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Wanda

Other // Unrated // July 25, 2006
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gerry Putzer | posted August 30, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Label: Parlour Pictures/Ryko

Genre: Drama; American independent

Running time: 102 minutes

Writer-director: Barbara Loden

Producer: Harry Shuster

Cinematographer: Nicholas T. Proferes

Cast: Barbara Loden, William Higgins, Dorothy Shupenes, Jerome Thier, Milton Gittleman, Jack Ford

A forgotten product of the American indie movement (before it was even a movement celebrated in festivals like Sundance), Barbara Loden's "Wanda" (1971) is quite a revelation on DVD. Loden, who was married to Elia Kazan at the time and had appeared in his "Splendor in the Grass" a decade earlier, set out to make her directorial mark with this fact-based story of a weak, abused woman forced into a botched bank robbery.

The movie was shot in Pennsylvania in a sort of "fiction verite" style -- location lensing, natural lighting and sound, uninflected acting, a music-free soundtrack and no apparent directorial influence. Loden favors long, static shots, sometimes from great distance, in which a character or a vehicle will move across the frame in real time. Characters speak, not in the standard cinematic rhythms we have come to consider realistic (they're not), but in the far more off-putting bursts and silences of actual conversation.

It's an anti-style that has gained traction in recent years in such films as Bruno Dumont's "Humanite" and Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny." Comparisons to the work of John Cassavetes work up to a point: the indie pioneer certainly went for a naturalistic look and tone, but his dramas are much more intense than here, much more emotionally acted.

Loden bravely subverts her own sexy (if little known) screen image to play poor Wanda, an aging little girl lost who at movie's start is sleeping on her parents' couch, having left (or been thrown out by) her husband. She shows up late in court to relinquish all rights to her children. She is fired from her factory job for being too slow on the line and is cheated out of the few meager overtime dollars due her. Having taken refuge in a movie theater and fallen asleep, she awakes to find her purse fleeced.

A bad day gets worse when she wanders into an empty bar and fails to realize that the "bartender" is actually a robber who has the real publican tied up on the floor out of view. The robber, played in a constant state of riveting paranoia by Michael Higgins, knows he can't let Wanda just walk out. And so begins their road trip through coal country and dingy motel rooms, culminating at a downtown Scranton bank.

THE DVD

"Wanda" is the debut release from DVD label Parlour Pictures. They've produced a fine transfer of a film that was shot on 16mm then blown up to 35mm. The 1.66 color image, while understandably grainy, is crisp and clean, with hardly a flaw to be found. (The few prints that were struck 35 years ago did not exactly get a workout.) The unadorned sound is fine, with little to no hiss.

The simple menu breaks down the action in 24 chapters. There are no extras on the DVD, but the enclosed booklet includes a fine new essay by film historian and teacher Berenice Reynaud. She points out that "Wanda" had an early champion in Marguerite Duras, who, decades later, worked with fellow fan Isabelle Huppert to secure a release in France.

FINAL THOUGHTS

"Wanda" will leave sensory-overloaded young viewers and most other multiplex-goers cold, but those intrigued by the offbeat will be drawn in. Bleak as all get-out, the movie provides an early cinematic picture of an unremarkable woman who never got the memo about this hopeful new feminist era she's living in.

Writer-director-star Loden succumbed to cancer in 1980 at age 48, having never established the filmmaking career she longed for. The heartfelt "Wanda" was her sole effort and its failure embittered her. But time has shown the validity of some of her stylistic and thematic choices. This DVD provides some redemption.

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