By Jake Triola
There’s a man and a woman, and they commit a crime, and they run off, and they’re chased, and it’s exciting, and it’s fun, and it’s a race, and it drifts, and it’s cool, and it’s miserable, and it’s dangerous, and it’s classic. Who’s heard this? Fritz Lang, Luchino Visconti, Joseph H. Lewis, Jean-Luc Godard, Arthur Penn, Leonard Kastle, Terry Malick, Robert Altman, and Gus van Sant, among others, have shown us this story on the big screen. What this list is missing is exactly what Barbara Loden gave film history with her 1970 film, Wanda: a woman’s perspective. Loden’s craftsmanship as writer, director, and actor in this film, although too-rarely-seen until the age of digital restoration, tells a story told over and over again with the fresh eyes of a lonely, hard-luck woman in the small-town, industrial territory of rural Pennsylvania—a region which, to me, is known as home. Only one other film captures this area of the country like Wanda (Cimino’s The Deer Hunter), and although they were made around the same time, they’re quite opposite in both style and content. This film is a testament to the art of improvisation and grit. Loden herself is quoted as saying “I really hate slick pictures…they’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” In this way, she is much like Cassavetes. She certainly chose the right location for such a film.
From the beginning, it introduces us to a person in the midst of a completely unhappy state: worn down and in a crisis over the housewife life, she leaves her husband and takes up residence on her sister’s couch. In court, she quickly gives up her children and leaves to find new work, which proves itself not easy in the slightest. She makes an attempt at running away with a date only to be abandoned. She wanders. And wanders some more. It’s as if she wants a plot to manifest itself from nothing and sweep her up. She wants the universe to work its chaos on her. Oddly enough, even the universe and its vastness refuse to budge, let alone make any appearance, in Wanda’s fate.
A series of mundanities eventually leads to her losing everything and being more or less forced to make another go at running away with another—this time more successfully. But when everything is in order with their partnership, chaos finally decides to present itself, and Wanda must, once again, make it on her own through a few coincidental escapes. For better or for worse, she simply cannot remain clung to anyone or anything that comes her way.
The film continues in a similar manner, and I won’t hesitate to include that its ending is dispiriting. That’s exactly the center of its story: an inability to change things in a world where change is the only constant law. Arriving at this conclusion, Wanda would, on paper, seem like a vérité absurdist play. But Loden’s strangely masterful technique adds a subtlety that renders her movie as something different—something much more abstract and indefinable.