Wanda

08/03/2021

The Surface that Hides the Depths

Let us start with the scene in the cinema. The title character in Wanda has fallen asleep and wakes to notice her purse missing. She looks around and finds it in a seat nearby with the help of a teenage boy cleaning the auditorium. She then discovers her wallet is missing and he then hands that to her as well. Money has gone from the wallet. We have no idea who stole the cash but it is one of many ambiguities in a film that from one perspective can be seen as sloppily vague and from another as brilliantly complex. Do we not know because first-time director Barbara Loden hasn’t given us information, or is this type of categorical clarity contrary to the aesthetic she seeks? Pauline Kael when reviewing the film expressed something of this critical ambivalence when saying “Loden is a beginner, and the film is rough on the audience, but it’s rough for some good reasons — there is nothing coy or facile in her approach…” (Deeper into Movies) David Thomson says in a review that is full of praise and melancholic admiration, that “the photography is rudimentary. There is no music” and “Loden has allowed herself to look as plain and hopeless” as she can. It is as though Kael and Thomson don’t quite know what to make of the film even if Thomson’s praise is greater than Kael’s. Both admire Loden’s integrity but wonder how much of it has been turned into aesthetic purpose, as though its qualities are those of a tough-minded personality rather than that of a fully evolved artist.

Can we rescue the film from such claims without forcing upon it a deliberation that suggests genius in every frame? Can we acknowledge that there is an instinctive intelligence in the work which needn’t counter its aesthetic intention but represent its furtherance? Let us think for a moment about other ambiguities the film offers. Many reviewers comment on the people she stays with at the beginning of the film as her sister-in-law but there is nothing that makes this clear and it is only reading the credits that allow us to make this claim. Even if we accept they are sisters then who is the old woman fiddling with the rosary beads and with candles behind her so early in the morning? If the two women are sisters, who is the older woman; their mother or the brother-in-law’s mother? A little later, Wanda asks a man she calls by his first name for some money and he says he would give her more if he could. A User review on Imdb, for example, has proposed that this is Wanda’s father but the dynamic doesn’t especially suggest this and why does she call him by his first name? If he is the father does he happen to be the husband of the old woman sitting in the chair with the rosary beads? The film itself keeps all these relationships in a state of tension that we may understandably wish to simplify to make sense of the film, and if the credit notes tell us that someone is a sister or father, then we have to take it as given. But all it would require is the absence of these credits to return the characters to ambiguous status. The only people credited at the end are Barbara Loden as Wanda and Michael Higgins as Mr Dennis, the bank robber she meets. Now later in the film when Mr Dennis meets his father we are in no doubt that this is his dad, not only in the body language which suggests clearly a father and son relationship, and in the money Mr Dennis tries to give him, but also when he refers to the older man as pop. There is nothing specifically in the body language which indicates in the earlier scene that the woman with the baby is Wanda’s sister and nothing in the dialogue that makes the relationship clear, and the same concerning the man who reviewers refer to as her father. 

Yet these ambiguities are part of an ongoing relationship with an ostensibly transparent aesthetic that generates mysteries when we think about them. Can we say for sure that Wanda has slept with the man who picks her up in the bar? If we think so it rests chiefly on the notion that his purpose in paying for her drink was to get her back to his hotel room, that in the morning he is keen to escape without her noticing, and that when she does wake we see that she has been sleeping naked. But can we make the same assumption in the scene when we first see her in bed with Mr Dennis? Mr Dennis hasn’t tried to pick her up but felt obliged to take her along. She turns up at a bar he is in the process of robbing and ends up taking her with him when he escapes. She again appears to be sleeping naked when they share a bed in a hotel room but when she gets up the film elides a moment, as we see her in bed with her clothes in her arms to a cut which shows her fully dressed, a midriff shot as she puts her hand into the handbag on the table. A few moments earlier she has shown a gesture of affection towards Mr Dennis that he rejects, but does he reject it because he has already had what he wants physically from her or because he doesn’t want anything at all, or is just that he cannot tolerate anyone touching his head as he suffers from appalling migraines? The film remains moot on this and if we think she may have slept with him is this because we are sure she has already slept with the man who has bought her a drink and because of what her husband says as they are divorced in the courtroom? Before she arrives he tells the judge that she hasn’t been a good mother, that she’d lie around on the couch and the kids would be dirty in their diapers. Are we assuming that a woman who isn’t much of a mother, according to a husband who seems to have gone off with another woman, is also a woman who sleeps with any man she comes across? That is Kael’s take when she refers to her as a “sad, ignorant slut” but it requires making assumptions about information that isn’t quite presented as fact. It is as though by keeping Wanda’s sexual life vague Loden proposes that whatever she seeks isn’t chiefly lustful. There is no suggestion she leaves her husband because she wants other men; it is clear that her husband wants a divorce since he already has another woman in his home if not in his bed. Indeed, we might wonder if the reason Wanda is sleeping on the couch in somebody else’s home at the beginning of the film is that another woman is in her and her husband’s bed at home. We might wonder too if the ‘brother-in-law’ is irate that she’s there, as Wanda proposes, is this because she has just turned up or stayed too long?  

