Booze, pathos, and passivity in 'Suite For Barbara Loden'

Toward the end of Nathalie Léger's discursive, frequently fictional essay-novel, "Suite For Barbara Loden" (first published in 2012 but translated into English for the first time late last year), the author meets famous baseball player and infamous boozer Mickey Mantle, who possibly dated or slept with the book's subject, cult actor and filmmaker Barbara Loden, way back when she was a dancer at the Copacabana in the '50s.

Léger and Mantle meet, allegedly, at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA, and mostly talk about Proust, who Mantle says he read up on—"just a bit," he notes—while prepping his autobiography. Maybe this meeting and conversation happened. Maybe it didn't. It doesn't matter because it feels right: A mix of allegedly high (French hero of the temporal, Proust, pondered) and supposedly low (a New York Yankee legend and greasy alkie baseball player from when men were men, which just meant womanizing drunken dicks), playing out in a sad-ass rustbelt city in a converted home full of memorabilia for a committed, serious icon of American hucksterism and magical thinking.

Loden's "Wanda" is a chewy movie about a housewife who decides not to be a housewife anymore, loses her kids and husband, and wanders off. At a bar, she meets Mr. Dennis, some bumbling bank robber who isn't too interested in her but doesn't care enough to tell her to go away for good, so she tags along with him up until a botched robbery, where Wanda runs away, thwarts a sexual assault, and ends up back in a bar and where she is offered smokes and beer by the patrons. It's a movie in which power is found in passivity, and it's a devastating analysis of dudes, dumb and dangerous, and the way in which that kind of rogue male subjugation can apparently feel like freedom sometimes.

Loden's legacy leans almost entirely on this small, wispy movie. Her miserablism as actor and filmmaker is something special, even in the '70s where these kinds of movies—rambly, on-the-cheap character studies doomed from the jump—were much more frequent. She liked the webcam-boring movies of Andy Warhol and the hang-out qualities of Godard's "Breathless" and in "Wanda," combining their unslick aesthetics with years of being dismissed as just a beauty and body and bored by more conventional acting (she won a Tony for Arthur Miller's "After the Fall"; she is especially memorable in "Splendor In The Grass"), captured a certain sense of being very dead inside.

"An extremely drab and limiting piece of realism," said much beloved film critic Pauline Kael of "Wanda." John Waters meanwhile told NPR that "Wanda" is "one of the best arty feel-bad movies ever" (he screened it at the 2012 Maryland Film Festival). Here is a New York Times Magazine capsule review from 1970: "The acting by Barbara Loden and Michael Higgins cannot be faulted, but the film (also written and directed by Miss Loden), about a pathetic passive female and the small-time hold up man she meets, is dreary, awkward, and amateurish." I think it's best to consider all three of these reviews as praise.

In "Wanda," self-destruction is tedious, sucked of all its rebellious appeal. The first scene features Wanda in her sister's house, a beer can on the table nearby and Wanda hiding under the covers, haunted by real life responsibilities or annoyed by the sunlight. A baby's cries pierce—too loud, too realistic for most movies—and Wanda, who came here to escape her family, can't take it. And there's Mr. Dennis, the lunkhead she hangs out with who is just profoundly unheroic, a lout with a bad mustache and a worse haircut. He tells her at one point, "No slacks, when you're with me, no slacks." He's a crime flick hero without the idyllic menace antiheroes are supposed to have.

Some other insight comes from looking at what Elia Kazan, Loden's husband, said of Loden in his endless autobiography. She is alternately tricky and superficial but always a little bit out of his grasp, described at one point as someone "who doubted everything in the world"—as if that is a bad thing—and elsewhere, "cunning and manipulative" and someone who had "little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal."

Though Loden said "Wanda" wasn't a feminist movie and many critics agreed with her, mad that it wasn't essentially feminist enough, it is feminist. Maybe "Wanda" would've been deemed feminist enough had it ended with Wanda sticking a glass beer bottle in Mr. Dennis' neck or something, though I'll take Wanda's endless eyerolls and nervous apathy as a feminist statement. Later on, Loden tried to adapt Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" into a movie but it never happened. She died of cancer a decade after "Wanda" was released, at age 48, no other feature-length movie to her name, just a pastoral, grimy short from 1975 titled, "The Boy Who Liked Deer," that was basically her smuggling pathos into an educational short telling kids not to vandalize shit.

Like "Wanda," Léger's "Suite For Barbara Loden" rambles, pauses, stops, rambles some more, and adds up to something that feels bigger than its parts, inexplicably personal but a bit like a parable—guarded, and a little hard to hold onto. The premise of "Suite For Barbara Loden" is that Léger began with an assignment to write a quick film encyclopedia intro about Loden and kept spiraling outward, so far that her word count was too large for this kind of terse "all-facts" entry, but also so tangential that it moved beyond conventional biography into something else entirely.

This explains the probably made-up Mickey Mantle moment toward the end: Characters and real people blur and bump into one another until you have a chain of prose that links Léger, Léger's mother, Loden, Wanda, and Alma Malone, the real life woman who inspired Wanda (she helped rob a bank and thanked the judge for her sentence, and so a movie and a character and an exploration of diffidence were born). Spliced throughout, further fragmenting the text is scene-by-scene summary of "Wanda" and it does that artful film critic thing wherein basic summary is packed with critique, analysis, and meaning in and of itself. It is one more addition to a growing group of books that sit somewhere between poetry, fiction, and expansive non-fiction: Maggie Nelson's "The Argonauts," Claudia Rankine's "Citizen," Michael Kimball's "Galaga," Kier-La Janisse's "House Of Psychotic Women," Geoff Dyer's "Zona" all come to mind reading "Suite For Barbara Loden."

And often Léger's prose seems to declare what Loden and Wanda wouldn't say or couldn't say because they thought that there was no point, no one was ever listening anyway. Let's end on this keen, thoughtful evisceration of a guy Léger encounters while she's researching Loden: "He is a young man. I don't like young men, I don't like their bloom, their inflexibility, their grace, their spermatic irritability, their soft hands. I look at young men, I look at them below the belt, I look at them very carefully, I scrutinise them, but I don't like them, they laugh too easily, which is nice, I make this one laugh easily, it's nice, it's boring. I would not want to die in the company of a young man."

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