carney, 1985, 152), Carney stood alone. The eradication of Loden’s work in film history is such that the most recent edition of Halliwell’s Film Guide does not have a “Wanda” entry, even though the film is occasionally aired on cable channels such as the now-defunct Channel Z, Bravo or The Independent Channel (5). Even the feminist Women in Film: An International Guide mentions the film only when describing the Amsterdam-based distribution company Cinemien: “With other 350 titles currently in distribution… Cinemien’s work in feminist distribution… is unparalleled… About 10 percent of the collection is distributed nowhere else in the world – often not even in the films’ own countries of origin, [such as] Wanda” (Kuhn and Radstone, 82-83) (6). This neglect is all the more surprising that the main editor of the book, British feminist Annette Kuhn, wrote extensively about “the new women’s cinema” of the ’70s, in which “the central characters are women, and often women who are not attractive and glamorous in the conventional sense. Narratives, moreover, are frequently organised around the process of a woman’s self-discovery and growing independence” (Kuhn, 135). The films she praises are, in Hollywood, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1977) and Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977), and, in experimental cinema, Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers (1972), Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite (1978) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 32 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) – films that “hold out the possibility of a ‘feminine language’ for cinema” (Kuhn, 174-5). While Wanda has been ignored by every major text of feminist film theory published in English over the last 20 years, Akerman, Potter and Rainer have become household names. Granted, Akerman is a more assured filmmaker than Loden, but the alienation of her Belgium housewife-cum-hooker may be read as the reverse of that of Loden’s Pennsylvania housewife-turned-drifter: one was too good at keeping house, the other not good enough. The “market value” of both women depended on how good housewives they were, and how they could please men. Both found the equation unbearable, and devised various strategies to ward off their anxiety. One locked herself in her apartment and her routine, making sure there wouldn’t be any speck of dust on her table nor any hole in her schedule; the other started to drift in the sea of her own insignificance, clinging to unworthy men as a way to avoid drowning. Both showed unexpected moments of resilience, hidden reserves of strength that failed to save them, because the dices were loaded. Yet, there is a major, poignant difference between the two films, one that may explain why Jeanne became a feminist heroine par défaut and Wanda easily forgotten. In Akerman’s film, men are peripheral; they are mouths to be fed, cocks to be satisfied, but the film hints at the possibility of a utopian space structured by women’s desires, stories, needs and anxieties. Jeanne would never address any of her tricks as “Mister” and Akerman didn’t make her film under the terrifying gaze of one of Hollywood’s sacred monsters. In Wanda‘s narrative space, however, men cast a giant shadow.

The story of the lump

“Woman is symptom to man.”

– Jacques Lacan

Barbara Loden appears in the last third of Elia Kazan’s bulky autobiography, and is mentioned again and again, in ways that defeat the reader’s efforts to picture the real woman behind Kazan’s self-centred prose: “I’d met a young actress who, many years later, was to be my second wife… Conceived in a field of daisies, Barbara Loden was born anti-respectable… [She] was feisty with men, fearless on the streets, dubious of all ethical principles…” (Kazan, 1988, 571-2). It may sound familiar and indeed it is: a successful man of 44, happily married, suffers a mid-life crisis and draws inspiration from a younger woman. Later, Kazan reworked and fictionalised his on-and-off affair with Loden in his best-selling novel, The Arrangement (1967), and then turned it into a movie in 1969. Yet, Kazan doesn’t say much about Loden’s background, her needs and desires, even her work as an artist. Again, one has the eerie feeling of a life being slowly erased under the ornate carving of official history. Kazan often calls Loden “a bitch,” and saw her as bold, fearless, a sexual adventurer, maybe a gold-digger – while her close collaborators, Nicholas (Nick) T. Proferes who shot and edited the film, and Michael Higgins who played Mr. Dennis to her Wanda, perceived her as “insecure” and “sensitive.”

The second time Loden appears in Kazan’s book may be considered a genuine instance of the Freudian uncanny. A few years later, at 48, Kazan went to a psychoanalyst, Dr Kelman, and then started discussing an area of pain under his rib cage. “What you have in you,” said the analyst, “is a great lump of unreleased anger” (Kazan, 1988, 587). Alone, Kazan thought of Barbara:

She’d physically attacked a film casting director on an open street, slapped him around until he’d stopped denying what he’d said that got Barbara so mad (slurs on her character as well as her talent)… That was what I admired about the girl… Barbara had no lump… I envied [her]; she made me understand what Kelman meant (Kazan, 1988, 558-9, italics mine).

No matter how insightful Kelman might have been in Kazan’s case (7), he left him with a blind spot concerning the relationship between signifiers and the unconscious, for Kazan is unaware of the meaning of his own repetition of the word “lump.” “One day she stood naked before me, took my hand, and put it on her left breast. ‘Do you feel it?’ she asked. I found a lump there. It was January of 1978. She died in September 1980, on the fifth” (Kazan, 1988, 795). She was 48, Kazan’s age when he first consulted Dr Kelman (another structuring signifier)… If Kazan had listened, he might have realised that Loden’s anger was not always released in the fearless, spontaneous and spectacular way he once envied. She had said: “I have a lot of pain and suppressed anger in me, just like Wanda”(Melton, 14), and explained the apparent “apathy” of her character as a way to conceal an inner hidden turmoil (which she significantly describes as a physical symptom): “Another example in the film occurs in the scene when Wanda goes to the factory to get some money and to get put back on the job. The factory boss turns her down, and she just thanks him… Many times when people give us terrible news or completely reject us… our stomachs may be turning over, but we don’t show it… Wanda… has been numbed by her experiences, and she protects herself by behaving passively and wandering through life hiding her emotions” (Melton, 11, italics mine).

Then Loden was informed that her cancer was “involving” her liver as well. “I looked at Barbara. No reaction, her face masked as ever, guarded. Later she told me she [had been told] that her problem was the liver, not her breast… ‘Yes,’ she said to me, ‘all my anger is stored there’” (Kazan, 1988, 801-2). Kazan adds that Loden died angry, crying out “Shit! Shit! Shit!” when her liver gave out (Kazan, 1988, 793).

Barbara Loden was born in Marion, Ohio, in 1932, and had a difficult childhood. “She was white trash… from the wrong side of the tracks. Her father left her and she lived with her grandparents. The boys were after her at a very young age” (Interview, Proferes). Kazan describes her as “working class. Her father and brothers carry pistols when they go out to drink at night. She’s self-educated – and smart. Had to be to survive” (Kazan, 1988, 723). At 17, she came to New York, and danced for a while at the Copacabana. “Her first husband [Larry Joachim] met her on 42nd street. She had come with some musician… Larry asked her why she had come to New York, and she said ‘I want to be famous…’ So she married him – he was a nice guy and took care of her” (Interview, Proferes). Proferes thinks that it is Joachim who introduced her to Kazan; this happened when she was 23, that is, in 1955. Kazan eventually married her in 1967. In the meantime, Loden gave birth to her first son, Leo, and, later, to Joachim’s child, Marco.

