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Cinema on the page: Suite for Barbara Loden

Film is a bully. It wants to make its viewers feel, and it has the tools to do so. It deploys the visual, musical, dramatic and verbal all at once, in a barrage, and there is something about this multi-sensory overload that gives the viewer little critical room for manoeuvre. Reading, by contrast, is very much a halfway house. The reader and book need each other to complete the circuit of signification; as Rebecca Solnit has it, ‘The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.’ The book and the reader hold each other at arm’s length. Film pins the viewer in her comfy chair and batters her with impressions.

 

Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (tr. Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon; Les Fugitives, 2015) is a book that puts the ambiguity back into film, and restores a productive critical distance between viewer and screen. Léger’s book is an account of a film, Wanda, written and directed by, and starring, the little-remembered American stage and screen actor Barbara Loden, who died of cancer in 1980, aged 48. Wanda was her only film. I’ve never seen it – not many people have, in recent times, although it won the International Critics Prize at Venice in 1970 and was shown at Cannes. Here’s how the book opens:

 

Seen from a distance, a woman, etched against the darkness. Whether it is a woman, in fact, is hard to tell, we’re so far away. Framed by mountains of rubble, a tiny white figure, barely more than a dot against the dark expanse, slowly and steadily picks its way through this huge mass of debris: a vast, towering slagheap, intersected with great mounds of excavated rock, stony depressions, muddy tracks waiting to be ploughed up by the lorries. In a wide-angle shot, we follow this minute ethereal figure as it makes its way intently along the forbidding horizon.

 

The book, then, is in part an extended ekphrasis, ‘a verbal representation of a visual representation’ in the definition of James W. Heffernan, a telling of a looking. In Léger’s book we get a description of Wanda, what it is like to watch, but we also learn plenty about Loden[1]. Léger’s way into the film is a short entry – une notice – she is writing for a film encyclopaedia. A commission? A pitch? We don’t know. In any case, what she soon finds is that the shorter a piece of writing is supposed to be, the greater the research needed to write it.

 

I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinema vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theatre scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining […] I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.

 

 

So the book is half illustrated ekphrasis of Wanda, half that unfinished notice, greatly expanded. There is little point offering up here the details of Loden’s life that Léger unearthed, nor that of Alma Malone, the woman on whom Loden based the character of Wanda, after she read the story of her court case and imprisonment in a newspaper article. That’s what Loden’s book is for, and whatever criticism is, it should be something more than simple paraphrase. Perhaps it will suffice if I say that the story of Wanda is that of a woman who drifts from her marriage and family to take up with a small-time crook, Mr Dennis, who persuades her to act as getaway driver in a bank heist, with disastrous results – although the real subject of the film is Wanda’s affectless passivity in the face of contemporary American life.

 

It is worth noting, however, that that ‘simple, complex form’ of a woman telling her story through that of another woman applies not just to Loden and Malone, but also to Léger and Loden. If an ekphrasis implicitly contains commentary and interpretation as well as description, it will always also contain elements of self-criticism or autobiography, and Léger puts plenty of herself in her book.

 

Reading Suite for Barbara Loden, it becomes clear how the women in it are at different times laid over each other like onion skin versions of womanhood. Firstly, Wanda the character stands for Loden the actor and director just as much as she does Malone: ‘Wanda’s character is based on my own life and on my character, and also on the way I understand other people’s lives,’ Léger has Loden saying. Likewise Loden, for Léger, is a version of herself as woman artist: struggling to find stable meaning in both halves of that description.

 

Look at the names: Malone/Wanda/Loden/Léger. Three of them real, one fictitious. Remove the fictitious element and you get Malone/Loden/Léger. They make a euphonious trio, with an intriguing etymological echo and balance between Loden and Léger, the former coarse and heavy (it is the German word for a dense woollen cloth, the sort of thing a shepherd would wear in the mountains) and the latter light as air. [2]

 

But there is a fifth woman, or a fourth if you keep Wanda out of it, to make her the absent ground against which the others figure, and this is Léger’s own mother. She is introduced early in the book, asking about her daughter’s project, and complaining that it sounds dull. ‘I wonder why you have a taste for sad things,’ she says later. Nevertheless, she does have a personal response to watching the film.

