By Courtney Duckworth
Barbara Loden re-emerges in fragments. Caught in a 1965 snapshot from road photographer Garry Winogrand, she cuts across a wedge of city daylight; tufts of windblown hair halo her wary face as one high heel steps simply out of body. Elusive, she fascinates—a feminine flâneur frozen within the shimmering afterlife of a gelatin silver print. “I spent every day just walking and walking,” Loden stated of her early New York years, “and I didn’t really know what I was going to do.” Many years later, in 2002, when the image is mass-produced as a 37-cent photogravure stamp commemorating Winogrand, not Loden, she is already lifeless. “The image is ghostlike,” wrote Susan Loden in a press launch figuring out her sister, who, as the actor-writer-director of Wanda (1970)—the independently produced basic newly released on Blu-ray by Criterion—had embodied a resonant portrait of a lady adrift earlier than succumbing to cancer in 1980 at the age of 48. “I am astounded and proud, but not surprised, that she has made her way back into view.”
That phrasing—“she has made her way back into view”—is engaging to me, as if one thing marrow-deep in Barbara Loden and her work resists neglect or effacement. So typically in modern criticism, Loden is taken up with full-throated fretting over how shut her legacy came to evanescence. Anecdotes from her biography appear in on the “joke.” Over a decade earlier than directing Wanda, Loden had pranced round as a sprightly, kittenish comedienne on The Ernie Kovacs Show. In a single 1956 episode, she dangles her towhead from one aspect of a picket field and “her” legs from another, while a moustachioed and bug-eyed Kovacs, in character as tosspot magician Matzoh Hepplewhite, asks, “Have you ever been sawed in half?” Loden pauses, as if the question, made redundant by her intact physique, is difficult by reminiscences of dismemberment or erasure. We might virtually think about her questioning: Which era?
In fact, the jape isn’t that she’s scarred but quite that she’s a bubblehead who doesn’t know her tit from her toe, and when Kovacs prods her, she quips, “Aw, gimme a minute, will ya?” in a wisecracking screwball whine. (Of those hackneyed little-girl roles, Loden would inform The New York Occasions: “I got into the whole thing of being a dumb blonde. I didn’t think anything of myself.”) Some years later, future husband, then-current inamorato, and stool-pigeon American filmmaker Elia Kazan would forged her in Splendor within the Grass (1964) as a profligate flapper with the on-the-nose identify of Ginny, who sighs to an ogling man in earshot: “Fill me up, please, I’m empty.” Then, in Arthur Miller’s 1964 play After the Fall, Loden ventriloquized a thinly fictionalized Marilyn Monroe, referred to as Maggie, who prattles on about how the bigwig lawyer (and Miller stand-in) Quentin can look her up when she’s away on singing gigs: “I would register in the hotel as Miss None…I made it up once ’cause I can never remember a fake name, so I just have to think of nothing and that’s me!” Pleading, fragile, and bewigged, Loden blurred with Norma Jean within the public imagination. Of the position, which nabbed her a Tony Award, Loden stated to superstar disher Dick Kleiner: “I sure know how that feels.” Kleiner’s headline? “Is There Also a Barbara Loden?”
Barbara Loden was born in 1932 in Marion, North Carolina, a scrap of a city about 20 miles from my own, Morganton, of which historic novelist John Ehle wrote that “from the main street one could see far off in the west a blue wall rising from the hilly country, a chain of mountains”—true of Marion, too, the place, as you cruise down Important Road, these sloping varieties emerge at the lip of a hill. Sloganeered with “Where the Main Street Meets the Mountains,” Marion was described by Fundamental Road novelist Sinclair Lewis in a newspaper column on a 1929 textile-mill strike there (three years before Loden was born); when the town policemen’s tear fuel cleared, three have been lifeless and dozens wounded. Lewis wrote, “They are hungry, they are tired. They are sick of being shot down.” People singer Woody Guthrie reduce to the chase with “The Marion Massacre”: “These men were only asking/their rights and nothing more.”
The truth is, they have been asking for much less. “I came from a rural region, where people have a hard time,” Loden explained in a newspaper profile. “They’re not stupid. They’re ignorant. Everything is ugly around them—the architecture, the town, the clothing they wear. Everything they see is ugly.” In one of the sorts of small miracles that spur revival narratives, UCLA restorer Ross Lipman chanced across the unique 16mm footage of Wanda in a constructing set for demolition. Unfaded from repeated projection or transportation, the reels revealed how saturated, virtually Polaroid-hued, the film was meant to be—not dishwater realism, however a want to depict rural individuals with tender frankness. Of her determination to hire cinematographer Nicholas Proferes on the power of documentary movies shot with D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles, Loden stated, “Sometimes you see a film, and they make people look ugly, and then [with] another cameraman…they’re human beings, and you don’t have the feeling that they’re ugly. I guess it’s just the soul of the cameraman.”
