by Angela Martin
This blog is part of the Women Make Film Blog Series. To read more about this series, or to contribute to the blog, click here.
Wanda appears in three of the ‘chapters’ in the first episode of Mark Cousins’s epic Women Make Film: Tone, Meet Cute, and Framing. Cousins’s intention was ‘to focus only on the decisions women filmmakers have made’. Mine, here, is not to question his placing or his commentary on Wanda but to go beyond these chapters and look further at Loden’s realisation of the film.
‘Tone’ and ‘Framing’
The opening of almost any – particularly feature – film effectively illustrates the landscape and atmosphere of what will follow: in colour, texture, mood, pace, framing, location, sound, music (not necessarily all, nor in that order). Wanda’s opening sequence is unusual in this respect, and was even more so in 1970. The first shot is a pan across a still working coal mine. This is followed by a wide shot of a middle-distance lorry moving coal and a closer shot, still exterior, of a crammed-in and uncared for wooden house, framed in front of the mine’s chimney, before cutting to the interior of the house. Women Make Film’s first extract from Wanda (under ‘Tone’), focuses on the interior, and the commentary rightly directs us to see a screaming child, a beer can, the American flag, rosary beads, “real ugly sound, unsweetened by music”. The mine, the house, the characters and props, are all presented in an “unvarnished [and] not escapist” tone that sets up what we can expect of Wanda. However, most of the film is not set in this location and leaves it within minutes. (We can perhaps assume that had the shoot been able to take place further south in the States, the landscape of the opening would have been different.)
The opening of Wanda, then, is not about the location, though we won’t forget its mood throughout the rest of the film. Its function is to speak, to illustrate, the character, Wanda (Barbara Loden), and something of the experiential landscape of her life thus far. She is the last character to appear in this sequence, emerging from the clearly makeshift, possibly emergency bed-on-the-sofa she has slept in, as unkempt as her clearly exhausted sister has already appeared to us. Her brother-in-law leaves with his jacket but without a word and only a sideways glance at his wife (and baby – possibly upset by a wet nappy). She tries to pacify the toddler as she tells Wanda “C’mon, you’d better get up.” Wanda barely lifts her head and says “He’s mad ‘cos I’m here.” The baby’s crying then mixes with the sound of the coal lorries Wanda looks out at through the window. She then sits up, head in hands, in a state of possible hangover, certainly of inertia.
The whole sequence lasts approximately 2’30”, and seeing the film for the first time and without fore-knowledge, it might not be clear which of the two women is the main character since Wanda herself appears without any sense of ‘presence’. The film’s cast, in this sequence (and others), was entirely non-professional apart from Loden, who seems almost a bit player in a seemingly ‘real’ situation thatis loosely choreographed and shot hand-held.
Choreography is also camera movement and editing. Both were done by Nicholas T Proferes, who rightly had the credit “with …” after Loden’s director credit. He had been an assistant editor on the Robert Drew documentary Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) and the editor of a comedy short. His camera experience was principally in (American) cinéma vérité documentary, on D A Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop and Norman Mailer’s Beyond the Law, both in 1968, just the year before shooting Wanda. This experience, and working with a lighter, 16mm camera, known for its easy mobility, meant that he could follow the actors within the set, rather than their being conventionally placed and directed to move. (Because Loden often diverged from her script she and Proferes would work out the next day’s shoot following their viewing of the dailies.)
Interestingly, Elia Kazan (Loden’s husband and a well-established Hollywood director, acknowledged her contribution to his own filmmaking practice on The Visitors (1971), which Proferes also shot, on Super 16mm (Ciment 1973). Wanda was shot on 16mm Reversal, and the account of the film’s journey through more recent retrieval and digitisation is an important part of the film’s life-story (Lipman 2019).
Cousins shows a further extract from the mining location of Wanda’s opening, under ‘Framing’. Immediately after the interior sequence above, Loden/Proferes cut back to a wide exterior landscape-shot of the whole mine. The sound is an almost eerie ambience, unpunctuated by the mine’s machinery. The camera holds the WS, then zooms in slowly. We don’t immediately see Wanda (especially on a small screen) but once she is clearly in the frame, the camera tracks with her -slightly awkward – walk across the landscape. The whole shot lasts roughly 1’45”, conventionally a long time with no other plot action. Again, she’s like a bit player in this landscape, which towers over her, we have no idea where to or why, but she doesn’t appear to have a long journey in mind – she’s wearing only a light blouse and trousers, carrying a handbag and her hair is in curlers under a scarf.