 

Early in the film we see (or read seeing) Wanda killing time in a shopping mall: ‘walking slowly, she stops in front of a shop window, examines the mannequins’ white plastic bodies posed between huge bouquets of yellow and orange flowers, elegant hands hinting at movement, gazes turned towards some obvious point, as time passes, oozing down the plate glass window.’

 

Watching the film with her daughter, Mme Léger tells a story about the day that her separation from her husband was finalised. After leaving the courthouse, she spent hours wandering around the newly opened Cap 3000, at the time the largest shopping mall in France, near Nice airport. I looked it up online, half-expecting images of an abandoned and ruined monument to capitalism, but no, it’s still there. No longer the biggest mall in France, but still with ambitions, if the artist’s impressions of potential further development are anything to go by.

 

Cap 3000 was opened in October 1969.

 

Wanda was released in 1970.

 

On 8 April 1970 Alma Malone was released from the State Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio.

 

(In Léger’s French original the pun on ‘release’ – releasing a film; releasing someone from jail – is absent.)

 

Again, the women are laid one over the other; they coincide, or nearly, or partly. Loden, born in 1932, would have been 36 or 37 when she acted the part of Wanda. Loden was the same age as Malone, Léger discovers, which means that she was playing Wanda the character older than Malone was when she committed her crime – as a nearly 40-year-old, like herself, rather than a nearly 30-year-old. Léger was born in 1960 (inferring from the book) and thus was, when she was writing the book, roughly the age of Loden when she made the film, yet it is her mother who most closely matches the earlier two in not just age but also generation.

 

The five lives don’t so much overlay each other as overlap, like wavelets on a beach.

 

In watching the film for clues to their various lives, there is a particular behaviour, a particular response that Léger seems interested in: crying, or the lack of it. The crying, or the lack of it, of women on their own, or women in the presence of the men who will betray them, or have betrayed them, but have a hold over them, so the tense of the betrayal is irrelevant. Too sad to cry; like people say too cold for snow, which always seemed to me a specious thing to say.

 

She writes about how Wanda/Loden cries in the film, or doesn’t, and compares this to herself, when she cries, and to Loden, herself, as herself, in the months leading up to her death. She pictures her mother wandering the shopping mall in a state of distress and distraction. (Wandering and Wanda: another pun reserved for the film and the English translation of the book, available to Loden and me, but not to Léger.)

 

 

 

*

‘I am still looking for Barbara’s face,’ Léger writes at one point, and it’s only now that I realise that though I have seen a few stills from Wanda on the internet, trying to find a copy of the film on DVD, I have no idea – no recollection – of what she looks like. There are no illustrations in the book, as there might well have been in either a film fan’s account of Wanda or an academic monograph, just as there are no illustrations in Loden’s second, as-yet untranslated book, L’Exposition, which it takes as its central subject Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione. Oldoini, as well as being the mistress of Napoleon III, just as Loden was the lover then wife of film and theatre director Elia Kazan, was also a pioneer in photography, or rather in being photographed, in all sorts of poses and costumes, operating very much as a Cindy Sherman of the 1850s and 1860s, though with a male photographer on hand to take the photos.

 

There is an image on the back of Suite for Barbara Loden, I’m assuming depicting a moment from the film, but it doesn’t give much away[3]. It is of a woman with blonde hair gathered at the back of her neck, wearing what looks like a dress or blouse with large pointed collars. She is talking – or not talking – to a man, taller than her, in some kind of sailor’s cap. They both look sad and serious; and they are watched from behind by two more women, or a woman and a man. Is this her bank robber lover? I have no idea. The illustration, monochrome, seems done in ink and wash. Its focus is very much on the face of the woman, Wanda. Her eyes, dark, her mouth, thick, filled in, downturned at the corners; her cheeks and chin and the skin around her mouth are shaded, washed, and her nose – it is so difficult to do noses, as anyone who has ever tried their hand at illustration will know – thrusts down into it, carrying into the shade the white of her forehead. (Noses are difficult because they disrupt so abruptly the flat plane of the face, and yet have such nebulous, uncertain contours themselves.)