Even after she had reached notoriety as an actress, Loden took acting classes with her mentor, Paul Mann. At 25, she was cast in her first Broadway play, Compulsion (1957). She became a member of the Lincoln Centre Repertory Company, and won a Tony award for her “stunning performance” in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964 as “Maggie, the sexy, popular entertainer who inescapably [was] equated with [Miller’s second wife], Marilyn Monroe” [New York Times, January 24, 1964, 18]). Kazan, who had directed the play, was sure that Loden “fitted the role” because he “knew her past in detail, and … knew Marilyn’s personal history as well. They’d both been ‘floaters’ and come out of almost identical childhood experiences, which had left them neurotic, often desperate, and in passion difficult to control” (Kazan, 1988, 668).

In 1960, Kazan cashed in on Loden’s “hillbilly” origin and gave her a small part opposite Montgomery Clift in Wild River (Kazan, 1988, 559-600) (8). A year later, he cast her as Warren Beatty’s promiscuous and self-destructive sister in Splendor in the Grass. Her performance is feisty, amusing, fiery, tragic, over-dramatic, and she makes the best of her baby-blue eyes, porcelain skin and perfect legs. Yet the part is conceived as a foil for the good-girl-tormented-by-the-flesh played by Nathalie Wood, and foil it was doomed to remain. If anything, it confirms how Loden stood in Kazan’s sexual fantasies: she was bad, she was “trash”, she was sexy and a lot of fun, but she was the one who knows. In Splendor, she tells her weak brother that he is destroying his life by being obedient to their over-masculine father. In the novel The Arrangement, the character of Gwen bluntly explains to Eddie Anderson that his life is a bore and he should stop writing ad campaigns for cigarettes (9). In Kazan’s life, Loden was instrumental in helping him give up theatre and write his own screenplays. Such women, in Kazan’s worldview, are in the position of Lacan’s “subject supposed to know” – the position of the Absolute Other. Yet their knowledge is limited: it only concerns the male protagonist’s pitfalls, which they help to heal. Their “knowledge” is instinctual, rather than rational. They can only hint at the truth. It is the man’s role to analyse, dissect, understand, draw conclusions. Moreover, they have no knowledge of themselves; they are creatures of passion and act impulsively, with the supreme wisdom of the madwoman (or the unfathomable wisdom of the Mother), and it is the men in their lives, who, having tamed the shrew, will recount their stories.

Faye Dunaway and Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement

And so Kazan did with The Arrangement, which “was essentially an autobiographical study of him and his wife” (Interview, Higgins). When he signed a contract with Warner Brothers to turn the book into a movie, Loden was going to play “her own” part, opposite Marlon Brando’s Eddie Anderson. When Brando eventually refused the part, it went to Kirk Douglas. That meant keeping Loden out of the picture, for “the studio said ‘Kirk Douglas and Barbara Loden, nobody’s going to see that.’ So they got Faye Dunaway” (Interview, Proferes) (10). According to Kazan, “Barbara never forgave [him]” (Kazan, 1988, 754). She should also have been wary of the way she was portrayed in the book. While Anderson is given a complex, albeit unbearably self-centred, internal monologue, Gwen is denied interiority, and her identity and self-worth are entirely defined by the way she looks: “Gwen didn’t need an analyst to build her self-esteem. All she needed was a mirror” (Kazan, 1967, 53). One is reminded of the character of Jenny in Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990), who discovers the sexism of her partner when he says “You can always tell how a woman feels about herself by looking at her legs” (Quoted in McDonald, 230). Yet, as Rainer notices, Jenny didn’t mind then, because she was sexually attracted to the man. Kazan recognised that his Gwen loved Eddie to distraction, and how patient Loden had been – for years she was his secret mistress as well as supportive mate and companion – but the question of female desire eludes him, as proven when, after her death, he tries to understand Loden: “Like many pretty girls I’ve known, she felt worthless, felt that the only thing that gave her any value was a man’s desire for her” (Kazan, 1988, 793-4). Except making Wanda.

A Film of One’s Own

How inarticulate Tonka was! She could neither talk nor weep. But how is one to define something that neither can speak nor is spoken of, something that dumbly merges with the anonymous mass of mankind, something that is like a little line scratched on the tablets of history?

-Robert Musil (Musil, 84)

The idea of the film started when Loden read a newspaper article about “a girl [Wanda Goranski] who had been an accomplice to a bank robbery and was sentenced to 20 years in prison… When the judge sentenced her, she thanked him” (Melton, 11). Due to Loden’s insecurity, it took her a while before coming to terms with her own desire to direct. She wanted “to be an artist… to justify her own existence… [But she] was very self-effacing, and never intended the film for release… This was a way to take the pressure off – the pressure to produce a work of art – if it didn’t turn out half-way decently” (Interview, Proferes).

It took about six years to raise the money (11), and it eventually came from Harry Shuster (credited as producer in the film), who was “just a friend… they met in Africa… I don’t think he was even in film” (Interview, Proferes). Kazan and Loden set out to find a suitable collaborator. Through a common friend, who had started to work as an executive producer for Wanda, but later dropped out (and hence received no credit), Proferes was introduced to the couple, so they could use his screening room to look at the work of potential candidates. Then, Proferes recalls, “[my friend] said ‘I want to show them one of your films, to give them [more] possibilities.’ And they picked me. I was very reluctant. I had never shot any feature… Also, working with a woman, an actress – [that] didn’t seem a good idea, or even an interesting idea. I don’t know what made me do it” (Interview, Proferes) (12).

Born in 1936 in rural upstate New York, Proferes moved to New York when he was 25, and met D.A. Pennebaker through a friend. Pennebaker’s producer, Robert Drew, was running a company in which Richard Leacock and the Maysles Brothers were also involved, and had received a significant sum of money from Time/Life to do a series of cinema-verité documentaries. Proferes was hired as an apprentice editor, and later learnt to shoot: “with Leacock, there was no distinction. We were just filmmakers, and we did everything” (Interview, Proferes). Starting with Leacock’s Primary (1960), Drew Associates produced landmark cinema-verité films (13). “They were going to create almost like a dramatic narrative to take over Hollywood. So it was very exciting, it was a very heady time” (Interview, Proferes). Proferes eventually started his own company and made Free at Last, a film on Martin Luther King (who was shot while Proferes was following him throughout the United States) which won the Best Documentary Award at the 1969 Venice Film Festival.

