In the middle of an empty parking lot, a lonely snack stall promises roadside indulgence. Its red and white marquee speaks of sunnier days, seaside vacations, bustling lines of children eager to buy sweet refreshments. None of that is to be found here, beneath the gloomy sky of Pennsylvania’s Coal Region, where the cheerful detail appears so hopelessly misplaced that it only serves to amplify the bleakness of the cloudy day.
Following the temptation of a monumental ice cream cone, a woman gets out of a station wagon. Behind the wheel is the man she spent the night with. The memory of his failed attempt to vanish inconspicuously from the motel room they shared for a night is fresh, but when he suddenly drives off, merges with the flow of small-town traffic, disappears, the maliciousness of his desertion nonetheless comes as a surprise. She performs a few forceless steps, then decides he is not worth the effort of a more decisive pursuit. Windblown strands of hair veil her face, an unspoken What now? floats through the air while the scene’s protracted seconds drift by. Time weighs heavy with the absence of an answer.
Where, when, how, why? A whole series of questions that would anchor us in time and space remain without answers. In the vacuum, something like a story unfolds: Wanda on the road with Mister Dennis, a petty, loveless criminal, a failed bank robbery, a shooting, a rape. Bonnie and Clyde without the romance, without the spectacle. But the narrative fades into the background as one recalls the movie into memory. Single images well up instead: a jar of Skippy peanut butter on a motel dresser. The messy aftermath of a cheap spaghetti and meatball dinner at a random diner, washed down with gulps of Rolling Rock. An orange collection container for unwanted clothes. Goodwill Industries swallows the sins of surplus consumerism.
Wanda, Barbara Loden’s directorial debut in which she also played the title role, is receiving a wave of acclaim and attention that exceeds the film’s initial, more convoluted reception upon its first release in 1970. 1
The film won the International Critics Award at that year’s Venice Film Festival and was reviewed favourably in the press, but failed to reach commercial success stateside. It was shown at only one theatre, Cinema II in New York, and was not picked up for national distribution at the time. Early reviews contain an unspoken confusion on the side of the writers, an uncertainty about the appropriate critical vocabulary for the film, and a discomfort with the passive demeanour of its protagonist. As answers to the question “Once a woman gains her freedom, what can she do with it?”, Marion Meade could only extract “nowhere and nothing” from the movie. 2
Although her joint review of Wanda and A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971) was mostly praiseful, it concluded with the sentiment that “their timid little-girl women could have shown a touch more spunk.” Roger Greenspun expressed his admiration for Loden’s achievement in the same paper, calling it a “cinematic rarity” and claiming that “it would be hard to imagine better or more tactful or more decently difficult work for a first film.” 3 But the enthusiasm palpable throughout the majority of his text neither found its way into the byline, which simply stated “‘Wanda’ improves with its turn to action,” nor into his rather sober conclusion: his final verdict on Wanda was that it remained “a small movie, fully aware of its limits, and within those limits lovely.” But who spends time and money to watch a movie that is “lovely” within its own “small” limits?
Such morsels of hesitation have been erased from recent writing on the film, which does not shy
away from heralding it as a “masterpiece” 4 and a “miracle.” 5 The fate of Wanda took a significant turn in 2007, when restorers from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who had been called in to go through the stacks at the Hollywood Film and Video Lab before its closure, serendipitously found and saved the original 16mm film rolls from destruction. In “Defogging Wanda,” his essay on the film’s restoration, Ross Lipman describes that the unexpected find was buried underneath a pile of “B, C, and D movies, industrial films, commercials, printing tests, and the stray experimental short” that crowded the moribund institution’s archive. According to Lipman, Loden’s name was not mentioned on the labels, and the film was credited to its producer, Harry Shuster, instead. 6 A grant from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, supported by the fashion brand Gucci, funded the restoration of the original material by Lipman and his colleagues at UCLA. The restored version premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010 and became accessible to wider audiences through the Criterion Collection in March 2019. 7 In 2012, the archivist and writer Nathalie Léger published a short, deeply personal book on the film that was translated into English three years later and has been distributed in the US by Dorothy, a feminist publishing project, to wide acclaim. Why does this movie, with its technical imperfections and the frailty of its claims, resonate today?