We notice the film contains numerous ambiguities we cannot claim are intentional without insisting they are accidental. It is partly why critics can proclaim a masterpiece or insist the film is no more than a burgeoning work — that a more polished filmmaker would make clearer what they meant to say while those seeing genius will proclaim that the film’s rejection of clarity is a sign of its mastery. If Kael reckons Loden is a beginner, Criterion refers to it as “now widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of independent cinema.” Our purpose is to try and explore the film as a work that is great but without too readily crediting that greatness to intentionality just as we cannot say for sure that much of the ambiguity is deliberate. One takes nothing from Barbara Loden’s achievements by doing this; only to say that part of what makes for genius in cinema rests on the contingent meeting the resistant, the ability of a filmmaker less on occasion to create than to find, and to acknowledge that some realities are profound in their existence rather than anything the filmmaker can create out of their imagination. Loden would seem to have instinctively known this as numerous filmmakers do not. While many script manuals and directorial guides tell us how to create character motivation and how to push visual perspective, Loden finds both by apparently ignoring each of them. Syd Field says, “in order to really solve the problem of character, it’s essential to go into your characters and build the foundations and fabric of their lives, then add ingredients that will heighten and expand the portrait of who they are.” (Screenplay) When filmmakers offering arcing shots before introducing us to a character they are making us aware of the form and giving the character a significance they might not deserve but which nevertheless makes clear the film is made. There are no such shots in Loden’s film, and we might wonder if there was very much fretting over character motivation either. Yet this doesn’t mean the characters aren’t complex nor that the film’s visual impact isn’t acute. When Kael says writing about another film that “movies are so porous a mixture of intention and accidents”, Loden seems to have taken such an idea straight, and it also justifies Kael’s comment on Wanda that “there is nothing coy or facile in her approach.” It’s as if Loden’s method is based on a Bartlebyesque wish to prefer not to: to offer a resistant aesthetic rather than an innovative one by using 16mm and the methods of Direct Cinema to explore lives that do not yield to dramatic convention and demand. When scriptwriting gurus insist that you need to create characters with strong desires, what are Wanda’s? John Yorke says “if a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive… Whether simple (kill the shark) or profound, the underlying “grail” quest structure is ever-present. Cops want to catch the killer, doctors want to heal their patient.” And Wanda? She doesn’t want to divorce her husband, she just does so at his request, just as she doesn’t want to get involved in a bank robbery but happens to do so as Mr Dennis pushes her into it. The point of scriptwriting courses isn’t to examine the nuances of character but find characters who are useful for the sort of throughlines ‘exciting scripts’ possess. Hence this interest in characters desiring things, but what happens if your character doesn’t desire anything? Presumably one ought to rewrite the script. One where Wanda leaves her bullying husband, finds a man to help her pull off a bank robbery and returns home with a small fortune and takes the kids to live with her, might be a much more successful, machine-tooled screenplay ripe for a commercial market and with a ‘strong’ female character but Wanda is an exploration of the enigmatic. It isn’t interested in the contrivances of the dramatic. Its ambiguities are not at all of the sort that Robert McKee and others insist upon when they talk about sub-text. When McKee discusses Casablanca he notes that in a scene where Ilsa talks to Rick she is saying one thing but implying another. “In the subtext, Ilsa’s kind, forgiving prose is a clear goodbye. No matter how well-mannered, no matter how much her language implies her love for Rick, this is the kiss-off: let’s be friends, let’s remember the good times, and forget the bad.” We may find McKee simplifying Casablanca but let us allow such a reading to stand. Can such analysis be applied to Wanda? What matters is not the subtext in the characters' heads but the ambiguities in the viewers'. Wanda will know whether she is staying at her sister’s place and will know whether the old woman by the window is her grandmother but the viewer won’t. It isn’t subtext that matters but the complexity of a situation when a director doesn’t cue us to the roles and relationships. If the film is indebted to Direct Cinema it rests in an observational sense that asks us to scrutinise the surface texture of an interaction as readily as any subtextual thoughts people may be having. The film doesn’t build up drama so that we are wondering what will happen next; it focuses on a perceptual present asking us to make sense of the relations in front of our eyes. In such an approach it is harder to credit intentionality: drama isn’t getting created on the sort of terms Aaron Sorkin proposes when he says, quoted in the Yorke article, “Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you’ll have a scene.” (Guardian)

However, in the opening scene who wants what? When the husband slams the door shut as he leaves, refusing coffee, he is clearly annoyed about something but we will never find out what it is. Wanda when she wakes after the door slams may well say, as we have noted, “he’s mad because I’m here.” Maybe he is but he’d have other reasons to be unhappy, including an early start (a clock says it is 7 in the morning) and the baby screaming. And are we to assume that Wanda has outstayed her welcome (would she not then have said “he’s mad because I’m still here) or is her presence on the couch intermittent and here she is back again? Maybe he is annoyed because she and the sister have been drinking while he was trying to sleep since he had work early in the morning. There are a couple of Budweiser cans beside the couch and another on the sideboard beside the clock. Perhaps he is a religious man who doesn’t like alcohol in the house and the old woman playing with the rosary beads is his mother and not his partner’s. Here is not a subtext that we fish out but a complex social situation that we can try and figure out. The scene has a texture that may contain subtexts too but we are in no position to offer a confident reading about what is going on inside the characters; we, first of all, need to work out who they are.

Obviously, one wouldn’t wish to say that speculation is wrong; it is when speculation becomes insistent either due to a viewer’s over-assertion or the film’s. When McKee reads sub-text into Casablanca it is a combination of both: a script guru who needs to make categorical claims about the film’s craft and skill at utilising the implicit, and the film’s need to weave a dense dramatic tale of intrigue in the titular locale. The more clear the dramatic throughline perhaps the more a subtext is evident. When in a Bond film the girl goes to sleep with 007 and says I will just go and slip into something more comfortable, we aren’t surprised when she comes out of the bathroom wearing a nightgown and pointing a gun. We aren’t surprised either when Bond anticipates this and stands beside the door and wrestles the gun from her as she comes out. They both have things on their mind and the film quickly reveals what they happen to be. The speculation we offer about what is soon to happen as she goes into the bathroom is minimal and quickly revealed. Many a carefully crafted film will be much less obvious than this but the point is still the same: to reveal what a character has in their minds that is contrary to what they happen to be saying. In Vertigo, Gavin Elster hires Scottie to look after his wife only for us later to realize that Elster asked only so he could involve Scottie in a complex murder plot. 

Yet there are numerous films asking us not only to work out the gap between what a character says and what they mean (and Vertigo is one such film when we go beyond the murder mystery and into the perversity of Scottie’s personality) but to muse over the enigma that is at its heart and the mysteries that surround it. Wanda isn’t just a film that has received increasingly over the years plenty of critical attention; there is also a book by French writer Nathalie Leger which examines the film with a fictional consciousness as opposed to a professional insistence. (There is too Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers which offers a still, a plot synopsis and a few words about the film at the conclusion of her novel.) When McKee says “anxious inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious, unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters the form” he is making clear that screenwriting is a skill properly learned, like bricklaying or plumbing, by on the job experience, but that each person will more or less have learned the same thing. Leger has no interest in telling us how Wanda is put together as a piece of craft but instead thinks about how films intermingle with our lives, how we give meaning to aesthetic experience by acknowledging their impact on our own. When she describes Wanda passing through a shopping mall she draws comparisons with her mother in the south of France. Just as Wanda passes from one shop to the next, so her mother after the finalization of her divorce from Nathalie’s father, spent hours wandering through a shopping mall without point or purpose. Her mother tells her this while they watch Wanda together; the film invoking memories that have more to do with the film’s recorded reality over its dramatic competence.  

