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Friday, 24 May 2019

Australian Independent Cinema - Mike Retter introduces DRY WINTER (Kyle Davis, 2019)

Dry Winter
Editor’s Note: Adelaide-based film-maker Mike Retter is a tireless promotor of genuine Australian independent cinema. Here he introduces a new low-budget feature made in his home town. Mike writes:

Sometimes the best things come out of a sense of crisis. Crisis forces change. When in Adelaide recently, the most prestigious university film degree had no honours applications, Flinders took the radical decision to produce feature films during honours year to entice new interest. The first round of completed feature projects has already spawned an excellent art-film called Dry Winter ... A collaboration between Flinders honours students and some young residents of the regional South Australian town of Cowell. It stands as one of the most promising Adelaidian cinematic works for several years, stylistically harkening back to Kriv Stenders’ Boxing Day and striking the tone of Justin Kurzel's Snowtown

To read the full interview between Mike Retter and the "creative gang-of-four behind the film" you will need to click here

This was first posted on the indefatigable Bill Mousoulis’s website Pure Shit Australian Cinema  a website devoted to alternative Australian cinema. The film-makers have just started on the round of offering the film to film festivals in Australia and presumably abroad. 
Dry Winter

Thursday, 23 May 2019

CINEMA REBORN - The Presentations (5) - Susan Potter introduces GOLDEN EIGHTIES (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France/Switzerland, 1986)