Loden’s decision to shoot in 16mm was motivated by the need to keep the costs down; it also allowed her to explore new ways of combining fiction and documentary, and to question the impulse that had been behind the conception of Wanda. Loden found her initial project “somewhat old-fashioned in that it [told] a story”(Melton, 12). During the making of Wanda, she came to realise that a traditional narrative might not be the ideal form to express what she had in mind: “Now I know why people make those so-called avant-garde films that jump around from one thing to another without any connection or purpose. Because it’s much easier” (Melton, 12).

Carney reads the influence of Wanda‘s novel approach to narrative in some of Cassavetes’s films: “Loden’s film pointed the way for the much more important stylistic breakthrough of the new kinds of editing and sound work Cassavetes would employ in Minnie and Moskowitz. [Wanda]… uses an extraordinarily full and layered soundtrack to create a world of extreme density and complexity around the central characters, and uses certain kinds of editorial ellipses to jump rapidly and unpredictably between scenes to create a feeling of extreme rush and haste” (Carney, 1985, 152).

However, Carney’s analysis eschews any consideration of sexual politics; it even turns Wanda into a love story (14), thus failing to concentrate on Wanda’s solitude. While Minnie ends up with a man and a retinue of children, Wanda leaves her children behind and ends up, boozing and smoking, her silent depression lost amidst the boisterous merriment that surrounds her. Loden’s new style of filmmaking had taken her into the opaque, ambiguous territory of unspoken repression that has so often defined the condition of women – a territory only glanced at occasionally, from the outside, by generous male writers like Musil. What makes Loden a pioneer female filmmaker is that she viewed filmic experimentation as a way to express the “unspoken of”. As the African-American poet Audre Lord noted, the master’s house cannot be destroyed with the master’s tools. Wanda’s historical importance lies precisely at this junction: 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”.

Wanda was shot over a period of ten weeks in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, with a small crew of four people, composed of Loden and Proferes, who “did everything, [even] the costumes” (Interview, Proferes), a lighting/sound technician (Lars Hedman) and an assistant (Christopher Cromin). Higgins recalls that, when they were shooting near the Kazans’ residence in Connecticut, Loden would cook for the cast and crew (Interview, Higgins). While stressing “Wanda was Barbara’s film,” Proferes explains that “it was really co-directed… Once in a while, she would look through the viewfinder. But most of the time she trusted me… I was responsible for the framing and the composition of 99% of the shots. Then we would look at the dailies together” (Interview, Proferes). Yet Loden alone supervised the performances, including her own splendid rendering of the heroine.

The film was shot in 16mm reversal, to make it easier to blow it up to 35mm. Proferes was used to reversal: with “Ricky [Leacock] and all these people we were shooting on reversal, and would go to internegative to get off the A and B roll” (Interview, Proferes). The film was shot documentary-style, with a hand-held camera and without much additional lighting: Proferes had to “push” the ASA, which contributed to the grainy quality of the image. When Wanda seeks shelter in the auditorium of a Hispanic movie theatre, the sequence was pushed to 1000 ASA. There was no storyboard, no rehearsals, and a high shooting ratio – the original footage amounted to “15 or 20 hours” (Interview, Proferes). The filmmakers took advantage of unexpected situations and the scenes were improvised in front of the camera (15). Higgins, who once told Proferes “he never had before and never had since experienced such freedom” (Interview, Proferes), also credits the latter’s fluid, competent camerawork for making this freedom possible: “In the scene where I go around the cars stealing clothes, Nick just told me: ‘You do what you have to do, and I’ll follow you.’ I set the clothes and the shoes in the various cars, and I just took off quickly… Nick is greatly responsible for the movement of that picture. There are very few directors who do that. Of course, with a 35mm camera, you can’t do it” (Interview, Higgins).

Some of Wanda‘s strongest moments came from chance encounters. As Higgins recalls: “On the other side of the open field, there was a man with his son, playing with a toy plane guided by remote control. And Barbara said ‘Can you do something with that?’ I loved the idea and said ‘Yes, I can.’ So, while it was flying around, I was saying ‘Come back,’ waving my hand at the plane. Then I jumped on the [top of the] car, and raised my arms toward the sky” (Interview, Higgins). This sequence also shows some of the rare moments of real, albeit unspoken, tenderness between the two protagonists. On a late, lazy afternoon, Wanda and Mr. Dennis are eating and drinking beer in an empty field. Mr. Dennis wanders off and comes back to the car and to Wanda, takes off his jacket and puts it on her shoulders. While she remarks that “the sun’s going down,” he goes behind her, looking intently at her hair. His gaze, his attitude, are those of an obsessive lover, in contradiction with his harsh words: “Your hair looks terrible.” Wanda doesn’t look very concerned, but, when Mr. Dennis suggests she could cover it with a hat, she tells him that she has no money to buy one. He calls her “stupid,” and expounds what he thinks about money (the bitter wisdom of a man who never had any): “If you don’t have money, you are nothing.” Wanda, apparently, doesn’t mind being “nothing,” which makes Mr. Dennis angry. As the protagonists have revealed to each other their points of utmost vulnerability, the irritating noise of the toy plane invades the filmic space, till Mr. Dennis climbs on the top of the car, gesturing and screaming at it. The scene ends with him casting one look at Wanda and asking her “Why don’t you get a hat?” For Loden, this sequence was “a Don Quixote image where Mr. Dennis is flailing at imaginary things against him or reaching for something unattainable” (Melton, 14). In this moment of cinematic grace, Loden grants us a rare glimpse into Mr. Dennis’s quest for human dignity and the hidden romanticism of her two misfits.

The prize received in Venice “completely changed [Loden]. She became a director in her own mind. She had this validation” (Interview, Proferes). However, Kazan who had helped Loden in many stages of the preparation of the film, to “protect [her]” (Interview, Higgins), wasn’t altogether happy: “When I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatised her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realised I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle… She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man” (Kazan, 1988, 794). (Interestingly, those last reproaches are similar to the grievances aired by Wanda’s husband while he’s waiting for her in court.) Though flattered by the attention his beautiful wife had received from the paparazzi in Venice, Kazan was quite dismissive of Loden’s efforts to make another movie: “I didn’t really believe she had the equipment to be an independent filmmaker, but she and Nick were a good combination” (Kazan, 1988, 794). How difficult, writes Virginia Woolfe, it is to be “deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronising, now grieved, now shocked, now avuncular, that voice that cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too conscientious governess…” (Woolfe, 75) Eventually, because “she had succeeded completely in making a life independent” (Kazan, 1988, 794) of him, Kazan convinced Loden (as Goranski had Wanda) to agree to a divorce. Shortly after, she discovered the lump in her breast. In mainstream cinema, the master owns the tool factory, and the tool store as well. The gaps open in the master discourse are promptly closed. Loden never made another film.

