- 29 Oct 20
A recent Sunday Times list of the best films directed by women erred spectacularly in omitting Wanda, a 1970 masterpiece from Barbara Loden.
You know the way you sometimes see lists of the 25 greatest novels of the 20th century, or the ten best Irish footballers of all time, or the 100 most enjoyable sins you can commit in a church, and you snort in angry derision that such-and-such a blindingly obvious example has inexplicably been omitted?
The Sunday Times recently carried a list of the 50 best films directed by women and managed to miss Wanda, released in 1970, starring, written, produced and directed by Barbara Loden, with a crew of three and a budget of $100,000, set in the anthracite wilderness of eastern Pennsylvania, about a woman in her thirties who, drained of life by the life she’s lived, gives up her children, goes on the run with a disastrously incompetent petty thief who is shot dead the first time he tries to up his game and rob a bank, sleeps with men she casually meets who casually degrade her, wanders into a saloon where strangers good-heartedly buy her beer and cigarettes, and wonders listlessly at the edge of their conversation what’s going to happen next, at which point we leave her.
I have often mused on whether the film, and Ms. Loden, might have found some semblance of the respect they were entitled to had she not been married at the time to Elia Kazan (On The Waterfront, East Of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire). Critics of her work seemed blinded by his light. She never found funding for another feature film, died of cancer at 48 worshipped as a great auteur by French new-wave directors, virtually unknown and consigned to the margins back home.
Wanda is easy enough to find on YouTube. It isn’t a laugh a line, doesn’t go anywhere except deeper into the darkening soul, is yet uplifting in its fearlessness and unflinching gaze, maybe the best movie you’ve hardly heard of.
Then there’s Billy Browne. Earlier this month, RTÉ2 carried a documentary on Irish Showbands originally broadcast by BBC4. It was terrific fun, presented by Ardal O’Hanlon, clear-eyed about a short-lived, distinctively Irish cultural phenomenon now routinely dismissed as an embarrassment by all except everybody with some knowledge of the genre (Oh yes, showbands were a genre!), and a proper love of popular music.
Billy, from Larne, was in the Freshmen, on keyboards, sax and anything else that was needed, sharing vocals with my old classmate Derek McMenamin (“Derek Dean”) from Strabane. Derek’s memoir of life on the road, Unzipped, offers one of the best accounts ever of how Irish teenagers took to sex. He makes an erudite argument that one of the key factors influencing change in Irish music in the 1960s/’70s was the introduction of the contraceptive pill.
Derek was into hazardous music from an early age. He was once essaying a swivel-hipped rendition of ‘C’est Si Bon’ at the St. Columb’s College French department’s annual concert when head teacher Fr. Anthony McFeely, later bishop of Raphoe, in which capacity he schemed to ensure that priests who had sexually abused young boys needed show no contrition nor do any penance, stomped onto the stage, stilled the music and ranted against “Le jazz Américain”, which, he averred, would surely lead us away from the path of righteousness and onto the road to hell.
Like all showbands, the Freshmen mainly played covers. I remember them segueing through half-a-dozen Beach Boys numbers at the Wexford Inn, a sustained blast of beautiful noise, five-part harmonies in perfect time, perfect pitch, then straight into the exuberant punk of Billy’s ‘Never Heard Anything Like It In My Life’, a quirky take on the same theme as John Prine’s ‘Dear Abby’, about an agony aunt (Where have all the agony aunts gone, now when we need them?) called Judith, modelled on the Sunday World’s gorgeous Judith Elms, whose response to every broke-heart tale begins, “I’ve never ‘eard anyfink like it in me life.” NME Record of the Week, reached five in the UK charts.
Billy also wrote ‘Cinderella’, the story of a two-finger piano player in a pick-up band living in a small midlands town when a touring opera company comes through, presenting Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Man you shoulda seen me, diggin’ Rossini”). Cinderella in the production he chanced upon was performed by Suzanne Murphy from the North Circular Road, a member of classy folk band We4 prior to achieving international celebrity as an opera singer.
“I fell in love with Cinderella / Magic princess really stole my heart / Well, maybe not exactly in love with Cinderella / But with the girl who sang the coloratura mezzo-soprano part”.
We might note in passing that Cinderella’s godmother was a revolutionary. In another version, when the young one’s spirit wilted and she despaired of going to the ball, comrade godmother clenched a fist: “Because there are always impossible dopes / Keeping a hold of impossible hopes / Impossible things are happening every day”. And didn’t she turn out to be absolutely right?
Billy had a second UK hit with a brilliant pastiche of Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Look What Jerry Lee Did To Me’.
The Freshmen also had Tiger Taylor on guitar.
John Waters, late of this parish, now a fierce campaigner for a faith-filled fior-gaelige Ireland, was a roadie for the Freshmen before he took a wrong turn.
But despite all, the Freshmen didn’t rate a mention in Ardal’s hour-long documentary.
As Thomas Grey observed in a country graveyard, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air”.
Except that sweetness is never wasted. And flowers are ever reborn to blush again. Up ahead there’s radiance and joy. Nothing is ever futile. Beauty always lingers.
Wanda still jostles in my memory alongside Cinderella.
Such are things the young people of Ireland need to know, these being terrible times to be young.