Wanda: Film of the future
Still Life: Notes on Barbara Loden Wanda (1970)
Anna backman rogers
Punctum Books, 2021
One of the criticisms of feminist films of the 1970s and 1980s was that they were too experimental, too avant-garde, too elitist. They refused the pleasures of pop cinema. They skipped the well-told story and refused the escape of character identification. What about beauty? Forget!
Take that of Barbara Loden Wanda, from 1970: it is a sorry portrait of this New Yorker critic Paulene Kael dubbed an “ignorant slut” in a film described by Jump cuts Chuck Kleinhans as “flat and opaque”. Indeed, Wanda, who is based on a woman Loden read in the diary, lacks any ambition and her pathetic spiral to crime is captured in austere, often downright ugly imagery, topped with an emotionless performance. How could feminists catalyze a large-scale revolution with films as unattractive as Wanda?
In his terrific new book Still Life: Notes on Barbara Loden Wanda, Anna Backman Rogers, who teaches at Gothenburg University in Sweden, eloquently offers an answer to this question. Rather than deny Wanda’s ugliness, Rogers passionately draws attention to; she repeatedly emphasizes the slowness and banality of the film, as well as Wanda’s passivity and hesitation, her silence and numbness. However, in all of this, Rogers does not discover poor scriptwriting and poor filmmaking, but rather the silent and unwavering subversion of writer / director / actor Loden, and she uses it to assert more than not only should we watch movies like Wanda, we must look at them. “This is a film that contains the sadness of the world within it,” writes Rogers, “and asks us to respond to it as an ethical call. It tells us, bluntly and simply, not to turn away from suffering. .
Although this is Rogers’ thesis, which is strongly argued, the book also asks how and why Wanda has gained cult status, which is why for many of us the film is unique. “Wanda is a movie that I’ve thought about every day since I first saw it, “writes Rogers,” and it continues to teach me things. Here, Rogers names the feeling that many viewers have in response to the brute force of Wanda, which is often followed by a feeling of discovery, intimacy, even identification: Wanda, an unknown heroine of an impenetrable pathos, is always our Wanda! However, while this keen sense of recognition often seems quite singular and personal, Rogers demonstrates how the film is not only aimed at a multitude of cult fans, nor simply an iconic emblem from the past; it is rather a premonitory alarm for the present.
Still life is divided into three parts. The first section contains nine subsections, each carefully situating the film in a particular way. Rogers begins with the material history of the film, how, when and with whom it was shot. It highlights the role of Ross Lipman in the discovery of the original copy of the film in 2007, the restoration of the film and its digital release by the Criterion Collection in 2019. It also traces a story of critical responses much more incisive than that of Kael, citing a key essay written by filmmaker Bérénice Reynaud originally in 1995 and then republished in Sense of cinema in 2002 which brought the film back into a larger conversation. Reynaud forcefully questions the film’s historical erasure, not only by mainstream critics and audiences, even after it won the Critics’ Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, but by feminist historians. “While Wanda has been ignored by all major feminist film theory texts published in English over the past 20 years, Akerman, Potter and Rainer have become household names, ”says Reynaud. While this immerses me in a fantasy world where feminist filmmakers are indeed household names, Reynaud’s point is relevant. Wanda maybe not well commercially, but what made the film so rejected by feminists too?
Rogers, drawing on the work of critical affect theorists such as Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant and Ann Cvetkovich, goes on to read the film in relation to a larger political context. She shows how Wanda condemns the lie of the American myths of success and happiness, writing: “By paying attention to failure, impossibility, dead end, we can come to a better understanding of how happiness, as that disciplinary ideology, comes to shape our understanding of what it means to be a person in the world.
Rogers then narrows down his critique to the genre, noting that Loden’s fairly brilliant portrayal of Wanda demonstrates a complete denial of the right to vote. “Wanda’s passivity can be seen as a radical indictment of the myriad and infinitesimal ways that women are forced to subdue and deny their personalities every day,” says Rogers, who goes on to say that Wanda continues to resonate now, in 2021, because it is “a film of the future since its politics are so premonitory of the endgame which is currently being played out politically, economically, socially (and ethically) on a global scale”.
In short, with this first section of the book, Rogers joins a vocal group of feminist critics across a history spanning nearly 30 years who have had extensive experience watching the film and, in turn, advocated for its relevance. What Rogers brings to the conversation is the idea that a 1970 film speaks so powerfully to our present moment, an era inviting a radical re-imagining of representation; attention to affect and sensorium as viable modes of cinematic expression; and a desire to deal with the ongoing traumas for so many. While the last three subsections would be stronger with a few rearrangements, the writing here burns with the high heat of a blowtorch.
The second part of the book is, curiously, a shot-by-shot reading of the film, zooming in as close as possible to study the framing, the movement of the camera, the cutting and the performance. After describing several scenes in great detail, Rogers offers her interpretation, noted in italics, including her own emotional responses to what she witnessed. Reading this section is strange, like listening to a baseball game on the radio. If we have seen the film, we can remember many images; However, reading Roger’s often eloquent response next is exciting, validating and heartbreaking all at the same time. Yes, we think, I remember that scene, and yes, the erasure of consent. Yes, ineffable pain. Ah, yes, silence, only silence. Fade to black.
The final section acts as a brief coda, returning to the book’s larger argument and the desire not to include Wanda within a larger canon of feminist cinema that championed “images of women” or celebrated empowerment. Instead, Rogers notes that the film “holds at its heart a disjointed, deaf, numb, and seemingly passive woman and demands that the viewer consider the very possibility of self-definition as an unattainable privilege.” It is a feminism which must address race and class as much as gender, and which must reinvent the role of cinema in the representation, and perhaps even the galvanization, of modes of resistance.
Still life is truly a book in conversation with other academics and critics who have written on Wanda, including Elena Gorfinkel, Natalie Léger, Kate Zambreno, Amy Taubin, Marguerite Duras, Amelie Hastie and Isabelle Huppert. Rogers gathers and sifts through much of the historical information available elsewhere, but she situates this information in her own felt experience of the film and presents her own vision, which rejects the myths of improvement and potential offered by neoliberalism. She sees and celebrates the brilliance and quiet ferocity of Barbara Loden and, as in the best examples of self-theory, skillfully integrates personal experience with philosophical inquiry. Most importantly, Rogers encounters Loden’s powerful will to portray a woman’s experience with her own indictment that is equally hot with American myths. Rogers picks up the mute and numb to say that’s what suffering looks like and you can’t look away.