Monday, 9 April 2012

Helpless and Hopeless

It is an extraordinary film.  Even more so when you consider the time it was made, in the very late Sixties, at the beginning of the feminist movement; when women were aggressively questioning the old stereotypes, and asserting their independent political will.  Watching it I wondered if the period had distorted the film’s memory, changed its influence, projected the times back onto a work that resolutely rejects them, concerned only with seeing the world in its own way.  Then I thought of how many people actually know of its existence; a few thousand at most - a tiny community keeping this movie alive; who carry out the heavy labour of periodically resurrecting yet another work of art that has vanished from public view.[i]

Wanda.  What do you associate with such a name?  Come on.  Get up, move away from the screen; and walk around for a bit.  Oh, that’s hard, isn’t it?  Come on!  Have a fag or a cup of tea; or a conversation with a colleague: I assume you are reading this at work.  All right, if you must stay there, do what you are paid for; at least for a few minutes.

That’s better.   Now let the name wander around inside you.  Go on!  Let it circulate!  Can you feel it?  Dodging between your toes; trickling up you ankles, your calves, your knees; and sliding along your thighs…  It’s Ok, believe me, your body will do the thinking for you.  It’s in your stomach now?  Excellent!

That’s all right then.  You have returned to me.  Well?

One association, of course, is what you have just been doing: wandering.  This fits very nicely with the structure of the film, which is a classic road movie.  But there are other connotations, and these reveal the essence of this work: of a character who wanders aimlessly around, with no purpose and who, we surmise, has very little in the way of articulated and structured thought: she is carried along by her emotions and the will of others; her mental life like clouds broken up by the wind.  For the eponymous character is a woman without her own motive force.  She is extraordinarily passive.  She floats through life… 

The director has called her Wanda; the name giving birth to her fate: destined to drift from here to there and back again. …

According to an interesting, although sometimes overly technical, introduction by Ross Lipman[ii] the director Barbara Loden came from a poor family; and was a glamour model before she became an established actress and avant-garde film maker.  This work reflects that experience: the passive, almost habitual nature of a poor person’s life; that once adrift from the anchor of a settled routine is liable to float away aimlessly.  For some people that drifting will take place on the open roads; for others, the majority, it will be around the house and before the TV screen.  Sometimes these categories shift.  Before we met her Wanda was a member of the majority faction of the very poor: she was married with kids, and was sequestered inside a house.  However, she didn’t look after either the house or the kids, preferring to vegetate, lying around and drinking alcohol for most of the day.

The film begins with her walking around a vast open cast mine, looking for her father, so that he can give her some money.  It is a very long take (like all the best modernist works this film incorporates boredom into its performance – we have to feel the theme, experience the inertia for ourselves), and introduces us to the course of her future life: she is going to drift all over the local region.

Her husband wants a divorce.  The judge asks for her response.  If he wants it he can have it, Wanda says.  The judge is quizzical – you are prepared to let your children go? and with so little fight and concern is the implication of his voice and words.  Oh, well, she replies, they’ll be better off with him.  All her recent life she gives up with a shrug: what her husband wants he can have.  They are nothing to do with me now….  She doesn’t say this, but this is what her indifferent responses imply.  Wanda is a person that life happens to; and she makes the best of it that she can; which isn’t much.  Life flows around and over her, carrying her away, but it leaves little trace, because she doesn’t act to make it her own; to acquire some of it for herself.  This is the particular interest of this particularly interesting scene: for the judge expects her to say something, to express some emotional connection to her children, to have a strong opinion on the almost imminent separation.  But she has no opinions, for she has no interest at all in winning her case (though we expect she has the usual parental feelings; it is just that she cannot articulate them); the courtroom and the divorce just another set of experiences that overwhelm her, and which pass her by; and which she lets go of, and quite naturally.  The world is too big and too heavy for her to pick up - she is no Atlas – so she leaves it where it stands; and walks away.

What am I talking about?  In order to change or control the world we have to break it down into little pieces, which we use and manipulate to create our own space and our own sense of meaning.  We accommodate the world, and we build a place for ourselves, by taking small parts of it and putting them together in our own way.  For most people this is both natural and simple; and usually involves reducing their lives to school, work, family and friends; each life a little village of small actions and community feeling.  If one is depressed, out of one’s depth, stressed, or conditioned by the school and culture to always live on society’s margins, you will not be able to do this elementary task.  The outside world is too big for you, and so you give up on it.  You accept what fate brings.  Amongst the poor these attitudes are more common, and are often hard for officials and the middle classes (and particularly its intellectuals) to understand.  The world too big?  What nonsense!  All we have to do is educate or train them, give them more money, or threaten them with the worst kind of poverty.  It is an instrumental approach to a cultural and psychological problem, that is both difficult to diagnose, and harder to cure.  It is a world that is often hidden from view for it has no-one to articulate it.  This may be the reason why so much of this film is shot like a documentary, and most of the characters are non-actors: Loden wanted to capture something of this culture, which is so poorly understood.[iii]

