Why You Should Watch Barbara Loden's Groundbreaking Wanda - VRGyani News and Media

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Why You Should Watch Barbara Loden's Groundbreaking Wanda

Wanda is a singular film, with an even more singular character at its center. This is only fitting, as it was the only film written and directed by Barbara Loden, who also plays the title role. She shot the film on an incredibly tight budget on vivid 16mm, with a crew of only three and a cast of herself, Michael Higgins, and a variety of non-actors. It arrived on the independent film scene in 1970, a time in American cinema when female film directors were few and far between. It’s such a personal film for Loden that it may be unpleasant, even frustrating, to many. Indeed, it was mostly panned (or simply ignored) on its first release. But it remained in the public consciousness for those who knew how to approach it, ultimately helping to spark a new enthusiasm for independent, female-led cinema in America. It's still touted as an influence by leading indie female directors today, from Kelly Reichardt to Amy Seimetz, and deserves to be remembered for its alienating portrait of American womanhood as well as its unforgettable lead character.

The film is set in the rural coal mining area of eastern Pennsylvania. Only very loosely plotted, it follows Loden’s Wanda as she drifts aimlessly from situation to situation, eventually getting involved with the dangerous bank robber Norman (played by Higgins). Many critics have called the film “existential,” a claim which Loden herself denied, but it’s not hard to see what they were talking about. Intentionally or not, Wanda’s wandering lifestyle reveals the freedom that America grants individuals in choosing how they’d like to live their lives. It’s a freedom that can be liberating, yes, but it can also be crippling. Wanda herself is proof of the latter, a prime example of the existentialist phrase “condemned to be free.” She is ensnared in the absence of direction in her life, and paralyzed by her own indecision. Her lack of any stake or interest in the world around her leads to the deep sense of alienation she radiates throughout the film.

This alienation is well visualized early on, as she ambles through the bleak, lifeless coal fields in a very distant wide shot. She is ever so casually heading to a custody hearing, which she arrives at late, telling the judge quite frankly that her husband can just divorce her and take the kids. She has no aspirations to be a mother, and abandons her family without hesitation or emotion. At this point, her character becomes irredeemable for many. Perhaps this decision is indefensible in one sense, but it’s also the first instance where her general apathy directs itself at something in particular: societal expectations of her as a woman.

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Wanda is by no means a feminist hero. She’s entirely passive, even submissive; she has no ambitions, no interests, no personality. But just as Martin Scorsese later used the grotesque figure of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull to explore the damaging effects of masculinity as a cultural construct, here the distressing character of Wanda does the same for the traditional “ideals” of femininity. Her indifference to the world around her can be read as a spiritual rejection of her own actions as she is expected to continuously sleep with any man who shows her any unremarkable ounce of human kindness. This account of her character is put into particular focus as she drifts, post-divorce, into the arms of bank robber Norman. He may well be a stand-in for the patriarchy itself. He is abusive and demanding of her, and in a pivotal scene instructs her very carefully on what she can and cannot wear in order to fit his standard of how she should look.

Her dress is of importance to him because he insists with paranoia that everything must be carefully calibrated as he prepares for a major holdup. As with prior situations, Wanda has stumbled into Norman’s life by chance, and now he demands that she travel across the state with him to help rob a major bank. She complies, less by choice than by a passive refusal to make one. As they travel, he reveals himself as an antithetical figure to Wanda, but one that is equally unlikeable (if not far more so). He is nothing if not driven to succeed in his illegal activities, and cursed with a constant suspicious awareness of his surroundings.

If Wanda drowns in the American dream, Norman thrives on it. A pivotal scene has him drunkenly explaining his philosophy to Wanda: “You don’t want anything? You won’t have anything. You don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.” He has bought into the popular materialist ideologies of capitalism, and his push to commit crime appears largely based on this empty desire to own things. Another reading of Wanda’s own alienation is that it could very well be fueled by her complete disinterest in this type of materialism, which American life prioritizes so completely. Her response to Norman would indicate such: “Never did have anything, never will have anything. I guess I’m dead then.” Norman proceeds, in his drunkenness, to stand on the top of their parked stolen vehicle, fruitlessly attempting to reach up and grab hold of a remote control plane in mid-flight. It soars way too high overhead for him to actually catch it, but he continuously tries regardless, a seeming visual representation of his futile drive to obtain.

Loden used her script only as a loose guide, with a freely improvisatory approach to directing and acting. The film was shot and edited with a stark realism by Nicholas Proferes, who had mostly only worked in documentaries up to this point. These combined elements lend the film a raw and intimate Cinéma Vérité feel, allowing for a full view of the characters, their lifelike complexity unobstructed by unnecessary artifice.

In the lingering closeups of Wanda’s face, the viewer sees her as she really is, a character just as pathetic as she is fascinating. The sometimes frustrating apathy of her character may have been what distanced many critics from the film on its first release, but had the lasting impact of helping shape a personal cinema in which female directors could ambiguously exorcise their demons through such enigmatic characters.

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