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 phrase “literature” in a means that I’ve solely ever heard from my mawmaw Bertha, born in North Carolina in 1934, that drops the chh-sound: “lit-err-uhh-tyoor.” Of her Southern birthplace, critics who glamourize her “obscurity” typically cite her reply to French critic Michael 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.” Her verdict is tough to dispute. Carson McCullers, like Loden, fled at age 17 from the South to New York City; her debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, written in North Carolina and revealed when Loden was eight, closes with piano prodigy Mick Kelly’s goals evaporating in the sticky Southern warmth:
But now no music was in her thoughts. That was a humorous thing. It was like she was shut out from the within room. Typically a fast little tune would come and go—however she by no means went into the within room with music like she used to do. It was like she was too tense. Or perhaps as a result of it was like the store took all her power and time. Woolworth’s wasn’t the identical as faculty. When she used to return residence from faculty she felt good and was prepared to start out working on the music. However now she was all the time tired.
Via filmmaking, Barbara Loden needed to “justify her own existence,” within the words of Proferes. Filmed in ten weeks, with a four-person crew, on a shoestring finances of $115,000 forked over by Harry Shuster, a dilettante producer who Loden had met whereas on safari with Kazan, the film she made is a miraculous testament to ingenuity and spontaneous creation. It’s also an exorcism: “I had a compulsion,” Loden stated, “to get the story of Wanda out of myself.” When Wanda opens, we do not really feel the absence of the writer-director-star at first because we do not anticipate her, like an unlooked-for straggler to a party. As an alternative, the digital camera drifts slowly toward its topic. Vans trundle by way of anthracite heaps jutting into the pallid sky. Inside a clapboard home, a wizened lady clasps a rosary, a babe toddles underfoot, an infant wails without comfort, a rumpled figure heaves herself up from bed. A man slams the door. Only then does the digital camera pivot right down to a quilt-draped couch where Loden is shrouded in a white sheet, her naked brown legs akimbo. She uncovers her face and strawlike nest of hair; she is Wanda, who murmurs, “He’s mad ’cause I’m here”—although she is barely there, or anyplace, though she was so almost missed.
Wanda follows its namesake’s picaresque wanderings after granting her husband (Jerome Thier) a quickie divorce and custody of their youngsters, step one on what turns into a winding path of least resistance. Rootless, without cash, too enervated to secure work in the native sewing manufacturing unit, she floats right into a push-me-pull-you union with “Mr. Dennis” (Michael Higgins), a petty felony who is more hapless than charismatic. Twenty-five years later, Kelly Reichardt would rework Wanda’s housewife-on-the-lam narrative together with her similarly quasi-autobiographical River of Grass (1994), which additionally honoured the lyricism of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1973). (“I was asked to be part of a Hal Ashby documentary with the premise that Ashby is overlooked,” Reichardt stated once. “I love Shampoo , but my first response was ‘Hal Ashby, overlooked: really? Barbara Loden is overlooked.’”) While Loden’s 16mm pictures have their own spare, practical beauty, they resist lyricism as certainly as they do pity or condescension. Take heed to Wanda on headphones, sans picture, to expertise its grim quietude, with the staticky hiss of the soundtrack dominating all. These usually are not people who “have time for wittily observing the things around them,” stated Loden. “They’re not concerned about anything more than existing from day to day.”
Released in 1970 to principally admiring press and the International Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Pageant, Wanda was miscast by feminists in their own picture. Spurred by second-wave discourse determined for depictions of “empowerment,” feminine tradition writers couldn’t fix on any studying of the title character aside from considered one of her resistance to and defiance of the roles ascribed to a spouse and mother. However their considerations have been largely middle-class. Examine Wanda with Lucrecia Martel’s newer The Headless Lady (2009), the place the blank passivity, whether insanity or artifice, adopted by a lady after she probably kills a passerby together with her automotive is buoyed by the intractable bourgeois establishments around her. Even if she drops out of her life, she can be protected; Wanda has no such help. Estelle Changas, in Film Quarterly, is the one modern American critic I have learn who admired Wanda without miscasting its central character as an lively refusenik of society or, in Pauline Kael’s piqued phrases, an “ignorant slut.” Marguerite Duras understood: “We have never had any other recourse but muteness. Even so-called liberated women, by their own declaration.”
Wanda, stated Loden, made her “a different person. I developed more courage in my convictions.” Tucked into the Criterion release, the German documentary I Am Wanda data a extra daring Loden in the last months of her life, as she was dying of cancer. Opposite to her jittery, timid ’70s interviews, right here she appears canny and capable, an elder artist in a diaphanous sailor’s prime with Breton stripes, gold bracelets clinking on her wrists. Right here is the lady who taught fawning college students at the Actors Studio and directed idiosyncratic Off-Broadway performs; who spent a decade vigorously writing scripts for never-to-be-completed tasks like Love Means All the time Having to Say You’re Sorry and a febrile adaptation of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; who collaborated with fellow feminine filmmaker Joan Macklin Silver on The Frontier Expertise (1975) (certainly one of two shorts she made for instructional packages, along with The Boy Who Appreciated Deer ); who stated of directing a function movie, “I think I could do it better next time.” Loden never had a chance, but the enduring fullness of Wanda is a testament to her refusal to be forgotten.