 

‘I am still looking for Barbara’s face…’ and then, on the next page: ‘What is it that attracts me so to Wanda?’ Every ekphrasis is a representation of an image and, inescapably, a revelation of the teller, too. Not just in that every act of describing art is also an act of interpretation, but that, in the words of Siri Hustvedt, ‘looking at visual art always involves a form of mirroring’ in that we reflect back at the work what we find in our perception of it, just as an infant, in D. W. Winnicott’s theory of child development, unconsciously mimics the expression it sees on its mother’s face.

 

In writing her watching of Wanda, Loden is unpacking and spreading out on the narrative floor of her book the stories of Loden, Malone, herself, her mother; some of which stories were latent in the film itself, others only in Loden’s watching-reading of it. Lay out the stories, see where they overlap, where they can be overlaid, see what is held in common, what is particular to one story.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Why read about a film when you could watch it? (Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this particular film is pretty much impossible to see.) In some respects, writing about an image is just another form of mimesis, an additional layer of representation that interposes itself between the viewer/reader and the thing itself.  This is one of Plato’s arguments against artists: why look at a picture of a table when you could look at a table or, ideally, think about the form of the table? And it’s the same argument that’s made against critics. No one ever put up a statue of a critic, people say, forgetting that raising a statue to someone is first and foremost an act of criticism.

 

Plato takes against the artist because they operate at a third remove from reality (where reality here is not the world of appearances we see out of the window, but the abstract and ideal world of the philosophical forms). His allegory of the painter, carpenter and philosopher is in Book X of the Republic, but it also calls to mind the allegory of the cave, in Book VI, in which unphilosophical people are compared to prisoners in a cave who happily take the shadows of objects on the wall as those objects’ true incarnations. Plato suggests that no one who has emerged from the cave to see the real world and – eventually – the sun (the knowledge of the good) would willingly go back to a life of looking at shadows in caves.

 

And yet, the choice to work at one (further) remove from something – to paint a chair rather than build one; to critique a painting of a chair rather than paint one – is to submit to the idea that sophistication, in all its shades of meaning, is the mark of the developed human intellect. To turn away from direct representation to represent other representations performs a kind of calculus on the act of representation itself. The critical act is concerned as much with the process of looking/seeing/thinking as it is with the object of its criticism. It is in the gain and loss of seeing the world through art – and art through criticism – through added, layered, superimposed filters of representation and signification, through the picking up and processing of traces, the judging of distances, the bringing into focus, that humanity reveals itself.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Suite for Barbara Loden, then, involves a series of overlaid stories – ‘une femme à la place d’une autre’ as it says on the back of L’Exposition, and women standing for and replacing each other is a recurring theme of Léger’s books. Loden’s first break, long before making Wanda, was playing Maggie, the character based on Marilyn Monroe, in the first staging of Arthur Miller’s play After The Fall, but she lost out to Faye Dunaway, her understudy as Maggie, in the battle for the lead role in the film adaptation of The Arrangement, Loden’s husband Kazan’s novel based on their relationship – she lost out to Faye Dunaway in the fight for the role, basically, of herself. Then there is, in L’Exposition, the replacement of Léger’s mother, by her father, with another woman. In Loden we learn about the fallout from that affair – the disconsolate wandering around the shopping mall – but the ur-scene had already been written in that earlier, equally good book.

 

Loden might be the subject of the book, but its base is still the telling – the reading-seeing – of Wanda, the narration and description of scenes, the behaviour of characters in them. In this, it is remarkably similar to Geoff Dyer’s Zona, published the same year as Léger’s French original, 2012[4]. Like Loden, Zona runs through its chosen film – Tarkovsky’s Stalker – from start to finish, all the time moving outwards to attempt the critical work of exegesis and commentary, and inwards, to produce memoir.

