The WILD WANDERING of Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” (1970)

Barbara Loden Wanda

The following is part of Esmarelda’s Summer Seventies Series.

“Wanda” is a week in the life of an aimless alcoholic who is less struggling to survive and more falling into the next free meal. She is too slow to work more hours at her factory job, she has zero interest in being a mother or wife and every path she takes typically begins with a fresh glass of beer. Star and writer/director Barbara Loden doesn’t strive to make her titular character sympathetic, but for this critic that is not a bothersome choice. Wanda is a trifle annoying, clawingly curious, and a nosey busybody trapped by her own vices. She has no goals, no aim, no destination, and frankly, it doesn’t make her journey any less fascinating. Wanda is a trainwreck who makes the logical choice to stay with an abusive bank robber who feeds her and provides a roof over her head rather than walk the streets alone and starve. She’s a tagalong, a hanger-on, and Loden treats her with reckless abandon in a way that so strongly reeks of truth that I am engaged throughout the entire film.

When objectively taking a step back to look at the film in the grand scheme of things, Wanda, as a character in any other movie, would likely be reduced to a small side character or a random blonde extra. She’d be the pretty girl in the corner smiling and flirting while others around her might be wondering, “how did she get to the party?” So as her one and only feature directorial effort, the fact that Barbara Loden chose to explore exactly how Wanda got to the party would be refreshing for today’s standards let alone in 1970, Back then, women directors were not only scarce, but independent women directors were virtually unheard of. It plays into the same dark-side-of-life narrative that many filmmakers at the time were exploring but in contrast to Brian De Palma’s “Hi, Mom!” which was released the same year, (and did have several small roles for blonde women), in “Wanda” we are painted a fully realized portrait of such a character complete with depth and intrigue. That doesn’t mean she’s the hero, she’s not. There is no hero here. But in the grand scheme of things, Barbara Loden is the hero for contributing a work to the cinema lexicon that really does shine a light on a certain kind of human being – the restless wanderer.

Barbara Loden WandaWanda begins her journey by abandoning her husband and children and begrudgingly allowing herself to be picked up by the first man to buy her a beer. He abandons her at a local Dairy Queen, and she stumbles into a movie theater where she loses whatever small amount of money she had left. She then enters a closed bar to use the bathroom and bum beer and potato chips when she encounters Mr. Dennis, a serial robber on the run who takes her in to use as nothing more than an assistant. With nowhere else to go, and upon finding out the background behind the man she has sheltered herself with, Wanda is simply along for the ride. He ropes her into helping out with a bank robbery that goes awry and results in Mr. Dennis being shot to death in the process. Wanda escapes, winds up in another bar, and is picked up by another man whom she runs away from until she finds herself in yet another bar.

If there is a way to root for Wanda, I’m not exactly sure what that would be. Her only goal is to get to the next glass of beer and not be held responsible for anything other than her wandering self. She isn’t manipulative or conniving or even that street savvy; she is a legitimate drifter who rambles about mining country hopping in and out of one man’s car to another. She is nice, she is friendly, she likes to make conversation and she is haplessly dull-witted. Wanda is perhaps the grandiose opposite of female empowerment which is A-OK with me. Because while Wanda might not have much of a path in life, filmmaker Barbara Loden does, and she photographs this character with such brutal, true-to-life honesty that any viewer would stay engaged from the opening shot to the closing credits. True to craft and operating during a time when female film directors are few and far between, this intimate portrayal of a woman lost is expertly crafted with the care of independent spirit that you would find in any John Cassavetes or French New Wave flick.

The 1970s produced many great, celebrated films about sketchy, low-brow characters utilizing their best survival skills to make it through the day. Wanda is no different except that her greatest survival skill is simply charming her way into another man’s car. But hey, it’s lonely out there on the road and she knows it. Wanda simply is, and this film is an honest reflection of her thought process on a joy ride to pure existence. She wanders. Wanda wanders, and frankly, I’m more than happy to just enjoy the ride.

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About Esmarelda VillaLobos

Esmarelda VillaLobos is a filmmaker and comedian from Pomona, California. She is the writer/director/star of "Verzus," an 89-minute comedic feature film made for a budget of less than $350. She is a graduate of the David Lynch MFA in Screenwriting Program at MIU and holds a BA in Film History from Cal State Fullerton. Prior to her writing & directing career, Esmarelda previously worked as both an indie-film assistant and a dedicated Blockbuster cashier. She lives in California with her ridiculously handsome husband and a mounting stack of DVD's.