Parallelism and Deliverance in Barbara Loden's 'Wanda' and Natalia Leite's 'Bare'
Natalia Leite's 2015 film Bare picks up where Barbara Loden's 1970 film Wanda left off, each acting, indirectly, as the proto- and fourth wave- feminist renderings of the other.
In April 2015, Leite's feature directorial debut premiered to critical fanfare at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, quickly becoming one of the season's buzzed-about indie favorites and representing a potential shift in the cinematic paradigm surrounding feminist narratives. Dianna Agron, the film's lead, earned strong reviews for her performance as Sarah Barton, a woman grappling aimlessly with quarter-life ennui, who enters into a relationship with a female drifter (played by Paz de la Huerta, similarly-acclaimed) and begins work at a strip club. As noted by Simon Foster:
Agron compels as Sarah, the Nevada dreamer coping with family loss and directionless friends. When drifter Pepper (Paz de la Huerta, enigmatic as ever) befriends Sarah's kindred lost spirit, an enriching if dangerous new life...takes hold. Leite's direction is artful and insightful, her dialogue sparse and real; her debut feature signifies she is a talent to watch.
In her review of the film, Erika W. Smith concurred, "[Natalia] Leite's direction and Dianna Agron's performance mean that Bare is interesting in a way that feels new." Katie Walsh summed up the acclaim best: "Leite directs the film with a distinctly feminine sensibility, and the meandering sexuality between Pepper and Sarah is so hazily intoxicating, you'll root for the girl-next-door to run away with the drug dealer."
Still, Leite's vision was relegated to the arthouse circuit, its distributor granting Bare a limited release that October. The studio's seemingly benign choice to market Leite's film on the "speciality release" route proved misguided: the Tribeca favorite slipped into the indie underground. It was ignored by mainstream press following its stateside theatrical run, where it opened in a few major cities and quickly went straight-to-VOD, and hardly anywhere else. It was a fallible move indicative of a greater systemic reality, upholding the all-too-common tradition of erasing queer, female-driven narratives from the popular consciousness — as if a queer female audience did not exist, or if queer female narratives were incapable of being publicly embraced.
Historically, queer, female-driven films made by men (an example: Abdellatif Kechiche's 2013 Palme d'Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Color) have been championed with gusto. This highlights the industry's reliance on the male gaze and its roots in the patriarchal capitalist framework, even when it claims to subvert problematic tropes.
The fallible assumption, that in these films an element of "masculinity" has been shed to make way for a "feminized story", and that this should be celebrated as a sacrificial achievement on the part of the male filmmaker willing to "put aside" his "masculine" interests, lingers in the filmgoing subconscious with a trickle-down effect. Suddenly, all aspects of the publicity and box office gamut are shifted, from ticket sales to award season conversation, while falsely pigeonholing queer female realities.
As observed by critic Michelle Juergen, "It's clear that Kechiche took no pains to remove his male perspective to tell the story of a female, non-heterosexual relationship — a move that ultimately reduces the film to objectification, idealism, and voyeurism." Here, chauvinism prevails violently, with a film like Kechiche's boasting exploitative lesbian sex scenes shot purely with the heterosexual male viewer in mind.
Whenever a woman (particularly, a queer-identifying or gender-nonconforming woman of color) writes and/or directs a queer, female-driven film, the industry scarcely demonstrates interest. Hollywood interprets said narratives through the restrictive gaze of "niche marketability", especially if they come from creators who have actually walked in those shoes. The humanizing elements of a narrative rooted in lived experience eliminate the pornographic glorifications integral to our self-indulgent and capital-driven viewing experiences, allowing filmic personae to be understood, rather than consumed as products. This experience-driven subversion threatens to deconstruct the dominant framework responsible for our capitalist viewing ethics in the first place.
"Alternative" narratives, then, exist outside of the system's entrenched parameters. They retain no space in the industry's goal market because the marketplace operates inextricable from the same white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-male sovereignty that established it, and the idea of the "alternative" narrative, in the first place. As Alyssa Rosenberg notes in her article "How Hollywood Stays White and Male":
Even as production companies, television networks, and awards shows "make space", from time to time, for women, people of color, and queer folx, the endgame is always an act of aggressive masculine co-optation and tokenism. Furthermore, the belief that Hollywood operates on purely talent or merit bases are but subsystems in the capitalist myth machine that deny the historic macrostructure of disparity and underrepresentation — the bigger issue Rosenberg alludes to here.
A Confluent Reality
Barbara Loden's Wanda predates Bare by 45 years, but nonetheless mirrors its commercial trajectory. Also like Bare, it speaks to the longevity of the harmful, albeit too-familiar industry praxes revisited above.
Dianna Agron as Sarah Barton and Paz de la Huerta as Pepper in Bare (IMDB)
Now widely considered a landmark of American independent cinema, Loden's directorial debut (cementing her status as the first female writer-director-producer-actor hyphenate) is, like Bare, a feminist narrative shot in flare-soaked, vérité style, about a woman grappling with (midlife) ennui who passes aimlessly through her banal hometown, searching for some semblance of purpose and self-identification.