Yet she had spent the last ten years of her life struggling and trying. Exploring her study after her death, Kazan found “three piles of xeroxed manuscripts, completed screenplays she’d written with Nick Proferes. I’d watched how hard she and Nick had worked, month after month” (Kazan, 1988, 815). Proferes recalls one particular project about an alcoholic star for which he was to direct Loden: “We did a lot of improvisation. We were writing the script, and then improving it” (Interview, Proferes). These screenplays may have been “dramatically weak,” but “like Wanda, there was an honesty about them,” he adds. Yet, “nobody was really interested in Barbara directing these little movies. They still didn’t treat her – or me – with any kind of respect. The only reason we’d get to see people, maybe, was because of Kazan” (Interview, Proferes) (16). However, Proferes’s career benefited from his work on Wanda: Kazan hired him as cameraman, editor and producer for The Visitors (1972), the film he produced independently and with non-union help (Kazan, 1988, 754-6).

After Venice, and right until her death, Loden taught an acting class of about 12 students who “regarded her as a saint” (Interview, Proferes), and directed a number of theatre productions, often in collaboration with Proferes. Higgins, who saw most of Loden’s theatre productions and worked with her when she was preparing Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box (a never-realised project), was impressed by the way she was communicating with actors, using “very few words… that came from the heart” (Interview, Higgins). Proferes confirms that “she was very good with actors (most of them came from her acting class)” and that, in spite of the difficult financial conditions of Off-Off-Broadway, her productions had “really brilliant moments” (Interview, Proferes). A few months before her death, she co-directed with David Heefner Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, in which she also gave “a glowing performance,” although “the play got a cold reception from the critics” (Kazan, 1988, 806-7). Meanwhile, Milos Foreman, unaware she had been diagnosed with cancer, had offered her a job in the Film Department of Columbia University. She gracefully suggested Proferes in her stead. This turned out to be the gift of a lifetime: he still teaches there (Interview, Proferes).

Barbara Loden circa 1965, on a U.S. postage stamp issued in 2002

The Wand-erer

A film that traces no counter and delimits no form.
A film that is comfortable with readings that float.
A film that both attracts spectators and allows them no place to rest.
A film where the prefilmic proves to be hopeful rather than accurate.
A film that is elated at being a particle, a sprout, an unfinished song
(Gabriel, 76)

Wanda‘s theme is elegantly revealed in its first few minutes: we have a woman who simply doesn’t fit within her environment, doesn’t belong anywhere (she’s never shown as having a home of her own), and whose very presence, more often than not, is an eyesore to the men around her (which doesn’t prevent her from being a sex object). The film starts with an extreme long shot [1] panning from right to left in a coal field: slag-heaps, a crane in the distance, the repetitive noise of coal extraction. In [2] we cut to a long shot of two dump trucks excavating from the heaps; [3] takes us to the corner of a cheap house. In [4], we are inside the house, where a grandmother sits absorbed in solitary needlework. [5]: through a glass door, a little kid is seen walking, then heard crying. [6] takes us on the other side of the glass door, with a medium shot of a reddish-blonde woman seen from the back, in a white night-gown. A tighter shot [7] shows the baby crying on the bed.

The next two shots are characteristics of Proferes’s documentary style. In [8] the woman walks toward the fridge with the baby in her arms, opens it and then walks to the stove; the camera leaves her to pan back to the right and frames a man, wearing a T-shirt, entering the kitchen door, while picking up his jacket from the wall and looking sourly in the direction of the woman, not off-screen; the camera pans back toward the woman, leaving the man who then exits our field of vision on the right side of the screen, while the woman offers him some coffee. [9] shows the man exiting the front door without a word; the camera then pans right and downward, revealing a woman lying on a couch, entirely covered by a sheet (except for a naked leg that sticks out). This is followed by a series of reverse-angle shots: a medium close-up of the woman holding the baby [10]; a shot of the woman on the couch (Wanda), stirring up under the sheet, revealing a mass of blonde hair, while the baby cries off-screen [11]; a medium close-up of the woman with the baby [12]; a tighter shot of Wanda raising her head and saying “He hates me because I’m here.” [13]; the camera then alternates between the first woman [14] and Wanda, who raises her head again and looks ahead [15]. The next shot shows us what she sees through the window: two dump trucks, making the appropriate noises, while, inside, the baby cries [16]. Then we go back to Wanda on the couch, who begins to get up, revealing a black bra [17].

One of the ellipses admired by Carney, the next shot [18] displays the same bleak coalfields, and we expect it to be, like shot [16], what Wanda sees. In fact, as we’ll realise later, quite a bit of time has elapsed since the previous shot, and Wanda is no longer looking at the landscape, she is in it. Shot [18], held longer than usual (about 2 minutes), starts with an extremely large view, then slowly zooms toward a tiny, white, almost incandescent figure, lost amongst the greyness. When the zoom stops, we are still far enough from the figure to distinguish it clearly, so it remains mysterious and quasi-magical; then the camera starts panning to follow the figure who walks from left to right. An invisible dog is heard barking.

The next cut starts a new sequence: a car driving under a bridge [19]; the car arriving in front of an industrial building [20]; a medium shot of the car, with two children inside, two adults in the back, and a man (Goranski) getting out [21]; a tighter shot of Goranski screaming to a man off-screen (Steve) that he has to go to court [22]; a long shot of Steve standing in a loading dock [23]; a reverse angle of Goranski waving at Steve and re-entering the car [24].

We cut back to the space of shot [18]: in the landscape darkened by coal dust, the camera pans to the right to follow a truck, revealing the same white figure, still in a distance, walking [25]. [26] is the long shot of an old man picking up coal. [27] shows him at a closer angle, while a female voice greets him; the camera pans to the right, until the “figure” appears, now closer and recognisable: it is Wanda, wearing clear coloured slacks and blouse, her hair in curlers under a white scarf. We pan back to the old man, then follow him as he walks toward Wanda, until the two of them are in the frame together. Then Wanda asks him “Could you lend me a little bit of money?”

Wanda’s first two lines frame her relationship to men. Her brother-in-law “hates her” simply because she is there. She must have gone to her sister’s to find a place to stay after leaving her husband. Later in court, Goranski accuses her of having “deserted” him and the children. He seems impatient to get married as soon as possible with the young lady who “helps [him] take care of the kids.” Silenced by his accusations, she says: “Listen, judge, if he wants a divorce, just give it to him.” What is at stake in this court is Goranski’s desire, not hers. What does she want? Not her husband: when the camera frames them together in the courtroom, she doesn’t look at him once. Nor her children: in a master coup – while lesser filmmakers would not have resisted a bit of sentimentalism – Proferes keeps the children off-screen while Wanda is in the courtroom and Loden does not allow herself a single stolen glance in their direction.