However, rather than assuming such a recording of reality shows a lack of craft, better to see it as a wise acceptance that since film records what is in front of our eyes rather than makes things up from scratch, surely a central aspect of creation in cinema is the fact of that recording. Even if numerous critics have fretted over how this works now that films are digital, made up of numbers rather than of a chemical compound, it isn’t as if the filmmakers programme these numbers themselves, as a writer puts letter after letter into a system to create words, sentences and paragraphs. When Andre Bazin says of celluloid photography, “between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent” (‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image), that is as true now with digital as it was then with celluloid. Many of the great filmmakers have acknowledged at least in part that their art form records events over which they have only a certain amount of control, and emphasizes the found realities they film rather than the sound stages they can manipulate. Direct Cinema may have been a documentary movement but it came out of shifts in technology that could be as pertinent to fictional filmmakers as factual ones. Speaking of the move towards Direct Cinema, the documentarist D. A. Pennebaker noted that at the end of the fifties, the “apparatus was just beginning to appear: portable tape recorders; faster film stock; lenses that allowed for shooting in natural light; and, an almost overlooked element, the zoom lens.” (‘Nothing but the Truth’) Wanda’s cameraman Nicholas T Proferes worked with Pennebaker on Monterey Pop a couple of years before making Wanda and it is as though Proferes and Loden have asked what is it to make a fictional film while attending to the limits of documentary? What might it add to fiction? If for McKee, the scriptwriter and filmmaker are often confronted with practical dramatic problems they have to resolve, Loden’s film suggests that she chose to bypass them. McKee insists that “exposition means facts — the information about setting, biography and characterisation that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.” (Story) He sees this as the priority but also reckons it must be both lifelike and dramatic, a tension the experienced screenwriter and director will resolve. Yet the more direct the cinema, the more the lifelikeness takes precedence over the dramatic, so the narrational facts become secondary to an exploration of a mise-en-scene that refuses dramatic manipulation. To clarify the relationships at the beginning of Wanda, when the man slams the door, Wanda could have said “your husband really doesn’t like me” and the woman could have replied “you might be my sister but you have to find somewhere else to stay.” It wouldn’t be clumsy but it would be obvious and somehow contrary to a Direct Cinema approach that insists on observation over exposition. McKee may insist that the filmmaker shows rather than tells but since narrational information is sacrosanct then a little telling is usually inevitable. Loden refuses the telling and thus leaves us unsure precisely what the relationships are. However, this rests on the importance of the situation over the relations: what matters is that Wanda is sleeping on someone’s couch, not on whose couch she happens to be sleeping. A Direct approach can show clearly the situation without feeling obliged to find ways in which to show the relations that would then create a more implausible situation. The most famous and consistent exponent of Direct Cinema, Frederick Wiseman says “the final film resembles fiction although it is based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions. I don't manipulate the events, but the editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative, not in the sense that people do things differently from what they will ordinarily do, but the way that people are shot. First of all what you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it.” (Film West) We needn’t suggest that Loden went this far but Richard Brody reckoned “Loden, however, was thinking of the so-called underground cinema and cinéma vérité, with the use of documentary methods to create fictions which, staying close to material reality, also aspired to a new intimacy with the inner life.” (New Yorker) If critics invoke Direct Cinema when talking about the film it rests on the sense in which Wanda allows scenes to retain their documentative ambiguity because the sort of interventions that are taken for granted (the sort of scriptwriting expectations McKee invokes) must be resisted. 

The film also allows for ambiguity, rather than expectation, when Wanda leaves the house, walks through the quarry mine, asks the man for some money, and then gets on a bus. During the sequence the film also shows us a man with an elderly couple, a woman and two kids in the car, telling someone he has to go to court. There is no sense this scene is linked to Wanda’s actions: it doesn’t function as a typical cross-cut that creates in the viewer’s mind links due to the cutting. If a woman walks down a street in the evening and the film then cuts to a man walking down another street we won’t be surprised to see if they meet each other. If it is a murder story we might expect a horrible crime; a romantic comedy, that a love affair will start. The crosscut will generate an expectation. That seems to be missing from Wanda, here, just as the film eschews a line of dialogue that would clarify events. All she needs to say to the woman she stays with is “I mustn’t be late for court” and the next few minutes of the film are anticipated and clear as we wait for her to turn up in the courtroom. Instead, we may wonder where she is going, why she is asking the man for money, and where the bus she gets on will be going to. When we see her in town as the film crosscuts again between Wanda and the court we might now realize that she is the woman the husband is divorcing but we are likely to be unsure where she happens to be. When she stands in a long shot against a war memorial she looks like a woman lonely and lost — not late for an appointment. When she does turn up in the courtroom, entering a door at the back of the room, she seems hesitant and unprepared — like she has walked into the wrong place. Her hair is in curlers and she has a cigarette in her mouth which she is promptly asked to put out. It is as though everything about the first fifteen minutes of the film (and most of the film thereafter as well) is about creating hesitancy and epistemological fragility, as if Loden was looking for a way in which we could less understand her character (and the motivational material often provided as back story to give us a sense of who someone is before the story the film is focusing upon) than understand, once again, her situation. The point of Direct Cinema, and why it would also be called observational cinema, lies in its determination to get the viewer to look at events rather than to comprehend them. In the opening scene, we observe the environment, the quarry, the house, the cans of lager, the baby bawling on the bed, the long-since painted walls, because there is no drama pulling our mind away from these observations. As another of the key practitioners of Direct Cinema, David Maysles proposed, “ideally part of our whole purpose is to make the viewers their own commentators. Not to tell anything, but to show.” (Imagining Reality)

What Loden offers though is a very interesting example of observational cinema in fictional form, as if seeking to create a subjunctive observation of herself as another: a sort of self-analysis which reconfigures the self in a fictional other but resists too strongly the narrational transformation which will lose Loden as a figure in the frame to create assertively Wanda as a character in the story. Ray Carney, quoted by Berenice Reynaud, notes “the absence of point-of-view and shot-reverse shots”, the sort of film grammar that generates conventional identification and that is antithetical to Direct Cinema’s insistence on observation rather than action. It's as though, in the process, Loden found a way of watching herself, evident when she said she thought Wanda was “in something, surrounded by something” (‘For Wanda’) while numerous others have noted ostensible similarities between Wanda and Loden. Her husband Elia Kazan insisted Loden was “working class. Her father and brothers carry pistols when they go out to drink at night.” (‘For Wanda’) Courtney Duckworth notes that “in interviews, Loden’s voice is filigreed with mountain cadences she could not flatten; in 1964, she groused that she “always [said] ‘tin cints’ or ‘inythin’,” and she pronounced the word “literature” in a way that I’ve only ever heard from my mawmaw Bertha, born in North Carolina in 1934, that drops the chh-sound: “lit-err-uhh-tyoor.” (Cinemascope) Duckworth quotes an interview Loden gave to Michel Ciment: “If I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworth’s, I would’ve gotten married at 17 and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night. Fortunately, I escaped.” 