The Akerman We Love
Susan Potter introduces Golden Eighties
I am here as a fan of Chantal Akerman’s work, more than a deeply informed expert. The Akerman I love isthefearless and committed documentary filmmaker who can open her 2015 documentary No Home Moviewith a near four-minute shot of a tree being battered by an unrelenting desert wind, a mesmerising audiovisual image of endurance. It’s the young, experimental filmmaker who, 40 years earlier, in 1975 in Je tu il elle has the audacity not only to end her film with an extended, at times awkward and unnerving sex scene between two women, but to act in it herself. And it is of course the brilliant director of the feminist durational masterpiece of the same year, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles.
How do I reconcile that Akerman, the one that I already know and love, with the Akerman who made Golden Eighties (Window Shopping)? Like me, some of you no doubt have already encountered the sense of incredulity that marks some of the promotional material for the film, a sense of bewilderment almost, that Akerman not only made—but was even interested in making—a musical. 
Chantal Akerman 
From the late 70s Akerman herself was looking for ways to escape the burden of Jeanne Dielman. In a 2012 interview with Nicole Brenez she recalls: “They kept wanting me to remake Jeanne Dielman, but I wanted to spurn everything—spurn my father’s name, not repeat myself.”[1]In this on-going moment of reflection and re-evaluation since Akerman’s death, we should remember that this film is one of more than 50 works, feature films, documentaries, shorts, and installations that she made since the late 1960s. Yet it remains in some ways a hard film to place in thinking about her diverse body of work, and partly this is to do with the genre of popular entertainment it deploys, one that critics find hard to take seriously.
Some critics hate Golden Eighties. Robert Koehler in a now notorious survey essay published in Cineaste in 2016 described it as “dated and silly, a stiff copy of a Sondheim musical with soupcons of [Jacques] Demy, amusing but empty.”[2]Gwendolyn Audrey Foster—cited in Angelica Waite’s great program note—implies an instrumental motivation, suggesting that she turned to conventional forms and their promise of commercial success to fund her more avant-garde projects. Even those critics who argue brilliantly about Akerman’s work, don’t love this film or don’t think that it can sustain much critical attention on its own. Ivone Margulies in her book Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham: Duke University, 1996) only devotes around two pages to the film, reading it in relation to its companion film made three years earlier, Les Années 80(The Eighties), an experimental musical that is often understood as a precursor or even preview that documents preparation for filming the final version.[3]
Golden Eighties
I’m not going to talk much about the film now since you already have the program note, and the reference there to Stephen Shaviro’s 2007 essay “Clichés of Identity: Chantal Akerman’s Musicals,” as well as Adrian Martin’s 1989 review, which also covers the amazing production team that Akerman was able to bring together. They each reveal what’s distinctive about the film in its intensive and slightly off-kilter mobilisation of the conventions of the musical. And to say something more about this I would have to give away the ending! Rather, what I thought I’d do for the rest of this introduction is consider another way into thinking about this film in the context of Akerman’s body of work, and that is to ask what first might seems like a not-very-critical question: what or who did Akerman love? Her mother, deeply, yes, but also singing. As she said in Autoportrait en cinéaste, on shooting her 2004 film Tomorrow We Move, “I love singing. It’s what I love the most … We would sing, and then we would shoot. What a joy. Whatever happens I must not forget that. That happiness. It doesn’t happen so often. Far from it.”
Golden Eighties
The importance of singing, even perhaps just its presence on set, how it binds cast and crew together, is evident in Autour de Jeanne Dielman, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the film’s production edited by Agnès Ravez and Akerman in 2004, where we see Delphine Seyrig in close-up while her hair’s being done, singing with the hairdresser: “A bouquet of roses so white, For you dear Mother mine.”
But the human voice’s capacity for music and song also appears front stage in Akerman’s work. Right from the start of her filmmaking career Akerman is interested in the voice, its capacity for musical expression and personal subjectivity—think of the slightly crazy humming that comprises the soundtrack of her first black and white short in 1968, Saute ma ville (Blow up my town). Kelley Conway, writing in the recent 100thspecial issue of the feminist cultural and media studies journal Camera Obscura, devoted to Akerman, writes that “[she] employs songs in a range of ways, weaving them into her avant-garde and more traditional works alike while tapping into traditions of popular song, opera, and less classifiable vocal performance. … Akerman’s work is infused with the sound of the female singing voice.”[4]Think, for example, of the opera duet in Akerman’s 2000 film The Captive, or the recorded song that concludes 2004’s Tomorrow We Move.
Rather than think of Golden Eighties as Akerman’s one-off musical then, a kind of auteur singularity, we can think of it as one extended instance of Akerman’s interest in the expressive capacities and constraints of the love song and its generic variations. Songs are often the codified conduits for desires—not just sexual desires, but the desire for other kinds of relations and ways of living and being in the world—desires that cannot be expressed fully visually within the particular space or environment visible on-screen, in the case of the film you’re about to watch, the urban environment designed to orient and intensify our consumer desires, the shopping mall. Akerman understands how even the most generic of songs act as conduits for emotional experience as well as utopian desires of all kinds, even if they cannot always be realised and so inevitably sustain what Lauren Berlant would call a cruel optimism.[5]Akerman also understands how songs function as a kind of folk mnemonic device to recall up and acknowledge such feelings and desires—I guarantee that you’ll still be singing and humming some of these tune days after you watch this film! Golden Eighties might challenge the Chantal Akerman we think we know and love, but if we watch it carefully—actually if we also listen to it carefully—we’ll hear the Akerman we love while also being introduced to new facets of the Akerman we thought we knew.
Sunday 5 May 2019

[1]Original emphasis, cited by Kelley Conway, “Lyrical Akerman” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 34, no. 1 (100) (2019):152.
[2]Robert Koehler, “The Travels of Chantal Akerman,” Cineaste 42, no. 1 (2016): 19.
[3]See the fragmented discussion across pages 186-188.
[4]Conway, “Lyrical Akerman,” 139-140.
[5]Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Susan Potter joined the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the University of Sydney in July 2015. Her research concerns the intertwined histories of cinema and sexuality, including the relation of film as modern mass medium to the intensification of sexuality since the late nineteenth century, and the genres, aesthetics and ethics of sexual representation in contemporary film. She also has documentary production experience in a variety of roles, including editor, archivist, researcher, production manager, producer and director.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Vale Bob Hawke - My single contribution to his public life