When Wanda is the subject of inquiry, the story of the film’s second life quickly becomes a point of focus.
It is often staged as an independent film-fairytale, a posthumous redemption for its director, who died from breast cancer at 48, having made only one feature film. 8 In a frequently recounted version, Loden figures as the pretty small-town girl in Hollywood, doomed to remain in the shadow of her powerful second husband, director Elia Kazan. Beauty, naivety, oppression, untimely death provide the conditions that conveniently tinge Loden’s life in the same gloomy colours which haunt the olympian ranks of creative women in the 20th century: Monroe, Plath, Hesse, to name a few. But not only is this narrative uncomfortably close to an account of women as victims (of society as well as of themselves), it is also trapped in a simplistic attempt at biographical reconstruction. The artist’s self is considered to be entirely contained by her traceable utterances, a presumption which neglects that the desire to articulate oneself tends to erupt at the extremities of existence rather than in the midst of everyday life’s ordinariness. The comments of others who were more or less close to Loden often inflate such literal, biographical interpretations of the film. In an essay from 2002, Bérénice Reynaud explicitly problematises the dominance of Kazan’s account of his former wife as “an aggressive gold digger,” but continues to rely on Loden’s colleagues Michael Higgins and Nicholas Proferes to characterise her as “insecure” and “sensitive,” attributes whose accuracy is equally uncertain. Historical reconstruction becomes a game of questions and answers: who is right, who is wrong? Who was Loden, really?
And so it happens that a life with elements of misfortune is retrospectively trapped underneath a bell jar of doom and despair. Barbara Loden is read backwards, the tumorous lump in her chest grows into a metaphor of repressed anger and creative force that finally turns against its host and destroys her body from within. And yet, a very different narrative is equally possible. Loden could appear as a determined young woman who dared to leave her hometown for New York and Hollywood, starred on the big screen, won a Tony award, received acclaim as the director of the Best Foreign Film at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, and was offered a teaching position at Columbia University’s film department. She certainly struggled (everyone does), but developed a voice that allowed her to direct a film of her own.
Actuality is wedged somewhere between these two contrasting storylines. Loden was neither the main actress in a cynical tragedy nor the protagonist in a glittering rags-to-riches dream. At times she was content, at times unhappy. Years passed, marked by successes and failures. She lived a life. What it felt like for her to be on the inside of it we can never fully know.
The tacit assumption behind most writing on Wanda’s recent success is a different one. Folded into the reverence of her directorial achievement is a somewhat complacent glorification of the present, which is presumed to grant retrospective insightfulness. It seems that only now we have progressed enough to finally be able to know and appreciate Barbara Loden’s “true” self, her formerly unrecognised potential, and mourn her premature loss. Yet hesitancy must arise at this notion of latency. Does it not reek of essentialism? As if the concealed could ever be dug up, a stranger’s surface cracked with a long enough stare, a story mastered with the confidence granted by historical distance.
It would seem that Wanda itself pushes back on such presumptions. The film quenches a desire to see on screen a protagonist, a woman, who is allowed to be a complex, indeterminate character rather than being edged towards one side of the sin and virtue dichotomy. In Wanda, weakness and strength fuse to become indistinguishable. At times, her body seems listless, dangly limbs slip away from the centre, awkward hands clutch an empty bag. When she rushes to get dressed, every gesture betrays her efforts at efficiency: frilly underwear, rolling up her thighs, provides the first obstacle, the bra hook demands unnecessary fumbling. Not even the sleeves of her blouse comply to the demands of time pressure. For a second, she is trapped in their unwanted embrace, but then wrestles herself free to jump into the car before it can take off.
