Rough landscapes lead to a hard life. Barbara Loden’s 1970 film “Wanda”, the story of a character of the same name who tries to abandon her life as a wife in a mill town in the northeast coal region of Pennsylvania to get caught up in a crime, wastes no time in showing these realities. The opening scene jumps from an older woman staring out a dirty window and worrying about a rosary with her gnarled fingers, to a screaming child in a diaper waiting for his tormented mother to feed him, to an angry husband on the floor Getting to work before it finally starts I chose the first view of Wanda himself (played by Loden). Her body is sprawled on a worn sofa, she is covered from head to toe by a white sheet, cadaver until she is woken by the slamming of the door. “He’s crazy because I’m here,” she says loudly, getting up from the couch. Soon after, she is a ghostly figure walking through the mountains of coal pulled from the earth around her.
Loden wrote and directed “Wanda” after reading about a woman in Indiana who thanked a judge for a prison sentence. No stranger to the plight of the rural poor – Loden grew up in a small town family in the south – the director’s stamp of knowledge is ubiquitous, and because of this, Wanda’s character can seamlessly transform, which complicates the question “What if I’ve given it all up?” by wondering what she even had.
When Wanda divorces her husband and leaves her two small children behind, she is quickly robbed of her identity: after falling asleep in a dark cinema while “Ave Maria” plays in the background, she wakes up and finds her handbag missing. If it’s restored, your wallet will be missing. When that is restored, their money will be missing. The sequence serves as rebirth, and the loss of identity allows her to become a blank blackboard when, later that evening, she meets Mr. Dennis (played by Michael Higgins), a petty thief who kidnaps her into his world and physically her transformed.
Wanda becomes the mirror of Mr. Dennis’ wishes. Some of the things Wanda shouldn’t do when she’s with him are: ask questions, wear pants, and put curlers in her hair (this makes her “look cheap”). She welcomes these rules. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything that she wants to be, but many things that she doesn’t do. Wanda eschews the traditional life of his wife and mother, which she was never very good at anyway, and submits to the new form of property that Mr. Dennis has presented her.
For decades, “Wanda” existed on the sidelines of the work of other feminist filmmakers of the 1970s, and many of the men involved in the shooting tried to gain recognition by claiming portions of Loden’s accomplishment where they could. In many ways it is a parallel story, Loden’s portrayal of Wanda shows how easily anyone can be cast as a drifter, millwoman or artist, in a male-dominated landscape.
This article originally appeared in the Body issue. For more inspiring stories about women, see From Homeless Shelter to NY Success Story and Upping the Ante: Jessica Walsh on Creative Play.
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