 

Although the general form, or rather the premise, is remarkably similar, the two books end up quite differently. In part this is structural. Dyer’s extraneous matter – his supplement to the film – comes in the form of seemingly off-the-cuff digressions; it skips skittishly, provocatively, away from and back to the film somewhat in the manner of a director’s commentary, albeit a commentary by someone as intent on talking about themselves as the film under discussion. No surprise to anyone who knows Dyer. Whatever the subject – and Dyer is seriously interested in many things – the subject is presented through the filter of his own consciousness, personal history, taste, judgement. In Zona he approvingly quotes a letter of Flaubert’s from 1852: ‘From the standpoint of pure Art one might establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject – style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.’ Dyer’s manner of seeing things is perhaps one that constantly engages with the aesthetic potential of radical shifts in tone. Part of the climactic sequence of this book involves Dyer’s long-held wish to participate in a threesome[5], which might make you bristle or blush or groan, but to have such revelations sit alongside considered reflections on the nature of time and cinema is absolutely central to Dyer’s style.

 

Léger’s tone, by contrast, is maintained throughout the book, and her progress more methodical and calculated[6]. Léger is after all interested in Loden, and through Loden in the situation more generally of women as artists and individuals. Léger uses the film as a continual example, but to point outwards, away from itself. It is not really treated critically, aesthetically, as a piece of cinema, as Dyer does with Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which he admits to be obsessed about. Dyer refers repeatedly to the film-crit apparatus that surrounds the movie: the making of the film, its relation to films before and after; the changing nature of film-watching and film-going. He does treat Tarkovsky’s life, but in contrast to Léger only really insofar as it reflects back onto the film. Tarkovsky as individual does not stand for anything beyond himself, not even, really, for the artist working under Communism.

 

If Léger treats Loden as a prime example of the woman artist suffering under the social and cultural conditions of post-War America, then this wasn’t how the film was received on its release. Loden, Léger tells us, was castigated by feminist critics for depicting Wanda as (in Léger’s words) ‘an indecisive woman, subjugated, incapable of affirming her own desire’, while Loden herself said that the movie had ‘nothing to do with women’s liberation’. The suggestion is that the film and the character should be read through an existentialist lens, rather than a feminist one. Loden said in an interview that she made the film ‘as a way of confirming my own existence’. Léger ends the book with a deft weaving together of the film, her mother’s day in Cap 3000, and the ending of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a book that Loden also tried to adapt.

 

Whatever the wider goals of both authors, what makes the books so interesting to me is how they go about their critical work through the incredibly basic method of retelling the film in words.

 

From Léger:

 

We are inside the house now, we see the meagrely furnished rooms, things left lying about, an old woman sitting in the back holding a rosary, her face yellow in the streaky light, gaze fixed hard on something that disappeared long ago. We pan back a little, a child is running around her. We pan back further and see a woman from behind, she’s wearing a nightdress, her dishevelled hair is pinned up, her weary shoulders droop… we think this must be her, this must the heroine. We pan back further still, there is a baby on a bed, crying.

 

From Dyer:

 

Next to the table, in the bed, a woman is sleeping. Next to her is a little girl in a head scarf, and next to her, the man who is presumably her father. The rumble of the train grows louder. The whole place is shaking. It’s amazing anyone can sleep through a racket like that, especially as the train is also blaring out a recording of the ‘Marseillaise’. The camera tracks back, moves one way very slowly and then moves back just as slowly.

 

It occurs to me that these books are, in part, novelisations. It’s an amusing idea. After all, there are few literary or artistic forms lower down the critical scale than this, few endeavours less worthwhile than to tell the story of a film in a novel. Such novelisations that exist are usually of blockbuster films and make for simplistic books: basic stories told in basic prose. Perhaps Léger’s and Dyer’s approach is closer to that other literary forms dependent on cinema: the screenplay. Indeed, screenplays, in terms of the literary marketplace, are the exact equivalent of novelisations for a certain kind of cinema-goer: both are there (in their published form) solely in order to remind yourself of the experience of watching the film. (Has anyone, for example, ever read the novelisation of a film they hadn’t seen?) They point at the film, end at it, presume to go no further.