Later, she observes a nighttime meeting between Mister Dennis and his former accomplice from her position on the floor behind them. Curled up like a cat, she seems to sleep through the tense negotiations between the two men, even the exchange of a gun does not incite a reaction that goes beyond a fluttering eye. Feigned slumber puts her at a watchful distance and relieves from the burden of presence, participation, and action.
But slapped in the face, she does not falter; threatened, she fights. “Get over there,” Wanda commands the bank director’s wife, after the attempt to take his family hostage on the day of the robbery has almost failed. The order echoes the words of Mister Dennis, but exceeds his tone in harshness and determination. The sharp sentence cuts through her lethargy, an unknown space cracks open. But Mister Dennis recovers quickly, and Wanda’s face closes up again, back to the familiar expression of flinching lids and doubtful eyes.
The film’s patient cinematography, the dedication to long shots, can contain the ambiguities of Loden’s characters. The responsibility to assess one’s reactions and personal inclinations to judge or identify is left with the viewer. And while Wanda’s biographical background is hinted at, the scarce facts never suffice to explain her comportment in a cause-and-effect way.
The film does not instigate a desire to strip its protagonist bare of her psychological mysteries. Here lies its difference to roughly contemporary films like Three Women (Robert Altman, 1977) or Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966). Both are centered around female protagonists who seem to harbour enigmatic secrets, the pursuit of which drives the unfolding storyline. Wanda, by contrast, is not an enigma. Even though we are never given an explanation for why she broke from her previous life, the quest for reasons does not assert itself as a worthwhile narrative pursuit. Where some directors chase down a presumed truth, Loden retains an indifference in regard to her character’s past that is a source of the film’s openness.
Back to the Pennsylvania parking lot, where questions about the immediate future linger unanswerable. Spare change offers momentary relief, enough to buy a single cone of soft serve. The unsteady camera follows a perfectly white, mesmerising swirl that is passed over the counter. Pink nails meet the cone, their made-up beauty a residual sign of the life that Wanda left behind, filled with grating expectations of perfection that leave a weary core: color your nails, keep up appearances, deal with the dirty work of child care, the household, money issues. Cars rush past. A slight melancholy tinges her face (or maybe it is just indifference paired with a squint to fend off light from the invisible sun). But the drama of abandonment never unfolds – epic suffering is not Wanda’s way. Instead, she persists.
A thought: what if it is not a feeling of abandonment that Wanda is left with in the parking lot, but rather a rare chance of being with herself? For once she is not torn between here and there, picked at by another’s demands. Just that morning, she had to rush out of bed to run after the guy, wrenched from sleep and subjected to the cruelty of his choices. Now she is alone and free to move at her own pace. Time can be glacial if that is what she desires, and bleakness can be sweetened with a childish indulgence.
The scene cuts, leaving the pleasure of cream, sugar, and artificial vanilla eternally postponed. Somehow Wanda has drifted into a shopping mall and is now looking at distorted mannequins in a store window. A blonde figure curiously resembles her. The glass acts as a transparent, yet impenetrable barrier between Wanda and her doppelgaenger, between life and its glossy, commercialised image in the store. The sheer surfaces of the shopping window reflect a ghostly vision of herself and map a washed out, real body onto the immaculate pretense of flesh. Seductive promises float through the mall: this is what you could be – beautiful, perfect – if only you put in more effort, more money, more lifetime.