The long shot showing Wanda as a frail, lost figure in the grey landscape also goes against the grain of traditional Hollywood’s narrative. Kazan’s films, even if they show a man in transit (like Stavros in America, America [1963]) or leaving his old life behind (Eddie in The Arrangement), stage the protagonist as firmly rooted in a land, a home. When he leaves it, this decision is “heroic” or “ethical.” In any case, the man dominates his surroundings. Likewise, in a standard “road movie,” the protagonist may be a drifter, but he commands attention, the never-ending space is structured around a vanishing point determined by his will, his desire and his gaze. It doesn’t compare with the loneliness, the desolation suggested by the quasi-surrealistic walk of Wanda-the-waif who never quite manages to occupy the centre of the long shot (the camera movement duplicates her own hesitating gait), who seems swallowed by her environment, “overwhelmingly ugly and destructive”(Melton, 10).

In films directed by men, women are often associated with the home in which they reside, pining for the protagonist and welcoming him back like Penelope. So, even though some isolated voices such as African American film historian Teshome H. Gabriel claim that “the nomadic epic at its best, is truly a woman’s epic” (Gabriel, 76), there is very little tradition about the female wanderer (the “bad woman,” the “drifter” is a commodity, not a full-blown character) unless, as in the Bonny and Clyde fantasies, she is companion to a man. Drawing his inspiration from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (Deleuze and Woolf), Gabriel is fairly ambiguous about the role played by women within nomadic aesthetics, reducing them to mythical figures. Similarly, in spite of their brilliant analysis of Virginia Woolfe’s position on women’s writing (17), Deleuze and Guattari eschew sexual politics when they discuss their famous distinction between “smooth” (or nomadic) and striated space. Maybe the opposition between the non-partitioned space of cultivation and animal-raising and the partitioned, closed space of the city-dweller and sedentary cultivator (Deleuze and Woolf, 497) has more to do with a war among sexes than a war among tribes, as Gabriel himself acknowledges, quoting an ancient Mauritanian Sheik: “It is the women who make us live in the desert. They say the desert brings health and happiness, to themselves and the children” (Gabriel, 67). The archaeology of religions seems to confirm this hypothesis: it is with the development of sedentary agriculture that the archaic female goddesses became displaced by male gods (18).

Gabriel was interested in using the concept of “nomadic art” in his “research for an alternative aesthetic of black independent cinema” (as an extension of his prior, seminal work on “Third cinema”), since nomads and blacks are “both marginalised and (de)territorialised people” (Gabriel, 70). Like Deleuze and Guattari, he reads the “nomadic space” as an alternative to the state apparatus of Western capitalism, but nothing can prevent us from deciphering it as a subterranean counter-space offsetting the striated order of patriarchy (19). Indeed, Gabriel’s description of nomadic cinema fits Wanda like a glove: “The journey is the link(age); without it there is no film. There is no film in and of itself. A film by itself is therefore meaningless – it conveys nothing. Film exists so that the journey may exist, and vice versa” (Gabriel, 72). For him, nomadic aesthetics unfold “liberated spaces outside Hollywood and oppositional cinema [in which] a new, newly born cinema is emerging, a cinema not-yet-here but no-longer-there, a travelling cinema – nomadic cinema” (Gabriel, 73) (20).

Wanda‘s nomadic sensibility is apparent first in its narrative structure: Michael Higgins stresses that, from the Pennsylvania coal fields to the Connecticut highways, from Waterbury where Mr. Dennis meets his father to Scranton where the robbery is performed, the protagonists keep going in circles and “not going anywhere” (Interview, Higgins). As Plateaus notices, “nomads do not move. They are nomads by dint of not moving, not migrating” (Deleuze and Woolf, 482). To use an American idiomatic phrase, Wanda does not “go places,” she’s not socially mobile, and her story is non-directional: at the end, she is no less in the lurch (alone, without money, drifting) than she was at the beginning. Moreover, the diegetic space of the film is structured without a vanishing point and its architecture of reverse-angle shots does not follow the rules of classical narrative filmmaking. According to Lacanian analysis, the vanishing point within a representational image is precisely what marks the place of the subject (21). This, in turn, is not contradictory with Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of the striated space (that also implies a certain positioning of the subject) as “defined by the requirement of long-distance vision: constancy of orientation, invariance of distance through an interchange of inertial points of reference, interlinkage by immersion in an ambient milieu, constitution of a central perspective” (Deleuze and Woolf, 494). The striated space seems a perfect example not only of classical painting, but also of the classical Hollywood mise en scène, which Wanda subverts. Mentioning “the absence of point-of-view and shot-reverse shots” in the film, Carney quotes Loden as replying to an interviewer that she always “saw [Wanda] in something, surrounded by something” (Carney, 1985, 130), which seems very close to the definition of a Deleuzian smooth space. Moreover, Proferes’s cinema-verité mode of handling the camera, of following his subjects (even when they are at a distance) with an almost tactile approach, of integrating foreground and background, is a good example of the close-vision-haptic space which A Thousand Plateaus assigns to nomadic aesthetics. In the case of Wanda, this closeness is not purely aesthetic but reflects an inner sympathy – rather than a judgmental or purely scopophilic stance – on the part of the filmmakers for their heroine. As Loden shamelessly admitted: “In my opinion Wanda is right and everyone around her is wrong” (Melton, 11). Yet the smooth and the striated keep overlapping and transforming into each other; in this case, Proferes’s editing, by “cutting” and shaping the material, projected it onto another “plateau,” thus reaching a fragile, graceful and splendid synthesis between the two spaces.

Yet, even with Proferes’s invaluable contribution, Loden was alone, as alone as these 19th century female writers described by Virginia Woolfe: “whatever effect discouragement and criticism had upon their writing… that was unimportant compared with the other difficulty that faced them… when they came to set their thoughts on paper – that is that they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help” (Woolfe, 76). A pioneer female filmmaker, Loden was working without a net, without role models, without a network of female collaborators (‘sisterhood’ was not invented then), in a void. Of her lonely fight, we know practically nothing, for she was shy and found it difficult to express herself, especially in public and in interviews. What we know of her life has been recounted by her male collaborators, so it is in the fictions she wrote we must look for her true voice. Apart from the difficult-to-see Wanda, her work has disappeared or is not available. No wonder women’s lives are often no more than “a little line scratched on the tablets of history.” So it is to Wanda that I’ll turn again, as a story of the sentimental education of a woman, who, despite the differences of name, age, class or ethnic background, could be Barbara Loden, or you, or me.