What makes Wanda so fascinating a work is that Loden turns observational cinema on herself, giving it a fictional form that creates an interesting threefold relationship. If documentaries usually have a subject as someone is him or herself on screen, and fiction films have actors who are playing characters, Loden offers herself as an actress playing a character who could have been the subject of a documentary if she hadn’t escaped her milieu. Instead, she became the maker of a work that could show her life as it could have become but without any condescension such a position might imply. When she says of her earlier years in New York that “I spent every day just walking and walking…and I didn’t really know what I was going to do” (Cinemascope) it is as though she wanted to know what that looked like from the outside, to see what it is like to be, indeed, “in something that is surrounded by something”. While many of the great documentaries of the sixties and seventies were interested in exposing their subjects, usually this was at one remove and contained within it a complex, ethical relationship that the filmmakers couldn’t deny because it wasn’t their lives exposed but the lives of others. Whether this was Marceline Ivens in Jean Rouch’s A Chronicle of a Summer discussing her time in a Nazi death camp, the title character in Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason getting drunk over an evening, the mother and daughter in the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens living reclusively on Long Island, accusations of exploitation could be levelled at the works partly because of the gap between the subjects exposed and the filmmakers behind the camera. But while there are arguments to be made why this wasn’t necessarily so (that these were hardly always underprivileged people: Ivens was a filmmaker herself; the mother and daughter in Grey Gardens were relatives of Jackie Kennedy), they function very differently from Loden’s desire not so much to put herself at the centre of the film but a version of herself that could easily have been her in other circumstances.  

One way of looking at Direct Cinema is to see it as a mode trying to escape conventional affects like sympathy, pity, compassion and even empathy, as though seeking in the form less feelings that are created by the film’s creation of character than the registering of a complex situation. When Maysles speaks of his purpose to make the viewer their own commentators, then we can create co-feeling as epistemological speculation. When we see Wanda waiting to get on the bus we aren’t focused on the divorce she is about to get but on the apparent enigma of who she is and where she might be going. In such a space we can speculate as we cannot if the film has signalled that she is about to get a divorce, or if non-diegetic music cued us to how we should feel. What may seem like a colder, cooler aesthetic can generate a speculative warmth, a need in the viewer to muse over someone’s life rather than assume ready access to it. Yet it also addresses a basic philosophical problem that film half-resolves. Stanley Cavell says to “know the world as a whole, or the world as it is in itself, would require us to have God’s knowledge, to know the world the way we more or less picture God to know the world, with every event and all its possibilities directly present.” (Pursuits of Happiness) If cinema often mimics God’s knowledge it does so of course not by showing us everything in the world simultaneously, as if echoing Borges’ brilliant short story The Aleph, but by making us unconcerned by all it doesn’t show us. However, what if a film creates that concern? Then we have the epistemological fragility and at the same time the possibility of co-feeling out of trying to close that breach. By not knowing Wanda, by building a picture of Wanda for ourselves, she becomes our Wanda while numerous film characters become the film’s. When a film fully informs us of all the necessary details of a character’s life we cannot make the character our own however fondly we may feel towards them, partly because we cannot make our own minds up about them in the way we might when a character remains obscure. In Wanda, we don’t know why she is willing so readily to allow the husband a divorce unless we take the husband’s claims for granted, just as we cannot say at the end of the film how much she grieves for Mr Dennis while she gets drunk amongst strangers. One can’t claim with certainty that she leaves her family for no reason other than she is lazy and uncaring, just as we can’t say at the conclusion she is getting drunk so she can forget about Mr Dennis. After all, in the preceding scene, she has been sexually assaulted by a man she meets in a bar and who drives her out to a quarry before trying to have sex with her. Does she consider having sex with him and then changes her mind; does she change her mind because she can’t go through with it so soon after Mr Dennis’s death; is this at last Wanda asserting herself over men who take advantage of her? Perhaps it even has something to do with the location, a stone quarry as opposed to the anthracite mine that she escapes from at the beginning of the film, but a quarry nevertheless. Even the camera’s positioning suggests an echo of the earlier scene where we saw Wanda in a high-angle long lens shot that showed her small within the frame. Here the high-angle long lens captures the red Ford Convertible as it comes into the quarry. The film remains enigmatic as it respects Wanda as an enigma, and we can meet the film with indifference, believing the film hasn’t worked hard enough to generate identification, or meet it with insistence, determined to speculate on who Wanda happens to be. 

Was this part of the appeal of the film for both Leger and Kushner? In Leger’s book, she talks to various people determined to find out more about Loden, including Frederick Wiseman, decribed by Leger as “the pioneer of interview-free, commentary-free, documentation-free documentary.” Telling Wiseman that she is having immense difficulties accessing information about Loden, Wiseman replies that she should “make it up.” “This man, who never works on anything that isn’t real” is telling her to use her imagination. This might seem paradoxical but is also quite consistent. Rather than seeing Direct Cinema as about objectivity we can see it just as readily as an invitation to subjectivity but that, out of its interest in the surface texture of behaviour, we can choose to see meaning that we have imposed upon it rather than that the director imposes upon the film for us. It is why one needs to be careful about making claims within the film that is a consequence of the viewer’s impositions rather than a claim the film itself makes. Critics may understandably have insisted that the beginning of the film shows her staying at her sister’s, and a few have claimed that the man who gives her money is her father, but others have offered a few value judgements too. Not only Kael in her ‘sad, ignorant slut” remark but also Anthony Hawley, who calls Mr Dennis a “Deadbeat boyfriend.” (Brooklyn Rail) and Luise Moerke who reckons he is “a petty, loveless criminal” (Senses of Cinema). The film may invite us to make value judgements but it doesn’t demand them and it doesn’t demand them perhaps in part because Loden wouldn’t pretend to be too far away from the character herself. She suggests it was luck rather than will that allowed her to escape and like her character they share an attractiveness that men are likely to find appealing even if they might not in turn offer commitment. But this is itself a projection in a film that asks us to make them if we so wish but to remain at all times tentative in our claims and responsible for our observations. Marguerite Duras said that “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.” It is as if by playing someone who could easily have been her, Loden has found in such consideration and perhaps concern a means by which to close that fictional gap which makes someone both actor and character. Loden has also welded within a fictional work a new closeness that suggests something of the subject that we find in documentary form, allied to the inevitable ambiguity of a Direct Cinema that cannot access more than the surface that hides its depths. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Wanda