Editor’s Note: This is a those were the days memoir.
Robert Helpmann died on 28 September 1986. The Federal Parliament was not sitting that day. It resumed on 7 October and on that day I wandered down the corridor and into the PM’s office. In those days there were no guards. I walked over to talk to a good acquaintance John Bowan, Bob Hawke’s Foreign Affairs Advisor and asked if anything was being planned to note Helpmann’s death. Bowan said he would find out and about fifteen minutes later he came down to my office and said nothing was planned but the PM would be interested in saying something. But.. if we wanted to do it we would have to write it ourselves, quickly, and get it in front of Hawke well before Question Time at 2.00 pm. Asking the public service to get itself into gear and do the speech would mean it never happened, at least not for days. So this below is what I (mostly) wrote, what Bowan passed to Hawke and what Hawke read. A brush with fame…and possibly the only time that Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger and Nicholas Ray were ever mentioned in the Australian Parliament, certainly in the same sentence.
 Vale Bob Hawke… a great Prime Minister.
Madam Speaker, I move:
“That this House expresses its deep regret at the death on 28 September 1986 of Sir Robert Helpmann, CBE, dancer, actor, choreographer, director and producer, places on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious service to the Australian Ballet and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.” 
I wish to pay tribute to a great Australian, Sir Robert Helpmann, who died in Sydney on Sunday, 28 September. It is only in exceptional circumstances that motions of condolence have been moved for distinguished Australians who have not sat in this House. Sir Robert Helpmann was a distinguished Australian whose career as a dancer, choreographer, stage, film and theatre actor, and stage and film director was one of the richest, liveliest and most productive in Australia's cultural life. 
Robert Murray Helpman was born at Mount Gambier, South Australia, on 9 April 1909. At the early age of five he began ballet classes. His teacher, Nora Stewart, told his mother:
“A child is either born a dancer or he isn't. Bobby is, and will go much further than I can take him.” 
Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann
Madam Speaker, there is no doubt he did. He achieved fame in Europe and America and his singular talent was recognised and applauded not only by his audiences but also by his peers. His collaborators on the stage and in film included such illustrious names as Alicia Markova, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Powell, Emeric Presburger, Nicholas Ray, Katharine Hepburn and Sir Frederick Ashton. 
There is not sufficient time here to list his achievements individually. There were too many successes, particularly in his efforts to produce new and exciting dance work. There is time, however, to remind honourable members that Sir Robert Helpmann left Australia in 1932 at a time when opportunities to develop his art and his craft were limited, if not non-existent. By sheer hard work he rose to the top of his profession. He returned to Australia only in the mid-1950s, then to have a major influence over the development of ballet in Australia and to make contributions to our films, theatre, television and even, on one occasion, our pop music industry. 
In 1964 he was made a Companion of the Order of the British Empire for his outstanding contribution to ballet. Other honours bestowed on him were a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award in 1953 and Australian of the Year award in 1966. He was made a knight bachelor in the 1968 New Year's honours list. 
He gave to Australians the benefits of his imagination and skill. As Australia's cultural life has broadened and we have produced more playwrights, painters and directors of international standing and repute, no one should underestimate Sir Robert Helpmann's role in the development of the growing maturity of Australia's art and culture. He blazed a trail for our artists and remained active over many years. He was working virtually up to the time of his death, constantly involved in plans for dances, plays and films. No doubt he was actively involved in preparing to solve the problems each work presented. His work was summed up by his great friend Katharine Hepburn who said these words of him:
“He can set himself on a trail. And follow it. Step by step. Mountain by mountain. Jungle by jungle. Swamp by swamp. And he will get there. He will keep-a-going. And he will get there.” 
Sir Robert Helpmann brought great joy and satisfaction to the millions who saw his work. He demonstrated to the world the diversity of this nation's talents and capabilities. His memory will live on in his films and his choreography. It will also live on through the inspiration such a brilliant career offers to those Australian artists who will follow him. On behalf of the Government and all Australians, I extend to his family our condolences in their bereavement.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Adam Bowen's Talkie Talk #60 - New movies including the SFF 2018 prizewinner THE HEIRESSES (Marcello Martinessi), RED RIVER on TV and Vale to Doris Day and Alvin Sargent)


2040 – Damien Gameau’s picture of what the future may be – if we make the necessary changes.

The Heiresses/Las Herederas (2018) – in Asunción, Paraguay, a middle-aged gay couple, both from wealthy families, feel the financial pinch. Their straitened circumstances bring very unexpected changes to their lives.

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption and Rock ‘n’ Roll – Part concert footage, part biopic of Bruce Springsteen’ s life.

