by Andres Solar
Barbara Loden (1934-1980), the North Carolina-born stage and film actress perhaps best known for her role in the award-winning Splendor in the Grass (1961), wrote and directed one feature in her life. Wanda, in which she also plays the title role, has been beautifully restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and distributed by Janus Films for theatrical exhibition.
Though Loden appeared in two Hollywood movies and several television series, when she took her turn at the helm she eschewed the prevailing Tinseltown techniques. “I really hate slick pictures” she once told the New York Times. And it shows in the alternately (sometimes simultaneously) tentative and jarringly rapid zooms, mostly in. Though the sequences move along nicely, the editing is jagged. It’s all part of the character and charm of Wanda, and Loden’s point-and-shoot sensibility is a perfect fit for the plot and themes.
Set in the old coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania—known locally as “the Coal Region”—the film begins on the anthracite mounds of towns like Ashland, Scranton, Lansford, and Centralia. Scranton is the hometown of Vice President Joe Biden who famously described it as “hard-scrabble.” Even when coal was booming—its decline started in the 1950s—life was no breeze.
Shot on 16mm, produced on a budget of $115,000, and featuring loose, improvisational dialogue—Wanda is a work of tremendous grit and integrity. Yet there’s a dreamlike lightness to it. Loden herself seems to be floating through it; a leaf blowing in the wind.
Her Wanda Goronski drifts into and out of the lives of various and sundry characters after a divorce in which she consents to giving custody of her two small children to their father. Untethered, now, to her home and family, and despite her lack of resources, she’s unconcerned about who will pay for her next beer. One of the writer-director’s flashes of brilliance was making Wanda almost utterly unconcerned with anything. In only a day, she becomes both enviably free and dangerously vulnerable.
But she’s a serious person, not a giggling, happy-go-lucky drunk. Wanda is smart and self-confident. Loden created and positioned the character such that we can observe and examine her twists and turns without the distraction of digression. So that we can answer for ourselves, “What can happen when a person goes adrift with few reservations about it?”
Wanda is a true wonder of American cinema. Barbara Loden gave us a scintillating snapshot of our country in a thematic context no less than this: personal liberty. In an unforgettable work of art, and in rarest fashion, she gradually reveals the dynamics and the limits of freedom and consequences.
If you stumbled upon it at two in the morning on an arts channel, within a minute you’d ask yourself, “What is this strange movie?” A few minutes later: “This is crazy. I love it!” There’s never a dull moment in Loden’s rough-hewn, crackling, fiery masterpiece. It’s a unique, ever-effective, sometimes obliquely comical blend of character study, socioeconomic observation, and caper story.
Upon viewing, the cineaste will note: “She did that way before the Coen brothers!.. Oh, this feels like Tarantino… Wait, did Alexander Payne get that from Loden?” And on and on down the list. Both directly and indirectly, Wanda deeply influenced what we today call American independent cinema.
In groundbreaking, DIY style, Loden created a work akin to great, self-taught Southern artists like Howard Finster (1916-2001) and Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910-2007). The latter—in Fayette, Alabama—made his own paint, mixing dirt and cola, for example, for the dark colors he used often in backgrounds. Out in Summerville, Georgia, Finster fashioned fantastical paintings and objects in a style that almost completely lacked the dimension of depth and often included simple seraphim and other heavenly beings. In her white dress and daisy-covered headband, Wanda herself could be mistaken for one of Finster’s whimsical angels.
5 of 5 stars
The new restoration of Wanda (Barbara Loden/USA/color/1970) sees its Miami-area premiere on Friday, September 14th at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Check www.mbcinema.com for more information.