Wanda leaves the courthouse and walks aimlessly around town until she is picked up in a bar.  In the morning the man tries to sneak away, but she catches him.  Her success is short-lived, however.  When she gets out of the car to buy an ice cream he drives off leaving her alone on a desolate roadside.  We haven’t known her long but already we sense her character: a woman intensely lonely, desperate for companionship, and who will attach herself to any man, no matter how bad, who comes along and lets her stay close to him.  She is not articulate.  Her sentences are few; I’m not sure she spoke a single paragraph during the entire film; for her internal life is too complicated for her to talk about - she does not have the skills to do so.  We do not know her, at least in the ordinary way. There are lots of long shots in this film.  The director wants us to see this character; and perhaps, if we are lucky, understand her simply by paying her more attention than is usual – how often do we look so long at such lifeless people?  But it is hard, for we have to interpret her inner world by looking at the externals only.  Yet observing one person in close up, almost in laboratory conditions, concentrating on her actions and demeanour, able to ignore the creative fictions, those sly veils our words always produce, we do get to know her; and perhaps better than in the normal way.

She floats through life, at least we guess she does, on a turbulent river of emotion, with a mind that can seldom settle on anything in particular.  The result?  She is passive and malleable.  An easy prey for someone with fixed ideas and a means of carrying them out.

Think back to when you were love in your teens and how days, even weeks, could pass by while you waited to see your girlfriend.  What happened during this time?  Often very little; your emotions too turbulent for your mind to concentrate on anything in particular – never could you settle down for long.  Books, records, even films, had suddenly become dull and uninviting.  Now think a little harder, and try to imagine a whole life like that.  Think of the boredom, the oppressiveness, and how tired you must perpetually feel, the world too big to carry; squeezing you down an inch closer to the floor each day.  Have you got that idea?  Do you remember that feeling?  Now remember the swing of her long white skirt, the freshness of her bright blue blouse, and those red lips smiling on your front door step.  Think of how quickly she removes that heavy load from off of your shoulders… Think of that blouse and that white skirt, pink and blue daisies clustered in one corner, and think how desperate you are to see her, after so many weeks away…  What price will people pay for that sort of salvation?  Some, like Wanda, are prepared to pay a great deal; always on the look out for somebody else to take their inertia away.  Just like that!  A mere physical presence is enough: all they need is a body they can respond to emotionally – that pumps in new feelings and removes old ones.  In such cases the personality of the “lover” is irrelevant, for they have only one purpose: to generate emotional comfort, even if that means just kicks and punches and constant abuse.  These at least are a home to live in.

In the motel we see the holes in her cheap knickers.  When the film starts she is sleeping at her sister’s house, which stands inside an opencast coalmine; alerting us to the superfluousness of beauty and fine feelings in such a poor environment.  Wanda is very poor and at times quite plain; and she reflects the world around her; although she has not succumbed to the bloated ugliness of her childbearing sister: this world is too ugly and demanding to remain pretty here for long.  Wanda is still good-looking, and there are times when she is beautiful: the first time we see her - her head appearing out of the bedclothes on the living room sofa.  And now, standing alone by the ice cream stand, we see that beauty again.  It is a brilliant scene, and suggests something of Loden’s qualities as an actress: her beauty evolves out of the way she moves while standing still.  It is a long shot and we follow as her head and torso, and her whole body, makes little shifts and turns, and swings slightly.  She is beautiful again; and very vulnerable.  The two are related – beauty emerging out of the fragile movements.

She is walking around a town.  To rest she goes to a cinema, and we watch what looks like a Bollywood film, although it is in Spanish.  Another great scene; where we see the head of the movie’s main character over Wanda’s shoulder.  We watch until she falls asleep; waking to find someone has stolen her money.

Now she is barging into an empty bar that is just about to close to use the washing facilities.  The owner looks overly nervous and agitated.  We find out later that he is robbing the place…  He gets upset and angry, demands Wanda leave the bathroom; she has been in there too long; and it is time he was leaving.  Although when she returns to the bar he agrees to her request for a drink, even though she says she cannot pay for it.  She doesn’t notice the barman tied up, the poor way the “bar owner” pores the drink, it is all froth, or his nervousness.  He takes her to a motel, they spend the night together, and she follows him as he tries the doors of many cars… only when inside one does she realise he is stealing it.  She is on her own boat on her own river; only occasionally does it touch land.