Aladdin – Guy Ritchie directs this live-action version of the old yarn, starring Will Smith as the Genie in the bottle, and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine.

The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales (2017) Animated fun at a farm in the country.

Brightburn – horror as an alien child makes an unexpected stopover on our planet.

The German Film Festival begins on May 21st

Recommended is the thoroughly entertaining, old-fashioned road movie, 25km/H, about two very different brothers (Bjarne Maedel & Lars Eidinger), who take off on their mopeds to find adventure, romance, etc. Finely tuned, perfectly cast and never predictable, it’s a tonic. Also featuring Franka Potente.


Sunday 4.30pm 9Gem, the 1948 Western Red River, (left) is directed by Howard Hawks, photographed (b/w) by Russel Harlan, and stars John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Joanne Dru. It’s a sort of Mutiny on the Bounty cattle drive. Goes on a bit, but packs a punch.


Doris Day, who was the most popular female movie star of the early 1950s, was born Doris Mary Anne von Kappellhoff in 1919. She trained to be a dancer, but a car crash changed that. While recuperating in hospital, Day listened to a lot of singers on the radio – particularly to Ella Fitzgerald. Day had a lovely singing voice – by turns silky smooth, warm and dramatic. She was singing with dance bands in the 1940s, when director, Michael Curtiz, spotted her. He needed a replacement for Betty Hutton in Romance on the High Seas (1948); thus, Day landed her first starring role. Her indefatigable cheerfulness, acting ability and freckly girl-next-door looks made her rise to movie stardom rapid. After a string of musicals – the most famous being Calamity Jane (1953) - Day essayed dramatic roles. Her best was as singer, Ruth Etting, in Love Me or Leave Me (1957). Beginning with Pillow Talk (1959), she starred in a run of popular romantic comedies (often with Rock Hudson), which continued throughout the 1960s. She spent the early 1970s on TV, then retired circa 1975. Her personal life was chequered by unsuitable husbands, but she and her optimism survived them all.

The versatile and prolific American screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, was descended from Russian-Jewish immigrants. He was born in Philadelphia in 1927, and after high school, he enrolled in the navy – mainly so he could get a degree and learn how to type. In Hollywood, he became an actor, and sold ads to Variety, until he scored some writing gigs for TV, and then for movies. His screenplay for Paper Moon (1973) was a great success; as, in a very different vein, was Julia (1977). The brilliantly tense, criminals-in-limbo movie, Straight Time (1978), was a far cry from the family-in-crisis drama, Ordinary People (1980), except that Sargent’s understanding of human relationships is what made both movies so strong. Sargent also wrote one of the best superhero movies, Spider Man 2 (2004), and after penning The Amazing Spider Man (2012), he retired. Apparently, he wanted written on his tombstone: “Finally, a plot.”

Click here for a long reminiscence conducted at the Writer's Guild Foundation

Saturday, 18 May 2019

MY FIRST REVIEWS - Bruce Hodsdon kicks off a new series and we recall A KIND OF LOVING (John Schlesinger, UK, 1962) and THE LEFT-HANDED GUN (Arthur Penn, USA, 1958)

My first reviews and their reprise
Following the recent invitation to submit early attempts to write film reviews to the blog I came across what I believe are my first two attempts at film reviews, certainly the first to be published - as program notes for film society screenings back in 1965. I further realised that there were companions to these reviews in the form of one paragraph catalogue entries written in my role as film study officer for the National Library's Film Lending Collection which had been established in 1975 to service film societies, schools and the newly emerging film studies at a tertiary level with prints across the spectrum from experimental shorts to commercial feature films. As FSO I had a free hand and a substantial budget to select films for purchase within a broadly framed collection development policy – a  dream job for a cinephile.

These two films had impressed me on first (and subsequent) viewings and remained on the priority list for (pre-video) acquisition when the opportunity arose two decades later. In the interval, film magazines covering a broad range of critical positions had proliferated and the publication of serious books on cinema had exploded so there was much to draw on. My initial review of The Left-Handed Gun coincided with the publication of Andrew Sarris's immensely influential reappraisal of American cinema in Film Culture. A couple of years earlier the then young auteurist turks in Britain had launched Movie magazine to challenge critical orthodoxy centred on the BFI's Sight & Sound.The four entries span that seminal period in film criticism. I don't recall referring to my original reviews in writing the later entries for which severe limitation of space focused the mind, although there are connecting threads.