The Surface that Hides the Depths

Let us start with the scene in the cinema. The title character in Wanda has fallen asleep and wakes to notice her purse missing. She looks around and finds it in a seat nearby with the help of a teenage boy cleaning the auditorium. She then discovers her wallet is missing and he then hands that to her as well. Money has gone from the wallet. We have no idea who stole the cash but it is one of many ambiguities in a film that from one perspective can be seen as sloppily vague and from another as brilliantly complex. Do we not know because first-time director Barbara Loden hasn't given us information, or is this type of categorical clarity contrary to the aesthetic she seeks? Pauline Kael when reviewing the film expressed something of this critical ambivalence when saying "Loden is a beginner, and the film is rough on the audience, but it's rough for some good reasons there is nothing coy or facile in her approach..." (Deeper into Movies) David Thomson says in a review that is full of praise and melancholic admiration, that "the photography is rudimentary. There is no music" and "Loden has allowed herself to look as plain and hopeless" as she can. It is as though Kael and Thomson don't quite know what to make of the film even if Thomson's praise is greater than Kael's. Both admire Loden's integrity but wonder how much of it has been turned into aesthetic purpose, as though its qualities are those of a tough-minded personality rather than that of a fully evolved artist.

Can we rescue the film from such claims without forcing upon it a deliberation that suggests genius in every frame? Can we acknowledge that there is an instinctive intelligence in the work which needn't counter its aesthetic intention but represent its furtherance? Let us think for a moment about other ambiguities the film offers. Many reviewers comment on the people she stays with at the beginning of the film as her sister-in-law but there is nothing that makes this clear and it is only reading the credits that allow us to make this claim. Even if we accept they are sisters then who is the old woman fiddling with the rosary beads and with candles behind her so early in the morning? If the two women are sisters, who is the older woman; their mother or the brother-in-law's mother? A little later, Wanda asks a man she calls by his first name for some money and he says he would give her more if he could. A User review on Imdb, for example, has proposed that this is Wanda's father but the dynamic doesn't especially suggest this and why does she call him by his first name? If he is the father does he happen to be the husband of the old woman sitting in the chair with the rosary beads? The film itself keeps all these relationships in a state of tension that we may understandably wish to simplify to make sense of the film, and if the credit notes tell us that someone is a sister or father, then we have to take it as given. But all it would require is the absence of these credits to return the characters to ambiguous status. The only people credited at the end are Barbara Loden as Wanda and Michael Higgins as Mr Dennis, the bank robber she meets. Now later in the film when Mr Dennis meets his father we are in no doubt that this is his dad, not only in the body language which suggests clearly a father and son relationship, and in the money Mr Dennis tries to give him, but also when he refers to the older man as pop. There is nothing specifically in the body language which indicates in the earlier scene that the woman with the baby is Wanda's sister and nothing in the dialogue that makes the relationship clear, and the same concerning the man who reviewers refer to as her father.

Yet these ambiguities are part of an ongoing relationship with an ostensibly transparent aesthetic that generates mysteries when we think about them. Can we say for sure that Wanda has slept with the man who picks her up in the bar? If we think so it rests chiefly on the notion that his purpose in paying for her drink was to get her back to his hotel room, that in the morning he is keen to escape without her noticing, and that when she does wake we see that she has been sleeping naked. But can we make the same assumption in the scene when we first see her in bed with Mr Dennis? Mr Dennis hasn't tried to pick her up but felt obliged to take her along. She turns up at a bar he is in the process of robbing and ends up taking her with him when he escapes. She again appears to be sleeping naked when they share a bed in a hotel room but when she gets up the film elides a moment, as we see her in bed with her clothes in her arms to a cut which shows her fully dressed, a midriff shot as she puts her hand into the handbag on the table. A few moments earlier she has shown a gesture of affection towards Mr Dennis that he rejects, but does he reject it because he has already had what he wants physically from her or because he doesn't want anything at all, or is just that he cannot tolerate anyone touching his head as he suffers from appalling migraines? The film remains moot on this and if we think she may have slept with him is this because we are sure she has already slept with the man who has bought her a drink and because of what her husband says as they are divorced in the courtroom? Before she arrives he tells the judge that she hasn't been a good mother, that she'd lie around on the couch and the kids would be dirty in their diapers. Are we assuming that a woman who isn't much of a mother, according to a husband who seems to have gone off with another woman, is also a woman who sleeps with any man she comes across? That is Kael's take when she refers to her as a "sad, ignorant slut" but it requires making assumptions about information that isn't quite presented as fact. It is as though by keeping Wanda's sexual life vague Loden proposes that whatever she seeks isn't chiefly lustful. There is no suggestion she leaves her husband because she wants other men; it is clear that her husband wants a divorce since he already has another woman in his home if not in his bed. Indeed, we might wonder if the reason Wanda is sleeping on the couch in somebody else's home at the beginning of the film is that another woman is in her and her husband's bed at home. We might wonder too if the 'brother-in-law' is irate that she's there, as Wanda proposes, is this because she has just turned up or stayed too long?