Also like Bare, Wanda was a favorite on the festival circuit, winning international acclaim and the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film at the 31st Venice International Film Festival. In the US, Loden's film would not fare so well. Like Leite's debut, its theatrical release in February 1971 flew under-the-radar, and it took in little at the domestic box office. As noted by E. Bahr-de Stefano:
Rehabilitation of Loden's masterpiece with a Janus Films-sponsored theatrical revival in 2018, and a Criterion home video release this past March (thusly broadening its audience) demonstrates some of the industry's corrective operations. It also makes proving the argument — that the market marginalizes cinematic narratives outside of cis-het male interests — difficult. One could claim that, with the reappraisal of Loden's film, the market is in fact a changing and inclusive landscape, but this is a myth, and the reception of a work like Bare remains an unfortunate testament to the mythology.
Hollywood has taken only retroactive measures in its eradication of systemically-misogynistic and queer-phobic praxes, without confronting the reality of these traditions still pervasive in the current creative consciousness: while reappraisal of Wanda is certainly not a bad thing, can it be posited as all that "progressive" when a film like Bare receives the same shoddy initial treatment, nearly a half-century later?
Both films find kinship not only in how the industry handled their visibility in the marketplace, but in how they each grapple with themes of womanhood, agency, sexual identity, and freedom, in their cinematic universes. Loden's and Leite's works are thusly joined in a confluent reality, as part of a protean historical timeline where queer female narratives are in a constant state of evolution and reinvention, just as the film industry's sexist and queer-phobic customs perpetually reshape and reinvent themselves, too.
Bare, then, not only mirrors Wanda, but picks up where it left off; each acting as the indirect proto- and fourth wave- feminist renderings of the other. Leite may not have called directly on Loden's progenitor to inform her own creative vision, but Wanda's spiritual presence in Bare proves revelatory when examined in tandem. These parallels reveal not only the narrative's continued longevity but also the pervasive longevity of the industry's epistemically-violent nature.
Wanda is a film that points to progressivism while at the same time, and by no fault of its own, remains trapped in an early-'70s sociological imagination. This reality does not diminish its revelatory nature, but merely purports that the narrative does not end with its fadeout — leaving the door open for films like Leite's.
Released at the height of "free love", Wanda veers off the beaten path to challenge the smokescreen of flower power. Its production history is a progressive feat, with Loden breaking boundaries as the first woman to star in a film she had also written, produced, and directed. Contrarily, its plot is not as hopeful, pointing to the graver reality beneath Loden's reputation as an industry groundbreaker — a position she had to fight relentlessly for, and combat rumors against, for the rest of her life.
We are introduced to Loden's protagonist, Wanda Goronski (played by Loden), amid the soot-choked plains of small-town Pennsylvania. As noted in experimental biography Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, Loden told FILM Magazine in July of 1971: "I made Wanda ... as a way of confirming my own existence." One thusly realizes Loden's decision to portray her own protagonist validates the film's roots in her own lived experience.
Wanda begins the film disheveled and passed out on her sister's couch. She later grants her husband full custody of their children, abandons them, and runs away with a stranger to start anew. On her journey, she encounters an array of abusive men, and ultimately joins one (Michael Higgins) on a bank robbery — with no real desire to rob a bank, but no real desire to break free from the scheme, either.
Wanda Goronski is not so much an agent as a blank canvas for projection, and Loden is cognizant of this fact. The protagonist is her point of commentary on the contemporaneous realities of womanhood, amid the reinvention of the patriarchy under the guise of sexual liberation: "[The film] was really about the oppression of women, of people... Being a woman is unexplored territory, and we're pioneers of a sort, discovering what it means to be a woman," she once remarked. Ergo, Wanda is a frustrating protagonist from a latter-day perspective, which distinguishes the film's designation as a feminist manifesto. Film critic Amy Taubin, writing for The Criterion Collection, recounts:
Consequently, Wanda's denouement exists in a thematic grey area. As noted by Taubin, hope is engendered, briefly, as Loden's protagonist evades male sexual aggression to find herself among patrons at a roadhouse, who in silent acts of solidarity, give her food and cigarettes. Wanda Goronski is not a doomed woman, but she is certainly not a liberated woman, either. Her arc is, intrinsically, a plateau.
Yet, in understanding Loden's recognition of the stasis many women faced during that time, when burgeoning ideas about sexual freedom and gender parity seemed to only reinforce male privilege, how could Wanda possibly have liberated herself within these parameters? (Loden contended with such parameters herself, especially during her marriage to Elia Kazan, who attempted to claim creative ownership of her film, as noted in a 2018 article by Justin Chang discussing Wanda's recent reappraisal).
Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronski in Wanda (Criterion)
Embodying the cinéma vérité style to full docu-realist effect, Wanda's creator is interested in truths only. In 1970, the gritty truth was that women were not allowed to be as "free" as the culture would have liked us to believe. "Flower power" was the ruse that saw men appropriate feminine sensibilities to reinforce their social and sexual hegemony, akin to male filmmakers' historical appropriation of queer, female-driven narratives for their own gain.