When Wanda has lost everything: her shelter in her sister’s house, her husband, her children, her job, whatever self-respect she had left when the travelling salesman dumped her, and finally her last dollars stolen in the movie theatre – when she has nothing to lose, this is the moment she meets Mr. Dennis.

It has been noted that the pace of the film and its formal strategies were altered with the arrival of Michael Higgins. Lack of budget, but also the search for people who would be “real” led Loden to cast “ordinary people living in the area” (Melton, 13) for the minor characters. On the other hand, Higgins was a seasoned professional actor, with a long track record in theatre. Loden had met him on the set of The Arrangement, in which he was playing the part of Kirk Douglas’s brother. In his background and sensibility, Higgins was very close to Loden and Proferes. This Brooklyn kid, who “had this ambition of doing something big” (Interview, Higgins), joined a local Shakespearian company when he was 17, and stayed there four years: “I did everything, including the costumes” (Interview, Higgins). Severely wounded during WW II, he was the first student admitted at the American Theatre, “the professional training program for actors and directors after they got out of the army. And while I was a student, I was working on Broadway” (Interview, Higgins).

When Higgins arrived on location, he had done his homework, and prepared the character of Mr. Dennis. “This is a man who has been in prison for some years. Which led me to think of what kind of a guy he was, what kind of things he wore, his haircut, and of course, his suspicious attitude. Barbara suggested the dark sunglasses. We also used some of Kazan’s old clothes (he never threw anything away), and I decided to put the scar on my forehead. We didn’t have anybody doing make-up. So I had to put the scar on me every day of the shoot. There was a certain amount of funny quality about this guy. He was not a good crook. He knew he was going to get in deep trouble” (Interview, Higgins).

Zombiique or defiant, Wanda’s relationship to Mr. Dennis is far from being a passive one. Going deeper and deeper into the truth of the character, Loden gave up as “phoney” her original “Pygmalion theme where the man builds the girl up and makes her into something” (Melton, 11). In the sequence of shots that describes Wanda’s first encounter with Mr. Dennis, she is the one who imposes her presence onto him, and not he who “picks her up” (22). When she enters the bar, he first tries to get rid of her by saying “we are closed.” She physically struggles with him to gain access, demanding to use the bathroom. Her stubbornness is different from the desperate way in which she was trying to “cling” to the travelling salesman. This is the first time we see Wanda expressing her desire and acting on it. Initially, this desire seems devoid of erotic components. Then it becomes clear that Wanda has, consciously or not, chosen Mr. Dennis as a partner. The rest of the scene shows her positioning herself within the gaze of the man, so as to evolve from object of irritation to object of desire. This is articulated through a series of demands. Coming back from the bathroom, she first asks for a towel – which she does not get: the camera pans down from Mr. Dennis’s face to the only towel in the joint. It has been used to gag the bartender who lies tied up behind the counter, invisible to Wanda. In this single shot, Wanda’s desire becomes intricately linked with Mr. Dennis’s narrative. It is because he is in the process of a petty robbery that Mr. Dennis cannot respond to Wanda’s demand. So, being unable to give her the towel she wants, he proceeds to get what he wants: the money from the cash register. Mr. Dennis’s non-fulfillment of Wanda’s demand opens up a space in which her desire will be articulated.

Before, Wanda’s relationship to men was lived under the sign of demand and necessity. And she was getting, more or less, what she asked for: a little bit of money, a job, a beer. Yet, she was always short-changed: less money than she had hoped, a job that lasted only two days, a beer for a short ride and a quick fuck. Because Mr. Dennis does not even give her the scraps she was used to receiving from men, she is prompted to ask for more. She shamelessly starts eating the potato chips on the counter, then asks for something to drink – he pours beer from the tap for her – and then something she never had before: attention when she speaks. She flatly tells him “somebody stole all [her] money.” Then she requests something personal, almost intimate from the man: “a comb or something.” He obliges reluctantly and pulls a comb out of his breast pocket.

Je, tu, il, elle

Wanda’s single-minded stubbornness reminded me of the third part of Je, tu, il, elle (1974), in which we see the protagonist (also played by the director of the film, Chantal Akerman) literally forcing her way into the home of a former lover she is still obsessed with. Akerman’s problem is to find a way to spend the night (and eventually have sex) with a woman who is determined to make her leave. Instead of saying “I want you to love me,” Akerman bluntly says “I am hungry,” and the other woman has no other choice but to feed her. “More,” she says. And then, having eaten ravenously, she adds: “I am thirsty”. In the next scene, the two women are having sex (23).

By uttering this series of demands, Wanda turns Mr. Dennis into a partner. He understands this, for the next time he talks to her, he refers to them as “us”: “Let’s go!” In the next scene, they already behave like an old couple: He’s taken Wanda to dinner, they’re eating spaghetti and he criticises her “sloppiness.” He is this kind of man, an “emotional cripple” who, unable to say something nice to his partners, keeps criticising them as a way of paying attention to them. The scene ends with a medium shot of Mr. Dennis casting a desiring look in the direction of Wanda off-screen. There is no reaction shot, but the next cut shows them in bed, where Wanda’s misguided (but rather aggressive) efforts to have a conversation with Mr. Dennis, or even simply to touch him, irritate him, and he orders her to go and buy three hamburgers, in the middle of the night.

At this moment Mr. Dennis’s point of view is constructed to coincide with that of the spectator, and he fails to read the articulation of Wanda’s desire: when he sends her off to get food, he gives her “too much money,” and she protests (this is NOT money she wants from him). Later, hearing police sirens, he looks through the window, and sees Wanda talking to a man, and leaving with him. Visually, this image is similar to Wanda’s long walk in the coalfield, during which the audience could not identify her: she is a small white figure lost in the darkness around her. Mr. Dennis shrugs, closes the window, turns off the light, locks his door and goes to bed: she is this kind of girl, you give her some money, and she’s off with some other guy. Things change when Wanda returns and he slaps her: by her absence she has entered his space, he’s no longer a spectator but involved in something very close to passion – jealousy.