We notice the film contains numerous ambiguities we cannot claim are intentional without insisting they are accidental. It is partly why critics can proclaim a masterpiece or insist the film is no more than a burgeoning work that a more polished filmmaker would make clearer what they meant to say while those seeing genius will proclaim that the film's rejection of clarity is a sign of its mastery. If Kael reckons Loden is a beginner, Criterion refers to it as "now widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of independent cinema." Our purpose is to try and explore the film as a work that is great but without too readily crediting that greatness to intentionality just as we cannot say for sure that much of the ambiguity is deliberate. One takes nothing from Barbara Loden's achievements by doing this; only to say that part of what makes for genius in cinema rests on the contingent meeting the resistant, the ability of a filmmaker less on occasion to create than to find, and to acknowledge that some realities are profound in their existence rather than anything the filmmaker can create out of their imagination. Loden would seem to have instinctively known this as numerous filmmakers do not. While many script manuals and directorial guides tell us how to create character motivation and how to push visual perspective, Loden finds both by apparently ignoring each of them. Syd Field says, "in order to really solve the problem of character, it's essential to go into your characters and build the foundations and fabric of their lives, then add ingredients that will heighten and expand the portrait of who they are." (Screenplay) When filmmakers offering arcing shots before introducing us to a character they are making us aware of the form and giving the character a significance they might not deserve but which nevertheless makes clear the film is made. There are no such shots in Loden's film, and we might wonder if there was very much fretting over character motivation either. Yet this doesn't mean the characters aren't complex nor that the film's visual impact isn't acute. When Kael says writing about another film that "movies are so porous a mixture of intention and accidents", Loden seems to have taken such an idea straight, and it also justifies Kael's comment on Wanda that "there is nothing coy or facile in her approach." It's as if Loden's method is based on a Bartlebyesque wish to prefer not to: to offer a resistant aesthetic rather than an innovative one by using 16mm and the methods of Direct Cinema to explore lives that do not yield to dramatic convention and demand. When scriptwriting gurus insist that you need to create characters with strong desires, what are Wanda's? John Yorke says "if a character doesn't want something, they're passive... Whether simple (kill the shark) or profound, the underlying "grail" quest structure is ever-present. Cops want to catch the killer, doctors want to heal their patient." And Wanda? She doesn't want to divorce her husband, she just does so at his request, just as she doesn't want to get involved in a bank robbery but happens to do so as Mr Dennis pushes her into it. The point of scriptwriting courses isn't to examine the nuances of character but find characters who are useful for the sort of throughlines 'exciting scripts' possess. Hence this interest in characters desiring things, but what happens if your character doesn't desire anything? Presumably one ought to rewrite the script. One where Wanda leaves her bullying husband, finds a man to help her pull off a bank robbery and returns home with a small fortune and takes the kids to live with her, might be a much more successful, machine-tooled screenplay ripe for a commercial market and with a 'strong' female character but Wanda is an exploration of the enigmatic. It isn't interested in the contrivances of the dramatic. Its ambiguities are not at all of the sort that Robert McKee and others insist upon when they talk about sub-text. When McKee discusses Casablanca he notes that in a scene where Ilsa talks to Rick she is saying one thing but implying another. "In the subtext, Ilsa's kind, forgiving prose is a clear goodbye. No matter how well-mannered, no matter how much her language implies her love for Rick, this is the kiss-off: let's be friends, let's remember the good times, and forget the bad." We may find McKee simplifying Casablanca but let us allow such a reading to stand. Can such analysis be applied to Wanda? What matters is not the subtext in the characters' heads but the ambiguities in the viewers'. Wanda will know whether she is staying at her sister's place and will know whether the old woman by the window is her grandmother but the viewer won't. It isn't subtext that matters but the complexity of a situation when a director doesn't cue us to the roles and relationships. If the film is indebted to Direct Cinema it rests in an observational sense that asks us to scrutinise the surface texture of an interaction as readily as any subtextual thoughts people may be having. The film doesn't build up drama so that we are wondering what will happen next; it focuses on a perceptual present asking us to make sense of the relations in front of our eyes. In such an approach it is harder to credit intentionality: drama isn't getting created on the sort of terms Aaron Sorkin proposes when he says, quoted in the Yorke article, "Somebody's got to want something, something's got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you'll have a scene." (Guardian)

However, in the opening scene who wants what? When the husband slams the door shut as he leaves, refusing coffee, he is clearly annoyed about something but we will never find out what it is. Wanda when she wakes after the door slams may well say, as we have noted, "he's mad because I'm here." Maybe he is but he'd have other reasons to be unhappy, including an early start (a clock says it is 7 in the morning) and the baby screaming. And are we to assume that Wanda has outstayed her welcome (would she not then have said "he's mad because I'm still here) or is her presence on the couch intermittent and here she is back again? Maybe he is annoyed because she and the sister have been drinking while he was trying to sleep since he had work early in the morning. There are a couple of Budweiser cans beside the couch and another on the sideboard beside the clock. Perhaps he is a religious man who doesn't like alcohol in the house and the old woman playing with the rosary beads is his mother and not his partner's. Here is not a subtext that we fish out but a complex social situation that we can try and figure out. The scene has a texture that may contain subtexts too but we are in no position to offer a confident reading about what is going on inside the characters; we, first of all, need to work out who they are.

Obviously, one wouldn't wish to say that speculation is wrong; it is when speculation becomes insistent either due to a viewer's over-assertion or the film's. When McKee reads sub-text into Casablanca it is a combination of both: a script guru who needs to make categorical claims about the film's craft and skill at utilising the implicit, and the film's need to weave a dense dramatic tale of intrigue in the titular locale. The more clear the dramatic throughline perhaps the more a subtext is evident. When in a Bond film the girl goes to sleep with 007 and says I will just go and slip into something more comfortable, we aren't surprised when she comes out of the bathroom wearing a nightgown and pointing a gun. We aren't surprised either when Bond anticipates this and stands beside the door and wrestles the gun from her as she comes out. They both have things on their mind and the film quickly reveals what they happen to be. The speculation we offer about what is soon to happen as she goes into the bathroom is minimal and quickly revealed. Many a carefully crafted film will be much less obvious than this but the point is still the same: to reveal what a character has in their minds that is contrary to what they happen to be saying. In Vertigo, Gavin Elster hires Scottie to look after his wife only for us later to realize that Elster asked only so he could involve Scottie in a complex murder plot.

Yet there are numerous films asking us not only to work out the gap between what a character says and what they mean (and Vertigo is one such film when we go beyond the murder mystery and into the perversity of Scottie's personality) but to muse over the enigma that is at its heart and the mysteries that surround it. Wanda isn't just a film that has received increasingly over the years plenty of critical attention; there is also a book by French writer Nathalie Leger which examines the film with a fictional consciousness as opposed to a professional insistence. (There is too Rachel Kushner's Flamethrowers which offers a still, a plot synopsis and a few words about the film at the conclusion of her novel.) When McKee says "anxious inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious, unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters the form" he is making clear that screenwriting is a skill properly learned, like bricklaying or plumbing, by on the job experience, but that each person will more or less have learned the same thing. Leger has no interest in telling us how Wanda is put together as a piece of craft but instead thinks about how films intermingle with our lives, how we give meaning to aesthetic experience by acknowledging their impact on our own. When she describes Wanda passing through a shopping mall she draws comparisons with her mother in the south of France. Just as Wanda passes from one shop to the next, so her mother after the finalization of her divorce from Nathalie's father, spent hours wandering through a shopping mall without point or purpose. Her mother tells her this while they watch Wanda together; the film invoking memories that have more to do with the film's recorded reality over its dramatic competence.