These realities make Wanda an important piece of cinematic history, indicative of the oppressive realities of its time, while calling on future filmmakers to imagine its namesake's next step. The grim realities on display in Loden's film affords viewers — especially those watching 50 years later — a kind of abstract "post-feminist luxury" (as noted by Taubin) necessary to envision a brighter future for its protagonist, and for all women in similar positions of subjugation. This is where Bare enters the conversation.
Leite's film follows a character almost identical to Loden's. Like Wanda Goronski, Sarah Barton is a young woman living in a remote small town (this time, in Nevada). She is stuck in a loveless relationship with her male partner and passing through days in a ghost-like stupor, the passive palette upon which others project their aims and agendas. Sarah, too, finds it within herself to break out of the inertia that defines her life. Upon action, however, she does not fall into a parallel stasis.
Furthermore, Leite imagines Sarah as a woman with sexual agency, and a queer sexual identity, without reducing her narrative to voyeurism or exploitation. Her protagonist's decision to enter into a relationship with Pepper, a female drifter, and take up work as a stripper, proves only conducive to self-discovery. As Leite notes:
From the get-go, Leite's is a galvanizing narrative, rooted in real-life experience (like Loden's), but one that moves at the will of its protagonist, and not the will of the societal torpor surrounding her. It takes the first-voice, female-driven framework pioneered by filmmakers like Loden, and makes way for new and more productive opportunities within that space.
This is not to argue that Leite's lead evades hardship. By the film's end, Sarah and Pepper's relationship collapses, as does her gig as a stripper. Leite also confronts the pervasiveness of male violence: Sarah's boyfriend is a misogynistic figure who, during the film's climax, ruthlessly berates her into a breakdown, much like Wanda Goronski's subjection to male violence during Wanda's third act, before resolving herself to the mercy of roadhouse patrons.
But Sarah Barton does not retreat to a roadhouse at fadeout. She emerges from the "Wanda plateau" and embarks, affirmatively, on the journey of self-actualization. Thus, Leite's film ends with an opportunity at deliverance: Sarah leaves town, to begin a new adventure entirely of her own making. With Wanda, Loden began an important conversation surrounding female identity, sexuality, and autonomy; with Bare, Leite revisits Loden's groundwork to both contribute to, and productively reinvent, that discourse.
The Mirage of Progress
How exactly does Leite's film comment on and reshape Loden's foundational work? Bare is a testament to the ongoing quality of queer, female-driven narratives in cinema. Thus, in her film, Leite imagines those very elements (queerness, intersectionality, sexual agency, and ultimately, hope) absent in a work like Wanda — absent, of course, not because of Loden's "lack of feminism", but rather, because of the astute contextualization of her film's plot in an oppressive system, during a specific historical moment.
Wanda simply holds a mirror up to the times, and in doing so, engenders within its viewers a certain frustration to make visible the precise nature of its protagonist's subjugation. Sarah Barton is the spiritual progeny of women like Wanda Goronski, and in her "recognition" of that subjugation from a fourth-wave feminist position (Bare having been released in 2015), she has chosen to break free, once and for all.
Self-liberation, of course, is no overnight accomplishment, a reality both Loden and Leite remain acutely aware of. Bare imagines Sarah's move toward freedom as a slow burn, which finds manifestation in the breakdown of intrinsically-vérité tropes over the course of its runtime.
Specifically, Leite's employment of visual surrealism, enabling the narrative to reach beyond the confines of Sarah's mundane existence, allows Sarah herself to traverse those barriers on the physical plane. Her daydream of swimming across the floor of the drab supermarket she works at, a spiritual awakening brought on by a peyote trip in the desert at the film's midpoint, and in general, desaturated portraits of small-town America melting into neon-soaked nighttime dreamscapes, are just some instances illustrative of Leite's world-bending methodology. Tobias Datum's cinematography (which won the Jury Prize at the Las Vegas International Film Festival), once rooted in a similar mise-en-scène as Loden's small-town tale, is now granted multitudes.
As Paulo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: "In order for the oppressed to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform." In Wanda's topical adherence to vérité realism, deliverance exists on an abstract periphery, nonexistent in its tragic verisimilitude. In Bare, Leite both upholds and subverts the vérité style in order to bring Sarah, and her audience, to that place of liberation. In her subversion, she creates a style all her own: not symptomatic of a closed world, but rather, one of limitation waiting to be transformed.
Consequently, to venerate Wanda as a masterpiece, and simultaneously treat Bare (and myriad films like it) as minor components of a "niche" queer, female film market, unable to be embraced by "mainstream" audiences, or across various demographics, proves hypocritical. Both films remain utterly distinct artworks, unique to the two very different women that made them; Loden, a white, cis-het North Carolinian auteur who began her career on Broadway, and Leite, a queer filmmaker of color from São Paulo, Brazil, who began her career directing short films and web-series. But they occupy a continuous, ever-evolving space in the same, multilayered consciousness. To reject one is to reject the other — and to reject the entire narrative in question.
Wanda was robbed, of accolades and audience exposure when first released 50 years ago. It is finally getting the acclaim and popularity it has always deserved. Will we be forced to wait another 50 years before films like Bare — which productively queer and expand the Wanda Goronski narrative — earn the same visibility?
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