United States, 1970, Kent State and Jackson State shootings occur during violent student protests, there’s a burning disenchantment with President Nixon and the Vietnam War, the previous year’s Woodstock Festival is released on film, along with the counterculture films ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘M*A*S*H’. At the 31st Venice Film Festival a small independent film, ‘Wanda’ premiered, winning the Best Foreign Film gong. Despite the award ‘Wanda’, directed by Barbara Loden, was released in a single theatre in New York, “Cinema II”, and was never shown in the rest of the country.
It quickly slipped from view “Forgotten in the United States”, but “much admired in Europe”, screening at various festivals and events.
Pick up a recent textbook about Hollywood movies from the 1970’s and you are likely to come across a ‘Wanda” reference:
…although the auteur renaissance introduced a new American cinema, this generation of movie directors was still by a vast majority male. The few women directors working at the time did not benefit from the commercial Hollywood financing that their male counterparts accessed and instead were relegated to indie micro-financing and playoffs at the art house, university film series, and museum showcases. Even the best of the films made by women in the 1970s remain difficult to find and screen today. For example, in 1970, the accomplished stage actress Barbara Loden produced, wrote, directed, and starred in a terrific no-budget film, Wanda. The film tracks its title character as she stumbles upon a petty criminal with whom she goes on the lam. He treats her with casual cruelty, but she stays with him anyway, because her life before she met him (drinking, sleeping around, sponging off her sister) wasn’t any better. Creatively financed, shot on a shoestring, and distributed by a company otherwise specializing in martial arts imports, Wanda grossed on its first run, such as it was, just over $100,000. “When the Movies Mattered : The New Hollywood Revisited” edited by Johnathan Kirshner & Jon Lewis
This short precis does not give the film any justice, Wanda, disenchanted with her life leaves her husband and children, in search of something better, throughout she carries a large oversized handbag, which contains her worldly possessions, she grips it so tightly you can also believe it contains her hopes, her memories, her desires.
Fast forward forty odd years, and Nathalie Léger has been asked to provide a short encyclopedic entry on ‘Wanda’, and/or Barbara Loden. Her research, obsession, exploration becomes far too detailed to be an encyclopedia entry, it has become a journey, a book, ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’ (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), and thankfully the wonderful Dorothy Project has brought this French work to English readers.
What is it that attracts me so to Wanda? I have never been homeless, I have never abandoned my children, I have never given over my existence or even my financial affairs to any man, I don’t think I have ever entrusted even the most banal area of my life to anyone. I’ve left men, sometimes heartlessly, with the trembling joy that one feels slipping away down a side street, or vanishing into a crowd, or jumping onto a passing train, or standing someone up; the acute and rare pleasure of avoiding something, of evading something, of disappearing into the landscape – but never the experience of surrender. And yet: it did happen to me once, just one time and it was enough, but who hasn’t experienced that – not knowing how to say no, not daring to say it, yielding to the mortal threat, escaping in the end by withdrawal, absence, slipping to the ground, no longer even offering him the gift of fear, no longer pretending, no longer thinking the unthinkable, protecting oneselg in shock, vomiting, the lusted-after body suddenly repulsive, leave me alone, leave me alone. But mostly what happened is that I’ve allowed myself to be pushed around, just waiting for it to be over, preferring misunderstanding over confrontation – it’s impossible in moments like that to think that defending my body could be worth the effort, and anyway what does that mean, “my body,” at the age of fifteen? Only this matters: not to be alone, not to be abandoned.
This short work is a blend of auto-fiction, research and memoir, like Wanda, Nathalie Léger is carrying around a metaphorical oversized handbag, a repository for her thoughts, a place to store her memories, and her bag becomes the pages you read.
I watched ‘Wanda’ a few years ago when I was doing a 1970’s Hollywood counter-culture binge, and revisited the movie last year with a poet friend of mine, whose insights into the female psyche added an extra layer to this wonderful film. Now I’ve experienced Nathalie Léger’s response, her “Suite for Barbara Loden” and the appreciation again increases.
Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men. We were in the kitchen having breakfast: he told me that he was afraid of that habit particular to women in general and me in particular, in his opinion, of being either unable or unwilling to resist uninvited male desire, of the madness of giving in to whatever they asked of us. He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it – how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?
The book also plays through the various scenes in the movie, “she sits up and gently strokes his forehead until he cries out”, and then fallows Nathalie Léger’s personal attachment to each scene. A short work, this is also a fine accompaniment to a wonderful film.
I have seen a few reviews, of this book, that are quote scathing and I wonder if the reader hadn’t had the opportunity to view Barbara Loden’s film before reading, it was very hard to find, until recently when the Criterion Collection released a restored print. My reading journey was brilliantly enhanced by having a solid grounding and relationship with the film ‘Wanda’ and a fair understanding of Barbara Loden’s struggle to raise funds, be recognized, be acknowledged as someone other than Elia Kazan’s wife, and her subsequent death at only forty-eight years of age. This allowed me to travel with Nathalie Léger and see her peeling away the layers of the film, applying them to her own experiences, justifying her obsessive travel to understand more about Barbara Loden and simply relishing in a gem of a movie that could easily have been lost.
Once again the Dorothy Project delivers a thoughtful and provocative work of feminist literature, a collection of works that deserve wide readership.