However, rather than assuming such a recording of reality shows a lack of craft, better to see it as a wise acceptance that since film records what is in front of our eyes rather than makes things up from scratch, surely a central aspect of creation in cinema is the fact of that recording. Even if numerous critics have fretted over how this works now that films are digital, made up of numbers rather than of a chemical compound, it isn't as if the filmmakers programme these numbers themselves, as a writer puts letter after letter into a system to create words, sentences and paragraphs. When Andre Bazin says of celluloid photography, "between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent" ('The Ontology of the Photographic Image), that is as true now with digital as it was then with celluloid. Many of the great filmmakers have acknowledged at least in part that their art form records events over which they have only a certain amount of control, and emphasizes the found realities they film rather than the sound stages they can manipulate. Direct Cinema may have been a documentary movement but it came out of shifts in technology that could be as pertinent to fictional filmmakers as factual ones. Speaking of the move towards Direct Cinema, the documentarist D. A. Pennebaker noted that at the end of the fifties, the "apparatus was just beginning to appear: portable tape recorders; faster film stock; lenses that allowed for shooting in natural light; and, an almost overlooked element, the zoom lens." ('Nothing but the Truth') Wanda's cameraman Nicholas T Proferes worked with Pennebaker on Monterey Pop a couple of years before making Wanda and it is as though Proferes and Loden have asked what is it to make a fictional film while attending to the limits of documentary? What might it add to fiction? If for McKee, the scriptwriter and filmmaker are often confronted with practical dramatic problems they have to resolve, Loden's film suggests that she chose to bypass them. McKee insists that "exposition means facts the information about setting, biography and characterisation that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story." (Story) He sees this as the priority but also reckons it must be both lifelike and dramatic, a tension the experienced screenwriter and director will resolve. Yet the more direct the cinema, the more the lifelikeness takes precedence over the dramatic, so the narrational facts become secondary to an exploration of a mise-en-scene that refuses dramatic manipulation. To clarify the relationships at the beginning of Wanda, when the man slams the door, Wanda could have said "your husband really doesn't like me" and the woman could have replied "you might be my sister but you have to find somewhere else to stay." It wouldn't be clumsy but it would be obvious and somehow contrary to a Direct Cinema approach that insists on observation over exposition. McKee may insist that the filmmaker shows rather than tells but since narrational information is sacrosanct then a little telling is usually inevitable. Loden refuses the telling and thus leaves us unsure precisely what the relationships are. However, this rests on the importance of the situation over the relations: what matters is that Wanda is sleeping on someone's couch, not on whose couch she happens to be sleeping. A Direct approach can show clearly the situation without feeling obliged to find ways in which to show the relations that would then create a more implausible situation. The most famous and consistent exponent of Direct Cinema, Frederick Wiseman says "the final film resembles fiction although it is based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions. I don't manipulate the events, but the editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative, not in the sense that people do things differently from what they will ordinarily do, but the way that people are shot. First of all what you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it." (Film West) We needn't suggest that Loden went this far but Richard Brody reckoned "Loden, however, was thinking of the so-called underground cinema and cinma vrit, with the use of documentary methods to create fictions which, staying close to material reality, also aspired to a new intimacy with the inner life." (New Yorker) If critics invoke Direct Cinema when talking about the film it rests on the sense in which Wanda allows scenes to retain their documentative ambiguity because the sort of interventions that are taken for granted (the sort of scriptwriting expectations McKee invokes) must be resisted.

The film also allows for ambiguity, rather than expectation, when Wanda leaves the house, walks through the quarry mine, asks the man for some money, and then gets on a bus. During the sequence the film also shows us a man with an elderly couple, a woman and two kids in the car, telling someone he has to go to court. There is no sense this scene is linked to Wanda's actions: it doesn't function as a typical cross-cut that creates in the viewer's mind links due to the cutting. If a woman walks down a street in the evening and the film then cuts to a man walking down another street we won't be surprised to see if they meet each other. If it is a murder story we might expect a horrible crime; a romantic comedy, that a love affair will start. The crosscut will generate an expectation. That seems to be missing from Wanda, here, just as the film eschews a line of dialogue that would clarify events. All she needs to say to the woman she stays with is "I mustn't be late for court" and the next few minutes of the film are anticipated and clear as we wait for her to turn up in the courtroom. Instead, we may wonder where she is going, why she is asking the man for money, and where the bus she gets on will be going to. When we see her in town as the film crosscuts again between Wanda and the court we might now realize that she is the woman the husband is divorcing but we are likely to be unsure where she happens to be. When she stands in a long shot against a war memorial she looks like a woman lonely and lost not late for an appointment. When she does turn up in the courtroom, entering a door at the back of the room, she seems hesitant and unprepared like she has walked into the wrong place. Her hair is in curlers and she has a cigarette in her mouth which she is promptly asked to put out. It is as though everything about the first fifteen minutes of the film (and most of the film thereafter as well) is about creating hesitancy and epistemological fragility, as if Loden was looking for a way in which we could less understand her character (and the motivational material often provided as back story to give us a sense of who someone is before the story the film is focusing upon) than understand, once again, her situation. The point of Direct Cinema, and why it would also be called observational cinema, lies in its determination to get the viewer to look at events rather than to comprehend them. In the opening scene, we observe the environment, the quarry, the house, the cans of lager, the baby bawling on the bed, the long-since painted walls, because there is no drama pulling our mind away from these observations. As another of the key practitioners of Direct Cinema, David Maysles proposed, "ideally part of our whole purpose is to make the viewers their own commentators. Not to tell anything, but to show." (Imagining Reality)

What Loden offers though is a very interesting example of observational cinema in fictional form, as if seeking to create a subjunctive observation of herself as another: a sort of self-analysis which reconfigures the self in a fictional other but resists too strongly the narrational transformation which will lose Loden as a figure in the frame to create assertively Wanda as a character in the story. Ray Carney, quoted by Berenice Reynaud, notes "the absence of point-of-view and shot-reverse shots", the sort of film grammar that generates conventional identification and that is antithetical to Direct Cinema's insistence on observation rather than action. It's as though, in the process, Loden found a way of watching herself, evident when she said she thought Wanda was "in something, surrounded by something" ('For Wanda') while numerous others have noted ostensible similarities between Wanda and Loden. Her husband Elia Kazan insisted Loden was "working class. Her father and brothers carry pistols when they go out to drink at night." ('For Wanda') Courtney Duckworth notes that "in interviews, Loden's voice is filigreed with mountain cadences she could not flatten; in 1964, she groused that she "always [said] 'tin cints' or 'inythin'," and she pronounced the word "literature" in a way that I've only ever heard from my mawmaw Bertha, born in North Carolina in 1934, that drops the chh-sound: "lit-err-uhh-tyoor." (Cinemascope) Duckworth quotes an interview Loden gave to Michel Ciment: "If I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworth's, I would've gotten married at 17 and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night. Fortunately, I escaped."

