Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Why aren't there more women directors, Part II

Elaine May's career as a film director may have ended too soon, but she has worked steadily as a playwright and theater director, with occasional film acting and screenwriting jobs. Barbara Loden wasn't so lucky. Born in Marion, North Carolina in 1932, the same year as Elaine May, Loden directed only one feature film, the wildly overlooked "Wanda," and a short that was never released. "Wanda" was well-received on the film festival circuit, but opened, and closed, theatrically, in only one New York theater. It was never released on VHS, and didn't make it to DVD until last year. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen in 2001, when it was shown as a part of the Austin Film Society's women directors of the 1970s and 1980s series (which also included May's "Mikey & Nicky," Kathryn Bigelow's fantastic vampire western "Near Dark," and a couple of wonderfully trashy B-movies, "Terminal Island" and "Humanoids from the Deep"). I was both frustrated and mesmerized by "Wanda," and it's been buzzing around my head ever since. I plan on seeing it again soon on DVD, but my recollections of the film are from six years ago, so I apologize for any inaccuracies I will probably make. The film is about a housewife in rural Pennsylvania, married to a coal miner, with a child (or two, I don't remember). She leaves one day, becoming a drifter. Eventually she meets up with an inept crook, forming an odd partnership. Then more drifting. In addition to writing and directing the film, Loden plays the title character. It's a frightening, lonely performance. Loden's Wanda resists metaphor, allegory, or any fixed understanding of who she is or where she's going. She could be a void if she wasn't such an exposed nerve. She says very little, allows herself to become attached to people through their efforts, and always keeps moving. Not forward, not backward, just moving. Loden has the courage to play her as an unintelligent, but far from stupid, woman who abandons her family to drift, and keep drifting. No one saves her, and she saves no one. She doesn't figure much out and is not in a better place when the closing credits begin, just a different one. The final scene is devastating, in a very quiet way. If Loden's Wanda were meant to stand for all women, this could be a horror film. But Loden's work is too mysterious, too difficult to trap, figure out, and throw away to be reduced to representational symbology or sociopolitical statement. Tonally and structurally, the film shares some surface similarity with cinema verite documentaries, Italian neo-realism, Monte Hellman's road movies and westerns, Jim Jarmusch's deadpan warm-hearted hipness, John Cassavetes' focus on tonal shifts in body language and behavior and his late-period melancholy, Michelangelo Antonioni's symbiotic relationships between human alienation and geographical landscape, Vincent Gallo's solitary road trip in "The Brown Bunny," and a keen eye for geographical setting that brings to mind such disparate filmmakers as Ross McElwee, early Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog. However, these are superficial observations by a guy who's seen too many movies. Mostly, Loden's film is tonally and structurally a film by Barbara Loden.

So what happened to it? Why was it so shoddily distributed? A couple of anecdotes on Boston University professor Ray Carney's website may provide two likely answers. Carney, or someone writing an email to him, I forget which, mentions a screening of "Wanda" that devolved into an excoriation of the film by radical feminists for failing to provide solutions for women in Wanda's position. Neoliberal political correctness in higher education, good intentions aside, has become an anti-art, anti-life fascist whinefest of stupidity that has no place for any artwork that doesn't flatter the prevailing winds of academic fashion. "Wanda" is too hard to pin down, and doesn't provide neat solutions for individuals and groups who expect art to be solvable or politically validating. It requires reflection and thought. Any film that attempts to deal honestly with the incredible messiness of life is going to be messy. When the world demands neatness, films like "Wanda" are going to slip through the cracks. In Carney's other anecdote, he mentions talking to Elia Kazan, Loden's husband until her death, on the telephone. I'm unclear what the conversation was about, presumably either a visit by Kazan to the BU campus or a screening of his films. Carney, who regularly shows "Wanda" in his classes, asked Kazan about the film, assuming he would be thrilled to talk about his late wife's unfairly neglected work. Instead, Kazan unleashed a torrent of obscenities at Carney and hung up. Why? Though she is a prominent part of Kazan's autobiography, much has been written about his hostility toward Loden's directorial ambitions. Not knowing either of them personally, and since they are both dead, not expecting to ever get to know them, I can't speculate on Kazan's hostility. I can only look at the facts. This much is true. Loden was a pin-up girl and model and began taking acting classes in the 1950s. She got a small part in Kazan's "Wild River." He liked her so much in the role that he cast her as one of the leads in "Splendor in the Grass" alongside Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. She married Kazan in the late 1960s, and her acting career ended, aside from her performance in "Wanda." After "Wanda," her directing career ended. Kazan wrote a thinly disguised autobiographical novel about their relationship, "The Arrangement," in the late sixties and adapted it into a film. He cast Loden and Marlon Brando. When Brando dropped out of the film, Kirk Douglas took his place. The studio told Kazan to drop Loden and get a big-name actress. Instead of standing up for his wife, Kazan replaced her with Faye Dunaway. In 1978, Loden was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kazan asked her for a divorce in 1979, but stayed with her when the cancer spread to her liver. She died in 1980. She was 48 years old. Her final word, spoken three times, was, according to friends and relatives, spoken angrily. They were appropriate final words for a female director, an independent artist, and a person dying young, of which she was all three. "Shit. Shit. Shit."

For more on "Wanda," click here for Berenice Reynaud's article in Senses of Cinema.


Rustle.Destroyer said...

Dr. Mystery: go back to school, for film, at least so that you may teach, and I will mail you a sandwich and a beer every school day for as long as it takes to complete your education.

Anonymous said...

You can count on 2 sandwiches a day (and I make the BEST TUNA SALAD IN THE WORLD).


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