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.

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