Yet Wanda is not a love story. When the heroine loses Mr. Dennis, this is not pure “bad luck,” it was structurally inscribed in the dynamics of their relationship. In the poignant scene with his father, we see Mr. Dennis as a man to whom the simple dignity of being a good son has been denied (his father refuses his money) due to a lifetime of petty crime and failure. This is the inner urgency that prompts him to design, against all odds, the bank job. Yet he’s doomed, and he knows it. And then Wanda becomes “Wanda” to him, for a short time: only when he urges her to become his accomplice does he use her first name, instead of calling her “stupid.” Yes, he wants to use her, but this is also a drowning man uttering a word of love. “Listen to me. Wanda. Maybe you never did anything before. Maybe you never did. But you’re going to do this.” At this moment, Mr. Dennis is standing behind Wanda, holding her by the shoulders, and he speaks to her in a low voice, almost into her ear. A reverse angle shot reveals they are in front of a mirror, and, like in Lacan’s mirror stage, Mr. Dennis gets a confirmation of his own existence, his own identity, by looking at his reflection with Wanda. Even at the moment of their strongest bond, he’s not really talking about her, he’s talking about him. A prisoner of the sexual impasse that defines us all, he thought he could establish a true partnership with a woman if he asked her (begged her, convinced her, forced her) to do with him what he wants to do. As a poignant aside, we’ll notice that, when Mr. Dennis prepares the robbery with Wanda, he behaves like a director with a reluctant actress, telling her to dress like a pregnant woman, and giving her a “script” she should memorise. Obviously, Loden was commenting about her own experience as an actress (and the fact that Higgins was wearing Kazan’s suit only confirms this interpretation). Wanda also comments on how women are constantly forced to play a part within the “script” written by the men who desire them, so as to play up to this desire and have a chance of being loved. As Mr. Dennis reveals more of himself, Wanda’s desire, once emerging, is eclipsed again. Yes she wants this man. But she doesn’t want money. He never gave her a chance to know his first name. Maybe she would have wanted to say it, once, just once.

And, as most women would, she blames herself for her loss. She “did good” in the first part of the robbery, but she spoiled everything when she was stopped by the policeman. We know (but she doesn’t) that Mr. Dennis’s death is due to his own mistake (he had planned the caper a few minutes too early) and suicidal stubbornness (he’d rather be shot than going back to jail). She wasted time, her getaway car was late, she’ll never forgive herself. She’ll never understand that, even with Mr. Dennis, she was betrayed from the beginning. And so, in this final freeze frame influenced by Truffaut’s 400 Blows (Melton, 12), she might as well say, like Anne in Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), betrayed by her lover and promised to the stake: “I see you through my tears, but nobody comes to wipe them away.”

Special thanks to Thom Andersen, Margie Hanft and the staff of the California Institute of the Arts Library, Michael Higgins, Alex Horwath, Kent Jones, Nick Proferes and, for their inspirational work, Chantal Akerman, Nina Menkes, Yvonne Rainer and Virginia Woolfe.

This text was originally published as “Für Wanda” in The Last Great American Picture Show – New Hollywood 1967-76, Alexander Horwath ed., Viennale Publications, Wennpennest, Vienna, 1995, 223-247

Works Cited

Carney, Raymond, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985

Carney, Raymond, The Films of John Cassavetes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994

Deleuze, Giles and Woolf, Felix, A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massuni trans., University of Minnesota Press; Minneapolis, 1987

Gabriel, Teshome H., “Thoughts on Nomadic Aesthetics and the Black Independent Cinema: Traces of a Journey,” in Blackframes: Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema, Mbye B. Cham and Claire Watkins, ed., MIT Press, Cambridge, 1988

Haskell, Molly, From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1974

Higgins, Michael, Interview with Higgins, February 19, 1995

Kay, Karyn and Peary, Gerald, eds, Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1977

Kazan, Elia, A Life, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1988

Kazan, Elia, The Arrangement, Stein and Day, New York, 1967

Kuhn, Annette, Women’s Pictures – Feminism and Cinema, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1982

Kuhn, Annette, and Radstone, Susannah, eds, Women in Film: An International Guide, Fawcett Columbine Books, New York, 1990 (Originally published in Great Britain as The Women’s Companion to International Film in 1990 by Virago Limited)

McDonald, Scott, Screenwriting, Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995

Melton, Ruby, “An environment that is overwhelmingly ugly and destructive: an interview with Barbara Loden,” The Film Journal, Vol. I, No.2, Summer 1971, pp.10-15

Musil, Robert, Five Women, Godine Publisher, Boston, New York, 1986

Proferes, Nicholas T., Interview with Proferes, February 12, 1995

Sarris, Andrew, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1928-1968, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1968

Woolfe, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, Harcourt Brace Janovitz, New York, 1989