 

Which is where Léger and Dyer’s books are different. They evoke the film in question precisely in order to go beyond it, extrapolate from it. It’s notable, in terms of their approach to cinema, their attitude towards it, that both books incorporate the dialogue of the film into their prose, paraphrase it in effect, making it one with the visuals, or rather making the perception of it one with the perception of the visuals. Most published screenplays tend to be of films with significant dialogue (the screenplay of Pulp Fiction, say); there’d be little point in owning or reading the screenplay of a Bourne film, or a Fast and the Furious.

 

Recently I taught an undergraduate Creative Writing seminar that considered the art of adaptation, and we examined passages from Timothy Mo’s novel Sour Sweet together with the equivalent sections from Ian McEwan’s screenplay for the film adaptation, Soursweet. What struck me, in particular, was not just the obvious point that the text of the screenplay was far leaner and more minimalist than that of the novel, but that it made a fetish of that minimalism. Late Beckett or Raymond Carver are minimalist, but their prose doesn’t read like a screenplay.

 

After all, what is the purpose of a screenplay? In the first instance it is to evoke a film that doesn’t yet exist, to give a sense not just of what is happening in a particular scene, what the characters say and how they act, but of what this will look like to the viewer. A screenplay is a particular kind of ekphrasis, the only kind in fact that positively devalues words at the expense of the images it evokes: to flood the page with words would be to somehow denigrate the status of movies themselves. The terseness of the screenplay style is linked not to film as medium, but to the film industry as working environment. Time is money. Words are secondary.

 

If the two books are different in their approach to their chosen films and directors, then this becomes clear in their endings. Dyer’s book, obsessed first and foremost with the film (and it’s a film, as he says, with a superb, unimprovable ending), is happy to finish the book in the form of description, of unadorned ekphrasis. Léger’s book, by contrast, unravels, and loses its focus, in its second half, in which she travels to the US to try to track down people, places from the film. The trip is largely a failure, and because of the way this narrative is intertwined with that of the film, her interest in the film seems to diminish, too. ‘The story so far,’ she rather wearily starts a paragraph on page 103, with only 20 pages to go. She doesn’t want to cut to the chase, because it’s not the climactic bank robbery itself that interests her, but the facts of Wanda’s life that drive her to such drastic action.

 

Also, the end of the film means the end of her book. If we are reading the book without having seen the film (as will be the case for more readers than with Zona, I should think) then the book and the film are revealed to us at the same rate. Writing it, Loden already knew she had failed to unearth any significant trace of Loden, to solve the mystery that she represented, and so the nearer the end of the movie she gets, the closer she is to having to make this admission. (L’Exposition, too, is an account of a failure, a failure to mount an exhibition about Castiglione, though there that failure doesn’t cloud the narrative to the same degree; this creative interest in failure is clearly something else Léger shares with Dyer.)

 

The very end of the book leaves us not with Wanda, nor with Loden, but with Léger’s own mother. This is a trajectory you’ll also find in L’Exposition, where research into the archive of photos of the Countess leads Léger to dig out and look into photographs of herself, and her mother, as children. (Echoes here, obviously, of Roland Barthes’ La Chambre Claire/Camera Lucida.) Whatever she was looking for in Wanda, the film only leads her to the conclusion that the answer lies closer to home.

 

The book does make me want to see the film – just as Zona makes me want to rewatch Stalker – if only to test the books against them. That’s what sets these two books apart from straightforward monographs: that they make little or no claim to objectivity, to adding to the store of knowledge of the subject, but rather offer a personal reading of the film, and so encourage the reader to make their own personal reading too. ‘One way or another we all have to write our studies of DH Lawrence,’ Dyer writes at the end of his book about his attempt to write a study of DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. And though there he means it as a metaphor for personal ambition, or at least getting through the day (‘the best we can do is try to make some progress with our studies of DH Lawrence’ is its final line) this book, Zona, seems to call out for a more literal interpretation. A film – a book, a song, an opera, a painting – is like a Rorschach blot, merely something for us to project our readings onto. There are all sorts of people I’d love to read on Stalker, and on Wanda for that matter. More than that, I’d love the writing of Zona to become a universal law. If everyone – Nathalie Léger, Chris Kraus, Jeremy Clarkson, Michael Gove, you and me – were made to watch Stalker, and write a book about it, what would we not learn about them, about us? Though neither of them mention the quote, both Loden and Zona are proofs of the Oscar Wilde quote, from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, that ‘the highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography’.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

I’m left with a dilemma. Having written this essay, having said that everyone should write their own version of these books – their own Zona, their own Loden – I’ve now got hold of Wanda, and so I have the opportunity to do just that. Last night I watched it, and so have to face up to the fact that my own thoughts and comments might not be worth putting down.