The initial reviews appeared in The Armidale Arts Council Film Group Programme Notes in 1965.

John Schlesinger
A Kind of Loving(I962) Dir John Schlesinger with Alan Bates, June Ritchie, Thora Hird.
For those familiar with the radicalism of the new British cinema , the basic attitudes expressed in this film are nothing new. What makes it worth viewing is the freshness and subtlety of the treatment of what might otherwise have been cliché. The plot centres on the relationship between two young northerners in the industrial town of Burnley. [A plot summary then follows in which I committed the sin of revealing the ending]....

This was the first feature directed by Schlesinger and gives ample evidence of a talent more fully realised in his next film, Billy Liar. After the somewhat heavy-handed direction of Tony Richardson, Jack Clayton et al, Schlesinger's objectivity (perhaps closer to that of Karel Reisz in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in this respect) is refreshing in its avoidance of obtrusive camerawork and 'landscape mongering' which mar the work of his compatriots who often seem to confuse 'cinematic' effect with style (very much the case with Jack Clayton's latest feature The Pumpkin Eater). Schlesinger's intention is for us to observe rather than identify with the characters. He is as interested in milieu as in character to bring wider issues into focus; the alienation of a class of young people who can neither realise their ambitions within a working class ethos nor that of petit bourgeois gentility. The confusion in their relationship mirrors their inner conflicts. Unable to differentiate between love and lust, only the necessity of circumstance brings some sort of clarity as they come to terms with their situation through compromise.

The lack of originality in theme combined with the objectivity of Schlesinger's direction could have reduced the film to the banal. However, his style is well suited to the low-key naturalistic dialogue of the Hall and Waterhouse screenplay which preserves the essential character of Stan Barstow's novel [I hadn't read the novel, but a reasonable assumption for this genre]. The cast, with uniformly fine performances, has maintained this naturalism which called for a range of gesture of a testing kind. Only occasionally does Schlesinger's camera go in search of gratuitous effect as when he pans away from the lovers to [ironically] take in the graffiti and posters on the wall of a bus shelter. In general he avoids glib identification with a point-of-view.

Two decades or so later, in a curatorial role having selected the film for purchase on 16mm for the  film study lending collection I wrote/compiled the following catalogue entry for A Kind of Loving:

The constrictions of life in a Northern industrial town are delineated through the relationship between Victor and Ingrid, a draughtsman and a typist working in the same factory. A sharply observed documentary 'feel' is heightened by the economy of the dialogue and the acuity of the acting achieving a certain balance of sympathy which forestalls easy judgements. As the central characters painfully come to terms with each other, their feelings and motives seem both conditioned by and suspended somewhere between middle-class gentility and a fading sense of working class community.

Arthur Penn
The Left-Handed Gun (1958) Dir. Arthur Penn. With Paul Newman, John Dehner, Hurd Hatfield
Although ostensibly within the western genre, like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitarthis film stands apart from the genre's conventions. In this case director, writer and actor combine to produce something unique.

The theme, based on the play by Gore Vidal, is an overt attempt to destroy the myth of Billy the Kid. The film attempts to show his career free of cliché, Billy being shown as a man of sorrows very different from the legend. At times the effect is quite bizarre. Frenetic violence alternates with several sequences of curious elation. Billy makes his escape from the jail in a near surrealist penultimate sequence of crazy angled camerawork and almost expressionist lighting.

An amazing first film from Arthur Penn, the film has been described as “the ultimate in the application of the Method to the western.”  Both The Left-Handed Gun and The Miracle Worker are concerned with the problems of physical communication when the spoken word is virtually useless, gestures and monosyllables doing the work of conversation. With a theatrical background, Penn shows a distinct cinematic flair. “The intense physicality of the performances in his two films serves to counter-balance a strained reading of the lines. A director of force rather than grace, Penn may yet re-assert the plastic role of the actor in the scheme of things.” (Andrew Sarris, Film Culture 28).

