A couple of weeks ago, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott lamented the irrelevance of contemporary film criticism. Apparently, bad reviews no longer spell box-office failure. According to Scott, critics know their business and moviegoers ought to listen up. But films like Wanda suggest the public is on to something.
Released in 1970 to critical accolades and public indifference, Wanda was a theoretical triumph and a practical failure. Film scholars promptly canonized it as a protofeminist masterpiece, but it still disappeared. Thirty-odd years later, Parlour Pictures is finally releasing it on DVD. By rights, it ought to be a forgotten masterpiece.
But it's not. In fact, it's dreadful. Shot like a documentary and structured like a feature, it fails as a film. Unlike the documentaries it resembles, it looks artificial. And unlike the features it emulates, it feels contrived. It aims for authenticity, but achieves banality.
The story is minimal: Wanda is an aging floozy, stuck in rural Pennsylvania. Sleeping on couches, bumming pocket money from elderly coal miners, screwing anyone who buys her a beer, she's going nowhere and doesn't seem to care. Early on, she shows up late to her divorce hearing wearing curlers and a housedress and offhandedly abandons her kids, without even bothering to say hello. Eventually, she hooks up with a burned-out crook, after inadvertently walking in on him robbing a bar. Her cynicism feeds his frustration, culminating in a hopelessly botched bank job.
Wanda was written and directed by Barbara Loden, Elia Kazan's second wife. Her inspiration was a newspaper story on Wanda Goranski, a failed bank robber who thanked the judge for her 20-year sentence. A moderately successful actress in her own right, Loden cast herself in the title role. Michael Higgins, the only other professional actor, plays the crook, a hotheaded loser in tinted glasses. The characters filling out the cast almost save the film. Mostly wizened, crotchety old men, they hardly pretend to act. There's no need. Whenever they appear, drawling their half-improvised lines, the film is strongest and most natural, approximating a real documentary rather than an awkward docudrama.
No surprise there, since Nick Proferes, Loden's collaborator and cinematographer, was a documentary filmmaker associated with D. A. Pennebaker, Ricky Leacock, and the Maysles brothers. He shot Wanda verité-style in natural light on high-speed 16mm reversal, and it shows in the raw image and thick grain. Sometimes it's lovely, but Wanda is hardly an aesthetic success. While its pace is glacial for a feature, it's still too fast for the lingering contemplation critical to a great verité documentary.
Ultimately, Wanda just doesn't deliver on its promise. Its champions call it a feminist masterpiece, but it's neither. Loden obviously intended to criticize the sexual politics of rural America, but didn't know how. Where Chantal Akerman condemned social mores by showing how they suffocate women, Loden suggests Wanda is just bored and irresponsible. As a result, her Appalachian existentialist comes off as a hillbilly bimbo. Loden intended to make an "anti-movie." Unfortunately, she succeeded.