Perhaps Wanda’s state of drifting is a refusal to inhabit this version of her life, a passivity and indifference in the face of the shopping mall’s seductions, altogether an absence of desire on her part. Recent interpretations of the film certainly move along these lines. A fascination with Wanda’s characteristic passivity, absence, weakness goes hand in hand with an emphasis of the film as a “forgotten masterpiece” 9 and its rise from the archival ashes. What in 1971 prompted a reviewer for the Daily News to conclude that Wanda was “simply dull […], a rather pointless dirge, for there never is any question to where Wanda will end her journey from no place to nowhere,” 10 is cherished by today’s audience as a marker of difference, a gesture towards a feminism that withdraws from the struggle of the socio-political battle field and instead cherishes the subversive potential of the refusal to act. 11 The reception of the film is thus bound to a larger ideological shift, a conceptual interest in weakness and failure to counter a world in which stamina and success are dominant values. But I believe that there is more to Wanda than weakness and passivity, and that some of the film’s most remarkable scenes actually grapple with a conflict between longing and refusing, between assertion and aloofness.
In the environment of a suburban shopping mall, Wanda takes on a curious role. She appears to fit the store’s demographic, and indeed succumbs to the allure of its window display. Yet, as an immediate consequence of having left her husband and family, she has no money that would allow her to buy anything, she is an empty target for the shopping window’s tantalising signals. It seems that she is at the mall purely because she has time to kill, not because she is chasing the dreams that are contained in a new dress.
Like a glimpse of the life that she chose to leave, an alternate scenario enters the imagination: Wanda, mother and wife, is running errands at the mall and stops in front of the very same window to decide on a dress to wear at this summer’s sequence of backyard barbecues. She moves at the same determined speed as everyone around her, their decisive steps echo in the hallway.
This is the yield of the shopping mall scene: something has drawn her to this place, just like something drew her to the whirly white sweetness of the soft serve. At the diner, she eats her plate of spaghetti with ravenous appetite. Even the “woman absent to herself,” 12 who apparently “doesn’t want anything anymore,” 13 has needs, dreams, cravings, likes to look at pretty dresses although she probably knows they can feel like corsets.
In a later scene, Loden shows Wanda acting upon her desires. She has gone shopping with Mister Dennis, the grumpy crook who is her companion for most of the film’s duration. In the parking lot at Woolworth’s, she proudly flaunts a new outfit: yellow slacks, a sleeveless, printed top, heels, an extravagant headpiece. The whole look is too bold, too colorful, too dressed up, too much of everything – Mister Dennis does not approve. For once, her usual indifference gave way to excitement and Wanda lustfully bit into the apple that was handed to her. Promptly, she is accused of biting off more than she could chew. Back on the road, Mister Dennis throws the yellow slacks out of the window, a new lipstick and the hair curlers follow a few seconds later. Excitement is sparked only to be extinguished immediately. As dreams are left behind on the road, Wanda’s enthusiasm vanishes and gives way to a more familiar expression: squinting eyes, always on the verge of tears that never arrive.
Wanda is not a film that invites its audience to revel in life-affirming pleasures. Mostly, its protagonist drifts around aimlessly, on highways that lead nowhere, in a car she did not steal herself, with a man who isn’t a partner as much as an incidental ally. Preparing food means picking garbage off the burger bun, cheap beer is chucked down in thirsty gulps.
Wanda is moving through a world ripe with promises. Of sweet delights, of love, of beauty, of entertainment. They all remain unfulfilled: the soft serve will forever be uneaten, hair curlers never produce the intended result, a lipstick is tossed before it can even reveal its color. Sex is alluded to, although we see nothing but its loveless aftermath. After wandering around the mall, Wanda spends some of her last coins on a movie ticket. She falls asleep during the film, and awakes, confused, to the sound of the cleaning boy’s sweeping brush. The screen has long turned black and the rows of seats around her are deserted. To top off the misery, her wallet has vanished. Wrapped in sleep’s oblivion, Wanda has become the easy target of a pickpocket.
It seems that others see in her – a woman, alone – an “easy target” too: the man at the bar, who uses her as an opportunity to initiate a loveless sexual encounter at the price of a can of beer, Mister Dennis, as he unleashes his anger with a vicious slap to her face, or the guy who almost rapes her in his shiny red convertible. Objectification, harm, and violence draw the line that distinguishes Wanda’s absence of responsibilities from her potential “freedom.” It is the same shadow that Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985) casts on its protagonist Mona, who has given up her job as a secretary for a moneyless life on the road. The story is narrated backwards from the opening shot of a dead body in a frozen winter field. Mona’s physical vulnerability thus sets an uncrossable boundary to her aspirations and her reckless drive for independence.