My catalogue entry two decades or so later:
"The psychological orientation of Gore Vidal's teleplay, on which the film is based, transforms the  Billy the Kid legend into a youth-in-revolt drama with Billy on an ultimately tragic oedipal quest. There is a complex balancing of sympathies, in a precarious social order, between Billy, potentially subversive, and Pat Garrett, the bearer of the new reality and social norms. The film is also overtly concerned with the gap between the legend and an often painful reality.”

Friday, 17 May 2019

CINEMA REBORN - The Presentations (4) - Rod Bishop introduces IN A LONELY PLACE (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1950)

This is the fourth transcript of the introductions given at  CINEMA REBORN. The previous posts can be found if you click on these links. 

Rod Bishop introduces In A Lonely Place
I want to talk about my Dad…and In A Lonely Place.

Thirty years ago, I was in America when Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opened. I went to a suburban cinema to see the first session on the first day. There were only about a dozen of us in the audience. We were all single males and all spread around a very large cinema. 

Everyone else was my Dad’s age – they were Second World War veterans or perhaps men who had lost loved ones in the war.

I’ve always been interested in Second World War veterans in Film Noir.

Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart inthis film, is a Hollywood scriptwriter and a Second World War veteran.

Gloria Grahame, Humphrey Bogart, In A Lonely Place
By the time In A Lonely Place was released in 1950, there had been five years of veterans in Film Noir.
They were a given, so we only learn of Dix’s wartime service in a couple of throwaway lines. 
In the Second World War, my father had served in Palestine, Borneo and had been attached to the US Forces in the Solomon Islands Campaign.
The war was the undoubted highpoint of Dad’s life. He had about 20 rules that ran his life and his children and we were subjected to a sort of military rule upbringing. 

He remained detached and overwhelmingly judgmental all his life. 
When he died, I was given his wallet and inside were a set of photographs of Dad and his army mates in the desert in Palestine.
I had never seen him look like that.  
He looked alive and happy and contented. 
I didn’t know this person.
He seemed like a complete stranger to me. 
Dixon Steele, in In A Lonely Place says things like: “Are you going to arrest me for a lack of emotions?
My father could have easily have said that.
I’d love to know how Dad became so trenchantly rightwing. He even found the DLP too far to the left. 
After he died, my mother said to me, when I was complaining yet again about Dad’s political hatred of all things left: “You’ll probably be surprised to know that your father voted Labor all his life”
Mum was always prone to understatement.
And where Dixon Steele in this film clearly enjoys goading every other character into believing he is capable of murder, so my Dad obviously enjoyed making us think he was politically rightwing when he was not.
In A Lonely Place is not a typical Film Noir. There’s no expressionistic cinematography … no hard-boiled femme fatale…
Rather, as Eddie Cockrell points out in his excellent program notes, the Noir elements live mostly inside Dix’s head.

The film is often celebrated for dismantling misogyny and while this is true of the events on-screen, it wasn’t necessarily the case with events off-screen.

At the time of production, the lead actress Gloria Grahame was married to the director Nicholas Ray.

A “Mr. and Mrs. Contract” was written between Gloria Grahame and Ray. It stipulated, and here I quote –

my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours 9am to 6pm every day except Sunday, during the filming.

I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail” 

Another clause forbade Grahame to:

 “nag, cajole, tease, or in any feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.”

The executive who wrote the contract claimed it: “was based on my 25-years of experience as a married man”.

In a Lonely Place


Rod Bishop
4 May 2019

Rod Bishop has had a long career in film as a critic, teacher, producer and administrator. His films include the Oz cult classic Body Melt (Dir: Philip Brophy). He is a former CEO of the Australian Film Television and Radio School and a founding member of the Organising Committee of Cinema Reborn.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

CINEMA REBORN - The Presentations (3) - Margot Nash introduces WANDA (Barbara Loden, USA, 1970)

This is the third transcript of the introductions given at  CINEMA REBORN. The previous posts can be found if you click on these links. 


I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation upon whose ancestral lands we meet and pay my respect to Elders past and present, acknowledging them as the traditional custodians of knowledge for these lands.