The extract Cousins chooses for inclusion here is the interior of a bar Wanda has drifted into. A man (she presumes the barman) is at the till. The title of this chapter is clearly ironic, and, of course, there’d be very few romance films if the romance wasonly‘cute’. There’s nothing cute here. Wanda and the man, ’Mr Dennis’ (Michael Higgins), are together in the same spaces of Loden’s film only by chance and only over a few days, and their being together is clearly not romantic. By the time they ‘meet’, she has already agreed to her husband divorcing her and their children remaining with him (she was walking across the mine to get the bus to court). After the court she has wandered, aimlessly, and the little money she has has been stolen while she slept in a cinema. Eventually she has ended up in this bar.
Wanda doesn’t realise that she’s walked into the clumsy and impatient robbery ‘Mr Dennis’ is carrying out. They don’t have conversation. He’s focused on the till, she’s focussed on her lost money. She tells him about it, as she might a barman, but mostly tells the air. He slams down the drink she asks for and paces around the window blind. When he’s ready to leave he tells her she’s leaving too, and takes her along, presumably because she’s seen his face and could identify him. There’s no evidence of their having sex and he rebuffs the approach she assumes is expected with “Don’t touch my face.”, and, to a question, snaps: “I don’t like nosey people.” He is quick-tempered and suffers crippling headaches; he erupts violently, mostly against hard surfaces, but once, in a slap to her face.
There is a view that the scenes before they meet, are, as scenes, ‘rambling’ or without purpose but, importantly, they convey Wanda’s lack of purpose in an alienating landscape. Nevertheless, for me, the largely improvisational performance of Michael Higgins and Loden inter-acting is truly gripping, and it’s not surprising that “Higgins is quoted as having told Proferes he “never had before, nor since, experienced such freedom” (McCourt, 2012). Both he and Loden had received awards for performances on the stage, and she had trained at the Actors’ Studio. Kazan told Marguerite Duras that “There was always an element of improvisation, a surprise, in what she was doing.”, and suggested that like the young Brando, “everything would come out of his mouth very alive” (Duras 2003). The freedom for Loden and Higgins to improvise within and around the script was supported by Proferes’s being able to read their performance and catch the best way to frame and follow it (as opposed to helping the movement of non-professional actors earlier).
The extracts chosen by Cousins demonstrate Loden’s certain directing skill, as creative for the time as the filmmaking of Cassavetes, Warhol and Shirley Clarke. It is a huge loss that Loden did not live to direct her planned film of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, or the other scripts that she had written. But there is, now, a considerable and insightful literature on Wanda (as well as on Loden), including, of course, Fjoralba Miraka’s contribution to this WFTHN/WMF blog series, all of which makes the film extraordinarily rich for study and teaching. The films Loden acted in are available, as are the two educational shorts she directed in the 1970s – some, only on YouTube. There are also print interviews, and, also on YouTube, several TV chat show appearances.
Ciment, Michel (1973), Kazan on Kazan, Cinema One 26, Secker & Warburg in assn. with the BFI, p164
Duras, Marguerite and Elia Kazan (1980), ‘Conversation on Wanda’ Cahiers du Cinéma; exerpts from, CduC, June-August 2003; transl. Esmeralda Barriendos, in Comparative Cinema, http://www.ocec.eu/cinemacomparativecinema/index.php/en/33-n-8-english/446-conversation-on-wanda-by-barbara-loden
Lipman, Ross (March 25, 2019), ‘Defogging Wanda’, Tech Corner, The Criterion Collection in which the digitised version is available, with, also, an essay by Amy Taubin.
McCourt, Kate, ‘Who Was Barbara Loden?’,https://www.propellorbooks.com/posts, Fall 2012
Angela Martin is the WFTHN blog editor and a member of the Steering Group. She is a video activist and a former professional film and video editor. She taught film studies and practice at Sheffield Hallam University. Her published writing includes chapters in Women in Film Noir (ed. Ann Kaplan, 1998, London: BFI) and Women Filmmakers: Refocusing (eds. Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, Valerie Raoul, 2003, Vancouver: UBC Press.