After a narrow escape from assault, Wanda runs through the woods. She stumbles, trips, falls. Thump! The fallen woman. Her whole body trembles as she buries her sobs in the ground, followed by a sudden cut to the roof of leaves above her. The foliage opens towards the sky’s infinite blue, the sun paints a glistening pattern of light and shadow, and a warm breeze sets the trees in motion. This forest would be a Romanticist’s dream, a perfect canvas for transcendental desire, loss of self in a larger whole. Alas, Wanda cannot take note of the beauty. Nothing could put transcendence further out of reach than rape and physical violence, merciless reminders that the body, always at risk of being harmed and consumed, can never be escaped.
All of these scenes provoke a daunting question: Why bother? What is the significance and value of the life of Wanda, who receives so little love and recognition, for whom every move seems to ignite a wrong turn, who considers herself unfit to be a mother, “no good”? The question crashes sideways into the seemingly self-evident continuity of existence, into the comforting presumption that life is somehow meaningful.
“Meaning”, of course, is a difficult term. Its affirmation verges on metaphysical idealism, while its denial suspends thought and action in a terrifying aporia. Wanda is not at least a document of a time awash with this tension. As time slid into the 1970s, plastic hopes and flowery freedom tipped into a void, the preceding years of optimism were washed up in waves of doubt. Values, the kind that Wanda’s abandoned husband makes a case for in court, had been twisted ad absurdum on the political stage and lit up in a countercultural sea of flames. By capturing this loss of direction, Loden subtly weaves Wanda’s story into the given circumstances, now historical, that surround her. Hers is a world past its prime, caught in stasis: mining trucks churn the earth, their yield is depletion, not prosperity. This might be what the Daily News deemed a “journey from no place to nowhere” – but the film is by no means “simply dull” because of it. Rather, it enables reflection on what opens up and what remains once a forceful drive towards a vaunted goal has given way to wandering, always on the verge of getting lost.
Remnants of an already decaying labor economy make a cameo appearance when Wanda seeks work at a clothing factory, where she is rejected for being “too slow”. The shots of the workers in this scene, the decisive quickness of their gestures, are amongst the most captivating of the film. Small, skilled hands firmly press a sizzling iron on the collar of a shirt in red, white, and blue colours. Below the table, wiry legs lapse into a three-second polka. Its steps are determined by the oppressive thumping noise of mechanical machinery. Wanda, by contrast, is free – yet she seems unable to seize the empty dance floor. “I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” she weeps when the preparations for the bank robbery become serious. All of her doubt erupts in these tears. It is the doubt of a woman who must fear that the world holds no place for her in store.
After a head-shattering migraine has overcome her companion, Wanda takes over the steering wheel and drives the two of them to a dirt road by a field. The setting sun colors the scene in the golden light of a late summer afternoon. Plenty of alcohol flows, stray dogs scurry around the car, a dazed conversation ensues. Mister Dennis tells Wanda that one is “nothing” without having anything: “You might as well be dead.” “I guess I’m dead then,” she replies, and takes another sip from the beer can. But of course she is not. Here she is, eating, drinking, talking, possibly even enjoying herself. The cloudless sky holds the scene like an endless blue tent. A small plane announces its appearance with a buzzing sound, performs its acrobatic loops above their heads. Mister Dennis climbs on the car’s roof to follow its flight, waving his arms in a futile attempt to communicate with the pilot. Melancholy wells up in the face of the plane’s unreachable distance and its imminent disappearance. Farewell looms over the encounter, but – for the moment – there is joy.