  1. The film was much better received in continental Europe. A few months before her death, Loden was the object of a long interview by a German television station (Kazan, 807). Among the articles written in Europe about the film are an interview by Michel Ciment (Positif, No. 168, April 1975, 34-39); a review by Joel Magny (Téléciné, No. 198, April 1975, 23); a text by Jean-Loup Passek (Cinéma, No. 196, March 1975, 133-35); a short review by Claude Beylie (Ecran, No. 34, March 1975, 70); a review in Positif (No. 168, April 1975, 31-33); a text by Ebert Jürgen in Filmkritik (Vol. XXV No. 3, March 1981, 120-130); a text by Yann Lardeau (Cahiers du cinéma, No. 342, Dec 1982, 49-50); a text by Jacqueline Nacache (Cinéma, No. 288, Dec 1982, 66-67); a short text in Cinématographe (No. 84, December 1982, 51); a short article by Helena van der Meulen (Skrien, No. 148, Summer 1986, 21); a review in the TV magazine Télérama (No. 2301, Feb 16, 1994). Among the texts written in America that I have managed to unearth since first writing this article in 1995 is a short review in Take One (Vol. III, No 2, February 1972, 3); “Barbara Loden Revisited”, in which Loden discusses Wanda with the Madison Women’s Media Collective (Women and Film, Vol. 5-6, 1974, 67-70); and a text by Chuck Kleinhans, “Wanda; Marilyn times five; seeing through cinema vérité” – in which he compares Wanda to a film by Bruce Conner that also “deals with women as victims” (Jump Cut, May-June 1974, 14-15).
  2. The irony is that the book is dedicated to Sarris’s wife, Molly Haskell.
  3. Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) is a dark tale in which, in spite of their youth, love and ultimate innocence, the protagonists (Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda) are manipulated to their doom by forces of society beyond their control. Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1948, with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell), more loosely inspired by the original story, is a tale of amour fou gone wrong. Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) casts two not-too-smart losers victims of the Depression (John Dahl and Peggy Cummings) who have to use guns simply to survive.
  4. One of the few exceptions to this trend has been another independent feature, Leonard Castle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), also the work of a one-time director, in which an overweight nurse and a flashy gigolo team up to con and murder lonely women. Like Wanda, the film has gained cult status in Europe.
  5. The film was eventually acquired by Castle Hill Productions in New York. Queried by phone and fax when was the film bought, whether it existed on 35mm, 16mm or video, where was the negative kept, and if the film was available for rental for classroom or research use, the company declined to answer. However, they replied positively to an enquiry put forward by the conference “Women and Madness” that took place in Vienna in 1998.
  6. Since then, I have leant that Cinemien is no longer distributing Wanda.
  7. Kazan reports how he saw Kelman as an obstacle when he tried breaking off with Barbara rather than marrying her, after the death of his first wife, Molly. “[Barbara] says the same thing, that bitch, that you say about me, that I’m an emotional cripple [italics mine]… I get mad at her, but I respect her because she hides nothing. Imagine telling me every boyfriend she ever had… Anyway, I don’t want to be tied to a damn actress, do I? (…) I’m going to break off with her, no matter what you say… One more minute. Please. Tell me. Why do I keep going back to her? “You stay with her because she’s like you,” he said, “the victim who victimises. She gets back at those who hurt her by hurting them whenever she has the power and the chance. That’s what you do. Revenge. Poor Molly”. “Bullshit”, I said. He … said “Poor Barbara,” turned and left the room… I got up and went home, where I wrote her a letter telling her I wasn’t going to see her anymore… I wrote another letter, this one to Dr Kelman, informing him I wasn’t going to see him anymore and asking him to please send me his bill.” (Kazan, 723-4).
  8. “A ‘hillbilly’ from the back-country of North Carolina, Barbara had a side to her character – to go with her great sensitivity – that was defiantly tough… Barbara was as wild as the river I was making a film about.”
  9. Kazan credits Loden as having inspired the character of Gwen, both by her presence in his life, and by the conversations he had with her (Kazan, 736 and 738).
  10. Dunaway had been Loden’s understudy when she played Maggie in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.
  11. Kazan, Loden and Proferes quote slightly different figures for the cost of the film: $200,000 for Kazan (Kazan, 1988, 793); between $80,000 (the original budget) and $115,000 (the money actually spent) for Loden (Melton, 12); and $75,000 for Proferes.
  12. Maybe he accepted because of a memory. In 1957, Proferes was in the Navy, and during a period of R&R, was offered a ticket to his first Broadway show: it was Compulsion. “I was up in the balcony… and down below there was a blonde girl in a red dress doing the Charleston. I carried this image with me for years. It was Barbara…”
  13. One must mention Richard (Ricky) Leacock’s Eddie Sachs in Indianapolis (1961), Football (1962), The Chair (1963), Happy Mother’s Day (1963, in collaboration with Joyce Chopra), Igor Stravinsky, a portrait (1966), Albert and David Maysles’s What’s Happening!, The Beatles in the USA (1964) and Salesman (1969), Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) and Monterey Pop (1967), and the Maysles-Charlotte Zwerin collaboration, Gimme Shelter (1970).
  14. “Both films [Wanda and Minnie and Moskowitz] are about the interaction of personal style and hostile environment, and, further, about the interaction of the different senses of timing, and their different styles of acting… Both films are, in short, about the possibilities of productive synchronisation and creative counterpoint of personal styles and timings that might be said to be one possible definition of a loving relationship” (Carney, 1985, 152).
  15. This is a major difference with John Cassavetes’s work, which, contrary to some rumors that have circulated, “looks improvised, but was entirely scripted… [At the time he directed Shadows] John had an acting class, and the theme of Shadows was the result of improvisational exercises by his students. It is the only film in his entire career that was improvisational… He loved actors. He rehearsed quite a bit while shooting, and he followed the actors’ suggestions, changing the dialogues, or even the storyline, if they found something better to do. For Faces, we had three weeks of rehearsals, then we shot about 150 hours of footage.” (Al Ruban, longtime collaborator of Cassavetes, interviewed and quoted by Bérénice Reynaud in “Al Ruban: Tout, plus le reste,” Cahiers du cinéma, No.417, March 1989, 23-24)
  16. He adds that the only other film-work that Loden and he were offered was when the Learning Corporation of America asked them to direct “a couple of one half-hour dramatic films, some sorts of moral tales,” which they shot in the same conditions as Wanda.
  17. “When Virginia Woolf was questioned about a specifically women’s writing, she was appalled at the idea of writing ‘as a woman.’ Rather, writing should produce a becoming-woman as atoms of womanhood capable of crossing and impregnating an entire social field” (Deleuze and Woolf, 276)
  18. The Genesis gives a strange homosexual version to this passage: the feminine figure of Abel, the shepherd, is sacrificed by Cain, the farmer. Abel dies without progeny or legacy, while it is Cain, even though “marked”/striated by his fault, who carries the law of a male, monotheist and “jealous” God.
  19. This in itself would grant a much longer development. I can only mention, as fellow travellers in the exploration of this space, filmmakers Nina Menkes (The Great Sadness of Zohara, Magdalena Viraga, Queen of Diamonds), Leslie Thornton (especially Adynata and There Was a Distant Cloud Moving) and Trinh T. Minh-ha (who is also an essayist and whose writing on women and “the interstice” have been particularly inspiring).
  20. Gabriel continues as follows: “It is only in open free spaces that a new cinema can both deconstruct and construct this cinema. It is only through work of nomadic sensibility that black cinema, independent, feminist, exile and Third World cinema will capture its axis.”
  21. See Jacques Lacan, “The Line and the Light,” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, Alan Sheridan trans, Norton, New York, 1977, pp.91-102
  22. Or “kidnaps her,” as written in a misinformed summary of the film.
  23. Strangely, even though the narrative and the formal means to express it are different, Je, tu, il, elle and Wanda also have a very similar structure: the depression in an enclosed space (in Wanda this part is barely shown), the “wandering” on the road, assorted with a brief sexual encounter, in which what is at stake is more the jouissance of the man than of the woman (although Akerman’s trucker is shown with more tenderness than Loden’s travelling salesman), and finally, a relationship of desire with a reluctant partner (in Wanda this part occupies most of the film, while in Je, tu, il, elle it is neatly confined to the last third). In both cases, this relationship is shown as short-lived – Akerman has to leave the next morning, and Mr. Dennis is killed – but both women have found a way of articulating their desire.

    It is probably no accident that this articulation is done through the stubborn assertion of the physical presence of the filmmaker’s body on screen, as if to say “I am here to stay.” Even though Akerman had directed a number of short films beforehand, both Je, tu, il, elle and Wanda are the director’s first features and both had difficulties getting recognition – Je, tu, il, elle, shot in a grainy 16mm black and white, with a cast of unknowns (the truck driver, Niels Asterup, was a stage actor at the time) was distributed only after the art house success of Jeanne Dielman (shot in 35mm and graced by the presence of a movie star, Delphine Seyrig).

    My insistence in comparing Loden’s and Akerman’s work of the ’70s comes from the fact that I think they both strove to articulate some important elements of a female subjectivity that was barely being uncovered at the time. None of the works are “pious,” and even less “politically correct.” Also, while I consider that, while Akerman, maybe one of the ten most important filmmakers of the last 25 years, fully deserves the critical and theoretical attention she received, the lack of a similar attention bestowed on Loden is unfair.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

Related Posts