A couple months ago, I read one of the bibles of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story. Though I don’t necessarily believe in everything that McKee says in the book (ultimately his rules are mostly interesting for structure and his opinions become more questionable the further you move away from structural concerns), there was something he understood that is germane to the film I just watched. Cinematic storytelling (with the exception perhaps of documentary) can not simply be portraiture. It doesn’t matter how true your presentation of life is if there ultimately isn’t a story arc there, even if its the barest bones of a story.
The Italian neo-realists understood this. Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is a no-frills portrait of post-war poverty and despair, but the movie also had a heartbreaking story of a father and son’s quest to rescue their livelihood at its core. Terrence Malick understands this as well. Yes, the story of The Tree of Life or To the Wonder is secondary to the emotions that Malick evokes with the film’s imagery, but there’s still a compelling story there. 1971’s Wanda from Barbara Loden (wife of director Elia Kazan) is a seminal “classic” of early independent cinema, but it’s lack of a compelling story or even compelling characters made it a nearly unbearable chore.
There is the bare bones of a story in Wanda. Unfortunately, it’s not one that’s worth the two hour investment of your life this film asks of you. Wanda (Barbara Loden) is, to quote Mumford & Sons, a hopeless wanderer. She’s abandoned her husband and her kids but not for any reason that makes sense. She just refuses to settle down. When the film begins, she shows up late for the court hearing for her husband to officially take her children, and she doesn’t put up any fight once she gets there. And, afterwards, Wanda drifts from one meaningless event to another until she takes up with crook, Mr. Dennis (Mike Higgins), who finds himself with a companion he never really asked for.
I actually feel like there could be a good movie here. A somber meditation on female dissatisfaction with the limited options women had in life in the 1960s and 70s. Of course that movie exists; it’s called Rachel, Rachel from Paul Newman starring his wife Joanne Woodward. That film is one of the saddest and most powerful that I’ve ever watched because Rachel was a haunting and powerful examination of repressed feminine yearning. Wanda on the other hand seems to have nothing to say other than that Wanda’s life has no meaning, but you don’t get any looks into why or what would push her down the absurd path she follows.
None of the performances in the film were memorable either. Barbara Loden’s performance was particularly wooden which is astounding considering who her husband is. I don’t know why he didn’t come around the set and tell her that everyone in the film felt stiff and unnatural. Mike Higgens performance would rapidly flip from hilariously campy to occasionally appropriately moody and intense. No other characters were on the screen for more than a couple scenes, and most of them were even worse than Loden and Higgens, and I suspect they were grabbed right off the street, Bubble-style.
I’d rather work on my screenplay than devote any more time to discussing this film. Here’s the bottom line. Do not waste your time with Wanda. It has a reputation as being one of the first great independent films, but give me a John Cassavetes film any day. The characters are flat, the performances are unnatural, and the story goes nowhere even if it ends on an obvious climax. The film is only an hour and a forty minutes long, but it felt like I was sitting through Lawrence of Arabia again. There are few sins in film-making worse than that.
Final Score: C-
(P.S. This film is so obscure that there is no trailer for it on Youtube.)