 

Loden is, to my mind, a better actor than director or screenwriter. She knows what she’s doing, what she wants to do – or rather what she doesn’t want to do; she doesn’t want to make a usual film, she doesn’t want Wanda the character to sell Alma Malone’s story down the narrative river.

 

(It’s only while writing this that I see another pun, in the English, that’s been staring us in the face all along: Wanda, being Alma Malone, is, truly, alone. Elide the names: Almalone. Imalone. Is that semantic echo there in the Beckett novel, I wonder?)

 

And yet, the film isn’t entirely successful. The camerawork is uncertain, never fully committing to the shot. The film stock or spec seems poor. The camera can’t really cope with long shots, or with night exteriors. The image is blurred, or gobbled up, fails to catch.

 

It is possible to rationalise this, to turn a flaw into a quality. Here is Léger on one of the longshots of Wanda walking across the slagheaps of Pennsylvania mining country, near the start of the film: ‘At times the dust absorbs and dissolves the figure as it doggedly moves on; lit up for a moment, now just a vague, blurry smudge, now almost transparent, like a backlit hole in the picture, a blind spot on the decimated landscape. Yes, it is a woman.’

 

Watching it, that indistinctness doesn’t look meaningful; the contrast between the woman, in white, and the landscape, would be stronger were the image stronger, more exact.

 

I had this same feeling, too, when watching Todd Haynes’s Carol. Shot on 16mm film, Carol, with its warm bath of colour and depth of focus, looks like how the world looks through our eyes, or how we were taught to look by analogue film and photography before the merciless, CGI-ready high-definition of digital. Loden presumably wouldn’t have wanted Wanda to look as sumptuous as Carol, but her cinematographer could certainly have learned something from Carol’s.

 

And, in fact, there’s something in Loden’s passivity as Wanda that chimes with Rooney Mara’s performance as Therese. The camera rests on her; it waits, holding its breath; not patiently, but somewhere between hope and anxiety. And hope and anxiety are what play across Loden’s face – when it’s not showing a tough blankness, or else a childish agony; that moment of realising you might have done something wrong, but you don’t know what. It’s the central question of the film, really: which of these, at base, is Wanda’s – well, not her identity, but her default response to the world?

 

What I do have a problem with is Wanda’s childishness and her willingness to go along with whatever Mr Dennis wants – he’s the wannabe Belmondo bank robber she hooks up with – which paints her more stupid than innocent. ‘What are you doing?’ she asks him, as he walks down a town street, trying the door handles of the cars – all the door handles of all the cars; this is before central locking, and any one left accidentally open will gain you access to the car. That ‘What are you doing?’, to be clear, is not an accusation, but a naïve question – she doesn’t know what he’s doing. There’s a strange moment, a little later in the film, when he asks her about her husband and her children, and she says, ‘I’m just no good,’ then takes a drink of beer, and giggles, and says it again. ‘I’m just no good.’ It’s like she’s auditioning herself for the role of gangster’s moll, Bonnie to Mr Dennis’s Clyde.

 

The shots of the slagheaps; the courtroom scene in which Wanda agrees to a divorce – and to giving up her kids – with all the distractedness of a schoolgirl up before the head teacher; the shots in the clothing factory of women at their sewing machines: these all seem to be aiming for cinéma vérité, perhaps John Cassavetes, but seem – not out of place, but not quite out of place enough. Individual shots do stick in the mind: the best shot from the clothing factory is one of a woman’s legs and feet, under the table at which she’s working, moving in a strange abrupt repetitive dance as she performs the same actions over and over again.