Margot Nash introduces Wanda
I would also like to thank Geoff Gardner for giving me the opportunity to introduce Barbara Loden’s Wanda. The film has been described as a feminist masterpiece, but I had never seen it, so I was curious. 

Wanda was finished in 1970, the same year Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch. It was a time when feminism was starting to sweep the world. It started like a match thrown out of a car in dry country or a series of spot fires spontaneously bursting into flame in remote areas.  It took many people by surprise with its ferocity and power. What it did was challenge male power and that made many people very uncomfortable. Loden’s film also makes people uncomfortable. At the time she said:
When I made Wanda, I didn't know anything about consciousness raising or women's liberation. That had just started when the film was finished.The picture was not about women's liberation. It was really about the oppression of women, of people... Being a woman is unexplored territory, and we're pioneers of a sort, discovering what it means to be a woman. [1]

I think Loden’s film is remarkable because it explores the ‘experience’ of women’s oppression. This is what makes the film so uncomfortable and Loden’s performance as the main character, Wanda, who is pushed around by a series of men is, at times, profoundly moving for she inhabits the character entirely without judgment. Loden describes herself as growing up in a poor hillbilly town and there is an authenticity to her performance that clearly comes from her own experiences and observations. 

Barbara Loden (1975)
I put off watching this film because so many people said they hadn’t liked it when it came out because the character was so passive and the film was hard going at times. It is. Yet Wanda’s internalisation of society’s judgement of women as worthless and inferior to men is what makes her passive and this is, of course, what Loden, as both writer, director and actress was trying to show. This ‘experience’ of invisibility, which Loden brings so powerfully to the screen, shows the consequences for a woman who has grown up thinking she was nothing. 

British academic Laura Mulvey’s ground breaking 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema[2]used psychoanalysis and film theory to argue that the spectator in the cinema was defined as masculine, and images of women were there for the pleasure of what she called the ‘male gaze’. In 1974 John Berger’s Ways of Seeing[3]argued that images of women, in particular the nude in art history, were there not just for the pleasure of the male spectator, but to flatter him.  

Wanda’s image on screen does not flatter the men she meets. Instead it reveals them at their worst. No wonder it was ignored for so many years. 

It was also pretty much ignored by the early women’s liberation movement. Perhaps because women at the time desired heroic role models of remarkable women, not downtrodden images of women who were the passive victims of unremarkable men.

In the 1973 issue of Women and Film, which was published in California, an attempt was made to list all the films made by women since the beginning of cinema. The list is of course incomplete with the only Australian entry being the McDonagh sisters. I had to really search for Wanda and finally found a brief mention in a section on American ‘women who made promising starts as directors in the 60s and the first few years of the 70s. It is described in 4 just words… to set a mood (Barbara Loden’s Wanda). [4]

Barbara Loden, Wanda

Yet Wanda was the only American film accepted by the Venice Film Festival in 1970, where it won Best Foreign Film, and the only American film presented at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. At the time Marguerite Duras cited it as an inspiration, particularly for Loden's ability to inhabit her character onscreen, saying in an interview with Loden’s husband the film director Elia Kazan, "I think that there is a miracle in Wanda. Usually there is a distance between the visual representation and the text, as well as the subject and the action. Here this distance is completely nullified; there is an instant and permanent continuity between Barbara Loden and Wanda."Duras described Loden's performance of Wanda's "demoralization" as "sacred, powerful, violent and profound."[5]

Loden was a lifetime member of the famed Actors Studio. She married Kazan, who was 23 years her senior, in 1966 - 15 years after Kazan had directed A Streetcar Named Desire and there is, I think, a hint of Blanche in Wanda, particularly as we meet her when she is homeless and staying with her sister.  Kazan was at times condescending when speaking about Loden, but he also encouraged her to make the film and he always respected her work as an actor.   