What makes Wanda so fascinating a work is that Loden turns observational cinema on herself, giving it a fictional form that creates an interesting threefold relationship. If documentaries usually have a subject as someone is him or herself on screen, and fiction films have actors who are playing characters, Loden offers herself as an actress playing a character who could have been the subject of a documentary if she hadn't escaped her milieu. Instead, she became the maker of a work that could show her life as it could have become but without any condescension such a position might imply. When she says of her earlier years in New York that "I spent every day just walking and walking...and I didn't really know what I was going to do" (Cinemascope) it is as though she wanted to know what that looked like from the outside, to see what it is like to be, indeed, "in something that is surrounded by something". While many of the great documentaries of the sixties and seventies were interested in exposing their subjects, usually this was at one remove and contained within it a complex, ethical relationship that the filmmakers couldn't deny because it wasn't their lives exposed but the lives of others. Whether this was Marceline Ivens in Jean Rouch's A Chronicle of a Summer discussing her time in a Nazi death camp, the title character in Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason getting drunk over an evening, the mother and daughter in the Maysles Brothers' Grey Gardens living reclusively on Long Island, accusations of exploitation could be levelled at the works partly because of the gap between the subjects exposed and the filmmakers behind the camera. But while there are arguments to be made why this wasn't necessarily so (that these were hardly always underprivileged people: Ivens was a filmmaker herself; the mother and daughter in Grey Gardens were relatives of Jackie Kennedy), they function very differently from Loden's desire not so much to put herself at the centre of the film but a version of herself that could easily have been her in other circumstances.

One way of looking at Direct Cinema is to see it as a mode trying to escape conventional affects like sympathy, pity, compassion and even empathy, as though seeking in the form less feelings that are created by the film's creation of character than the registering of a complex situation. When Maysles speaks of his purpose to make the viewer their own commentators, then we can create co-feeling as epistemological speculation. When we see Wanda waiting to get on the bus we aren't focused on the divorce she is about to get but on the apparent enigma of who she is and where she might be going. In such a space we can speculate as we cannot if the film has signalled that she is about to get a divorce, or if non-diegetic music cued us to how we should feel. What may seem like a colder, cooler aesthetic can generate a speculative warmth, a need in the viewer to muse over someone's life rather than assume ready access to it. Yet it also addresses a basic philosophical problem that film half-resolves. Stanley Cavell says to "know the world as a whole, or the world as it is in itself, would require us to have God's knowledge, to know the world the way we more or less picture God to know the world, with every event and all its possibilities directly present." (Pursuits of Happiness) If cinema often mimics God's knowledge it does so of course not by showing us everything in the world simultaneously, as if echoing Borges' brilliant short story The Aleph, but by making us unconcerned by all it doesn't show us. However, what if a film creates that concern? Then we have the epistemological fragility and at the same time the possibility of co-feeling out of trying to close that breach. By not knowing Wanda, by building a picture of Wanda for ourselves, she becomes our Wanda while numerous film characters become the film's. When a film fully informs us of all the necessary details of a character's life we cannot make the character our own however fondly we may feel towards them, partly because we cannot make our own minds up about them in the way we might when a character remains obscure. In Wanda, we don't know why she is willing so readily to allow the husband a divorce unless we take the husband's claims for granted, just as we cannot say at the end of the film how much she grieves for Mr Dennis while she gets drunk amongst strangers. One can't claim with certainty that she leaves her family for no reason other than she is lazy and uncaring, just as we can't say at the conclusion she is getting drunk so she can forget about Mr Dennis. After all, in the preceding scene, she has been sexually assaulted by a man she meets in a bar and who drives her out to a quarry before trying to have sex with her. Does she consider having sex with him and then changes her mind; does she change her mind because she can't go through with it so soon after Mr Dennis's death; is this at last Wanda asserting herself over men who take advantage of her? Perhaps it even has something to do with the location, a stone quarry as opposed to the anthracite mine that she escapes from at the beginning of the film, but a quarry nevertheless. Even the camera's positioning suggests an echo of the earlier scene where we saw Wanda in a high-angle long lens shot that showed her small within the frame. Here the high-angle long lens captures the red Ford Convertible as it comes into the quarry. The film remains enigmatic as it respects Wanda as an enigma, and we can meet the film with indifference, believing the film hasn't worked hard enough to generate identification, or meet it with insistence, determined to speculate on who Wanda happens to be.

Was this part of the appeal of the film for both Leger and Kushner? In Leger's book, she talks to various people determined to find out more about Loden, including Frederick Wiseman, decribed by Leger as "the pioneer of interview-free, commentary-free, documentation-free documentary." Telling Wiseman that she is having immense difficulties accessing information about Loden, Wiseman replies that she should "make it up." "This man, who never works on anything that isn't real" is telling her to use her imagination. This might seem paradoxical but is also quite consistent. Rather than seeing Direct Cinema as about objectivity we can see it just as readily as an invitation to subjectivity but that, out of its interest in the surface texture of behaviour, we can choose to see meaning that we have imposed upon it rather than that the director imposes upon the film for us. It is why one needs to be careful about making claims within the film that is a consequence of the viewer's impositions rather than a claim the film itself makes. Critics may understandably have insisted that the beginning of the film shows her staying at her sister's, and a few have claimed that the man who gives her money is her father, but others have offered a few value judgements too. Not only Kael in her 'sad, ignorant slut" remark but also Anthony Hawley, who calls Mr Dennis a "Deadbeat boyfriend." (Brooklyn Rail) and Luise Moerke who reckons he is "a petty, loveless criminal" (Senses of Cinema). The film may invite us to make value judgements but it doesn't demand them and it doesn't demand them perhaps in part because Loden wouldn't pretend to be too far away from the character herself. She suggests it was luck rather than will that allowed her to escape and like her character they share an attractiveness that men are likely to find appealing even if they might not in turn offer commitment. But this is itself a projection in a film that asks us to make them if we so wish but to remain at all times tentative in our claims and responsible for our observations. Marguerite Duras said that "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." It is as if by playing someone who could easily have been her, Loden has found in such consideration and perhaps concern a means by which to close that fictional gap which makes someone both actor and character. Loden has also welded within a fictional work a new closeness that suggests something of the subject that we find in documentary form, allied to the inevitable ambiguity of a Direct Cinema that cannot access more than the surface that hides its depths.


© Tony McKibbin