 

But there are other shots that are just too familiar. At the end of the short scene in which the factory boss tells Wanda there’s no work for her (‘You’re too slow’) and she replies, ‘Okay, thanks,’ you just know the next shot is going to be of the balding boss returning to his paperwork. And it is. And what about the shot, from across the road, of a bus halting to collect Wanda at a remote stop after she’s been ditched by another, interim man, a travelling salesman? Long shot of Wanda waiting at the stop. Bus pulls up, blocking our view of her. Cut to an interior shot, down the aisle, of Wanda sitting on the back seat, looking out of the window, looking forlorn. What is the shot of the bus pulling up doing there, other than fulfilling the American trope of the bus halting at a remote stop to collect a lone passenger?[7] Is it essential to the narrative? If you cut it, and jumped instead straight to the interior shot, would anyone leap out of their seat and say, My god, how did she get there?

 

The camera seems happiest in the interior two-shot, especially inside cars. It specialises in the two characters looking at each other, one at a time, across the camera. Checking each other out, looking for a reaction. And characters turning to look out of the back windscreen. Some of the best shots of Wanda, in the film, are of her doing just this.

 

The film hangs on a few gambits: its cinéma vérité opening; the space it gives to Loden’s face to show us Wanda; its Breathless double act, with a run of improvised scenes between Loden and Michael Higgins, who plays Mr Dennis. Some of these work – a wonderful moment in which they eat hamburgers at each other in a hotel room; the scene in which they change clothes by the roadside, Higgins shoving their old get-ups into a charity dump bin – but others don’t.

 

In the end, the film is stuck with its history: with few cinema showings and no easy current DVD availability it partly only exists to evidence Nathalie Léger’s reading of it. ‘Le film-culte de Barbara Loden’ it says on the back of the DVD, a press quote. Well, yes. A cult film is always one that is defined by the response – fan response, critical response – that has accrued around it; it points to something outside of itself. ‘Un chef-d’oeuvre’ suggests another quote, with sad lack of awareness of what the phrase actually means; it means the best example of an artist’s work, and this, for Loden as director, for Loden as self-determining artist, was her only work. It’s that fact, that she was never able to get another film into production, or died before she was able to, that established the cult around the film. The film is a shout in the light, a violent work of self-expression. Stalker, for Dyer, is about film – more than this, it is film. ‘Without Stalker, no cinema’ I have him in my memory saying, a quote I now can’t find in the book. Wanda, for Léger, is about Loden, both in character as Wanda, expressing the fate of all humanity in mid-century America, or at least mid-century American film, and as woman artist, who must holler and struggle to be allowed to express that at all. ‘Barbara Loden, through Wanda, shows us just one thing: a woman who throws herself into acting the role of a woman – not yielding, charming or irresistible, not ironic, powerful or dangerous; but absent, elusive, trying to slip away; completely indifferent to wrongdoing.’ Wanda tries to slip away. Wanda, itself, risks doing the same. Who’s to say that these two books might not live longer than the films on which they are predicated?

 

 

Postscript: Wanda is being shown at Whitechapel Gallery on 18 June, introduced by Isabelle Huppert.

 

[1] In fact, the title of the original, French version of the book is Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden. Nevertheless, the backbone of the text – the skeleton that gives it its structure, that supports it – is a more or less linear account of the film.

[2] Léger notes that Malone shares her name with one of Beckett’s heroes, and in fact Léger’s first book was an exercise in biographical exfoliation, Les Vies Silencieuses de Samuel Beckett.

[3] The English translation by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon is a beautifully produced livre de poche, the first work from new publisher Les Fugitives, a group project with the admirable though niche goal of ‘[promoting] the voices of French-language, award-winning women authors whose work is previously untranslated into English’.

[4] The books were published within weeks of other, instigating what feels like a new genre at the same moment, in two different cultures..

[5] The film Stalker is about a journey to a miraculous ‘Room’ where, it is said, people’s deepest wishes will become true.

[6] She quotes Flaubert’s letters too; or rather she has an actress she talks to about the mechanics of performance quote him.

[7] Dyer, of course, wrote an entire book on repeated tropes in (especially American) photography, The Ongoing Moment.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize 2013. He has since published a novel, Randall or the Painted Grape (Galley Beggar Press).

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