"There was always an element of improvisation, a surprise, in what she was doing. He said. The only one, a far as I know, who was like Brando when he was young. He never knew exactly what he was going to say, therefore everything would come out of his mouth very alive."[6]

Wanda has been variously described as “an existential rumination on a poverty-stricken woman adrift in Pennsylvania coal country” and “ asemi-autobiographical - portrait of a "passive, disconnected coal miner's wife who attaches herself to a petty crook. It was inspired by a story Loden read in a newspaper where a woman, who had been on the lam with a bank robber, thanked the judge for putting her in jail. Not surprisingly Wanda was unlike the romantic Hollywood outlaw movies of the time like Bonnie and Clyde, which Loden disliked.

She is quoted a saying: I really hate slick pictures... They're too perfect to be believable. I don't mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.[7]

Wanda’s mis en scène was innovative in its cinéma verité and improvisational style,and closer to Italian neo-realism, in its use of locations and non-actors and also, of course, to the raw improvisational work of John Cassavetes.

Watching the film I was reminded of a 1972 Australian short called Woman in a House by the late photographer and visual artist Sue Ford. This film was very poignant in this context for me for two reasons.  The first was its content for, like Wanda, the ‘woman in the house’ is depressed and trapped in a domestic world she yearns to escape from. Wanda walks out, but the woman in the house only escapes in her imagination. Both women have few choices to survive alone and both are vulnerable to exploitation.

The second reason Woman in a Housewas poignant for me was because when I tracked down a clip on Sue Ford’s web site (which her son set up after she died) it was magenta. [8]Clearly it had been taken from a 16mm print that was fast turning to vinegar. I did a quick search of the NFSA web site and sadly could not find any listing for preservation materials for the film, although I did find a listing for Sue Ford - untitled film. Sue made a number of important films. It seems unthinkable that almost no preservation materials are in the archive, that her films may never be ‘reborn’.  

The second film I was reminded of was the late, great Agnes Varda’s 1985 feature film Vagabond starring Sandrine Bonnaire.  Like Wanda it is the story of a young woman, a vagabond, who wanders, this time through the wine country in the south of France one winter. Both women are unknowable, disconnected and at risk. They are not great heroines of the feminist revolution.  They are the reason there had to be a revolution.

I think it should be remembered here that second wave feminism set up the first women’s refuges for women. It also offered an analysis of male power for young women like myself who were often adrift, and it fought against discrimination. Loden may not have been directly influenced by women’s liberation, but she was part of a historical movement, which began to speak about the hidden lives of women and actively campaign for change. 

I would like to finish with a short feminist poem, which appeared anonymously in the 1970s. When I tracked this poem down I contemplated not reading it tonight because it didn’t quite fit in with Wanda sitting outside the women’s liberation movement of the time, but perhaps it does speak to that place where Loden, Wanda and feminism intersect.

In a woman’s world of men… 
Who like us free… to give in bed and… everywhere
We are ……. some of us
 dying… and… some
of us playing life. I do not mean to…
glorify…….. our plight
in your…. martyr terms
but rather to quietly.. and in a woman’s way…
tell you that this is just…
about the last time I 
will say this in quite this way…from now on 
you will be either with me.
Or you will be without.. me.

Barbara Loden died from breast cancer 10 years after she made Wanda.  If she had been alive today she would probably have survived due to the lobbying work done by women to raise money for breast cancer research.

I’d like to dedicate this screening to her memory.

Margot Nash   
3rdMay 2019

Margot Nash is is a Freelance Screenwriter, Director and Script Editor. She is currently an Honorary Associate Teaching & Research in the School of Communications at the University of Technology Sydney.

[1]Acker, A. Reel Women - Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York 1991 pp.78-91
[2]Mulvey, L. (1975)Visual Pleasure and Narrative CinemaOriginally Published - Screen 16.3 Autumn (pp. 6-18)Oxford UK.
[3]Berger, J. (1974)Ways of Seeing Penguin, London.
[4]Smith, S. (1973)Women Who Make Movies Women and Film Vol 1, Nos. 3 & 4 Eds: Beh, S. & Salyer, S. (p. 79) Santa Monica Cal.
[5]Duras, M. and Kazan, E. (2003). "Conversation on Wanda, Cahiers du Cinéma (excerpts from an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, December, 1980). 
[6]Duras, M. and Kazan, E. (2003). 
[7]Brody, R (January 26, 2010). Wanda, The New Yorker.