Mr Higgins.  He is her captain now, and he will take her boat to a completely different port.  Mr Higgins.  It is the only name he gives her.  He doesn’t like to be touched; won’t let her be friendly; and he is angry and irritated with her all the time.  On their first night together they are in a double bed, but really it should be two singles.  Or perhaps Wanda should sleep on the floor, like a servant.  He asks her to get a hamburger with no onions or sauce.  She forgets.  She is also late – the store he recommended was closed.  He hits her.  Because he is scared and paranoid: he thought she might be talking to a cop, and this has made him very angry.  All his aggression he lets out onto this woman who has so suddenly glued herself to his life.  He can do anything it seems, and she will stay with him.  Indeed, the more aggressive and unpleasant he is the more she may be inclined to remain – the harder and sharper her world will become; it will take on a shape it has not had before.  So passive; always the passenger in another person’s car.

They travel the motorways until they reach a city, where Mr Higgins is planning to rob a big bank.  It is both a simple and elaborate plot: kidnap the manager while leaving a bomb with his family.  But this is a real bank raid, not like in the movies (this is reinforced by the extensive use of non professional actors, and the grainy texture, and the documentary nature, of much of the photography).[iv]  He thus makes mistakes, forgets things, and contingency predominates: Wanda following in the car loses them in the traffic.  Lost she does a u-turn in the middle of a junction, and is seen by a police car.  Although stopped in a stolen vehicle, one for which she doesn’t have any documents, the police officer lets her go – she must bring them to the station on another day.  This all seems so real and true: people when agitated and emotional make mistakes; the police are just another bureaucracy, with its gaps and inefficiencies; and even its officers are attracted to pretty women.  Then there is the moment of inspiration: that unforgettable moment of art: Wanda asks him the way to the bank!  When she arrives there is a crowd watching as Mr Higgins is carried away.  Here is another extraordinary scene: she is once more alone, in a crowd of people, watching the only person who can shape her world taken out of it.  We see the confusion, the pain, the dumbfoundedness, and also that beauty again, and we see it in just a few shots.

Wanda is picked up in another bar.  The soldier tries to rape her in his car.  Only when he is on top of her, and close, we suspect, to wedging his penis in, does she wake up to what is happening.  It is only the second time in the film she fights back.  The first time was when they kidnapped the bank manager, and by his unexpected resistance Mr Higgins lost control, and was at his mercy.   She fought hard and desperate to protect her lover, although previously she was sick at the thought of carrying out the deed: she does not want to be a criminal.  It was her helplessness before her need for him that forced her to acquiesce to his demands.  Now she will do anything to protect him.

The film ends with Wanda alone once again.  She is outside a bar in what we guess is some Appalachian town.  A woman invites her to come inside.  Now she is alone amongst a group of local people, all drunk and enjoying themselves.  It is a working class bar with live Hillbilly music.  It is infectious for the drunk people who hear it, but is aggressively invasive for those who are not in such a receptive mood.  The noise of the bar, the people, the group, its general blunt harshness is, we sense, an analogy to what is going on inside Wanda’s head.  It had happened once before when she was left outside the ice-cream stand: then it was the incessant noise of traffic, harsh and pounding; that constant swish and swirl of sounds; and all that ugly movement, with little shape or reasonable form.

The film ends with her sitting in the middle of these happy people.  She looks isolated and lost.  She also looks poor and beat up (which she is); and in places she also looks ugly – poverty makes you so, eventually.  But right at the end beauty returns to her face and piled up hair, though she still looks lost and alone.  Barbara Loden freeze frames that moment, and engrains it into a still.  This is yet another extraordinary image; and an incredible way to end the film.  For not only is the image out of the ordinary, but it is so laconic that it leaves us unsure as to the director’s meaning.  We have watched a road movie going on inside Wanda’s head, and yet it stops on the very last shot.  What does that mean?  Is the image for us, the audience?  Is this the only idea we will ever have of such people: a poor quality photograph of a life we will never live, nor really understand?  Is this what Loden means?  A hazy romantic notion of the working classes that is all wrong… 

Or is it simply a work of art?  The best way of finishing a film about a wanderer: eventually every car must stop and park.[v]

(Review of Wanda)


[ii] Understandable (and perhaps) necessary in the context: UCLA had recently restored the film.  However, it perhaps reflects a wider trend, where many people who write and talk about film concentrate on the technical details at the expense of its overall effect.
[iii] The cinematographer Nicholas T. Proferes came out of the documentary scene.
[iv] In his introduction Ross Lippman notes that Loden’s husband Elia Kazan persuaded her not to star in his film about their life; the role given to Faye Dunaway.  He wonders how this worked out in Loden’s psyche, as later Dunaway starred in Bonnie and Clyde; for which Wanda is a conscious contrast: Loden wanted to make a movie about real bank robbers, not fantasy ones.
[v] This restoration may never have taken place.  The original copies of the film were saved one day before destruction when the UCLA team were invited to rescue the old stock of a bankrupt company.  Film, that most pervasive, but yet most fragile, of mediums.  How much has been lost?
            In Die Zweite Heimat there is a great scene were Herman and Ansgar get a job in an old film archive.  Their job is destroy all the old Nazi era films that have no intrinsic quality.  A job given to two students!  How much, in that simple decision, did we lose?

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