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An interior close-up. A woman in her late thirties, slumped in a raucous bar. She has scratches on her unwashed face, dark circles around her eyes. The camera bobs above people’s heads, cutting to a folk band whose sound is as dense as the cigarette smoke and laughter. The already grainy 16mm film has been pushed to its limit in this low-lit space. A sandwich is put in the woman’s hand. Then a cigarette, damp from another’s lips. Then a second, tucked behind her ear. She bites at the sandwich, drags at the cigarette. She has similarly devoured a hamburger and spaghetti during the film, these urgent meals eaten with beer, and bought by men. No lunch is freely given. Nor lifts, nor beds. She raises the cigarette to her lips again, closing her eyes to the people and noise and smoke. The frame freezes, dissolves to black. End.

The word ‘end’ hardly seems appropriate for Wanda (1970), written and directed by the American actor Barbara Loden, who also played the film’s eponymous lead. An ending suggests finality and closure, which Wanda denies. The film’s refusal of a denouement underscores its political acuity. Wanda is a portrait of a woman who wanders out of an unhappy marriage and into an equally unhappy life on the road. Germinating from a newspaper article about a woman who thanked a judge for sentencing her because imprisonment offered a reprieve from daily life, Wanda also draws on Loden’s own experience of depression and of patriarchy within New York’s theatre scene and Hollywood.

Shot over ten weeks in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, with a crew of four and a meagre budget, Wanda recalls both direct cinema and Italian neorealism in its gritty depiction of working-class life. The film opens among murky coal tips in Carbondale, a mining town whose name befits the film’s focus on capitalism’s extractivist violence. Wanda chronicles how a society centred on exploitative labour practices and fossil fuel consumption simultaneously damages a landscape, a community and a woman.

Separating capitalism from patriarchy is impossible in Wanda. Loden emphasised that Wanda was not about women’s liberation but oppression within a system that devalues reproductive labour and pegs women’s market value on their unpaid domestic and sexual services. Loden was not part of an alliance of women filmmakers or feminists, and Wanda questions a strand of feminism emerging at the time that promoted the power of women with talent and ambition.

Wanda (1970)

Wanda cannot access such power. Her motivations (in leaving her husband and children, taking to the road and aiding a heist) remain opaque because she lacks the privilege of being able to examine them. This is not a film about self-discovery. Revealing motivation or emotion is dangerous for a woman in Wanda’s position. She stands literally and metaphorically on the side of the road, bypassed by hopes for socioeconomic mobility.

Not that such hopes are portrayed as desirable in the film. Mr Dennis, the abusive bank robber to whom Wanda temporarily attaches herself, is driven by cruel optimism. Without money, he snarls, you’re nothing. Wanda, meanwhile, describes herself as already dead. In fact, it is Mr Dennis who will end up killed, by police. Through Wanda’s suffering and Mr Dennis’s catastrophically failed criminality, Loden tears apart the romance with which so many road movies reproduce fantasies of individual liberty earned through enterprise, outlaw escapades or purchasing power. Whereas cars are vehicles for individualism and class mobility in such films, Wanda refuses to play along. Loden was keen to contrast Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) in this respect. She criticised “slick” films that erased reality by glorifying outsiders.

Loden died from cancer aged 48 in 1980, and Wanda remained relatively obscure for another 20 years. The film’s recent popularity should be celebrated, but the continued relevance of its themes is cause for concern. Since Wanda’s making, the poverty gap in the United States has widened. In 2018, less than one per cent of rapes and attempted rapes led to conviction in the US, with the number of unreported cases unknown. Loden’s refusal to glamorise states of precariousness exposes a hypocritical society that prides itself on progress. People like Wanda live without hope because their environment offers them none – at least beyond trickle-down mythology.

Loden wrote an alternative ending to Wanda but disliked its resolution. Her rebuttal to solutionism announces that if it’s not alright, it’s not the end. The film may be open-ended, but Wanda will never experience the open road as an opening to possibility. The film stays with the trouble, to borrow a phrase from the feminist Donna Haraway. Systems of domination and their foreclosures of freedom haunt the smoky bar, and Wanda’s smudged face, as the night draws on.

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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