Wanda is not a document of all-consuming existentialist despair that proposes denial as the only sufficient answer to the question of Why bother? The remedy that Loden offers to nihilist conclusions is, I believe, a curious combination of tenderness and persistence that imbues the film with its distinctive allure. Comparison renders its significance apparent: when Wanda falls in the forest, filmic memory cuts back to an important scene in Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951). There too, the protagonist hits the ground like a stone, a fall in the mud from which he never recovers. Lonely death awaits him at the end of two hours of somber suffering. Wanda, by contrast, survives, despite the death and desolation that accompanies her movements. The camera tilts upwards, towards the trees. She may not notice the leaves above her, but they are nonetheless there, in all their quiet beauty.
“Hope” is a tempting descriptor, but not the word to use for these scenes. Loden’s film does not point in a direction of betterment, and instead leaves a profound uncertainty regarding the future of its protagonist. After the bank robbery has failed, after the assault, her flight, and the sobs, Wanda once again finds herself alone in a parking lot. Darkness has fallen, she tightly wraps her arms around her body as if she had no other place to put them. Cheerful fiddle music sounds from an unknown source, and for a few long seconds, the familiar question of What now? floats through the air once more. With Mister Dennis dead and not a coin to spare, meaninglessness, endless drifting, solitude, are amongst the most dreadful options. But the final scene offers a different response: Wanda has ended up in a bar amongst strangers. Her pony tail has collapsed, the dangling cigarette smokes itself, limp hands let go of the day. As the moving image freezes, its subject is torn from the moving currents of time. Then the still fades out, leaving behind a black screen, and a memory of Wanda: After all, she is alive, a person amongst others. This might not be utopian, but it is definitely not meaningless either.
- For detailed historical accounts of the film’s critical reception, cf. Bérénice Reynaud, “For Wanda,” Senses of Cinema 22 (October 2002), and Emily Bahr-de Stefano, “Whatever Happened to Wanda? Barbara Loden’s Unique Vision of Women’s Cinema” (MA thesis Columbia University, 2018). ↩
- Marion Meade, “Lights! Camera! Women!,” New York Times, April 25, 1971, Section D, Page 11. ↩
- Roger Greenspun, “Young Wife Fulfills Herself as a Robber. Barbara Loden’s Film Opens At Cinema II,“ New York Times, March 1, 1971, Page 0. ↩
- “Wanda Now: Reflections on Barbara Loden’s Feminist Masterpiece,” The Criterion Collection, July 20th, 2018. ↩
- Amy Taubin, “Wanda: A Miracle,” The Criterion Collection, March 19th, 2019. ↩
- cf. Ross Lippmann, “Defogging Wanda,” Inside Criterion / Tech Corner, March 25th, 2019. ↩
- cf. ibidem. ↩
- Dan Schindler expresses the widely-held view of the film’s history in his article for Hyperallergic: “While Loden initially went unnoticed, today she is seen as an unsung auteur whose promise was tragically cut short by her death from breast cancer in 1980.” John Powers’ short piece for NPR is titled “Overlooked in the ‘70s, ‘Wanda’ finally gets her due” and ends with the observation that Loden is counted by posterity as one of the many women filmmakers who “might have had great careers but never really got the chance.” ↩
- Bérénice Reynaud, “For Wanda.” ↩
- “Wanda. Miss Loden Does Well in Movie Debut,” Daily News, March 1, 1970. ↩
- In their introduction to a recent issue of f Women & Performance, Lilian G. Mengesha and Lakshmi Padmanabhan give an overview of the theory and scholarship that has been done on refusal as a concept of subversion. They write: “In contrast to its cognate, resistance, refusal names precisely those tactics of illegibility, opacity, and inaction, that remain outside of the field of political action properly conceived.” cf. Lilian G. Mengesha and Lakshmi Padmanabhan, “Introduction: Performing Refusal / Refusing to Perform,” Women & Performance 29, No. 1 (February 2019). ↩
- Nathalie Léger, Suite for Barbara Loden, 23. ↩
- Ibid. ↩