‘Wanda’ and The Dark Side of an American Myth
This story is part of my weekly “Have you seen …” series where I highlight movies that I think are under-appreciated, misunderstood, or simply worth talking about. New entries are published every Wednesday. NOTICE: Spoilers follow.
On paper, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde shouldn’t have made much of an impact at all. Its director, Arthur Penn, had helmed a few hits before but certainly nothing that indicated a willingness to push the envelope. Released right at the tail end of the Summer of Love, what did a movie about Great Depression-era bank robbers have to say to contemporary audiences?
The answer, of course, is quite a bit. Penn’s ingenious framing of the story makes the pair not career criminals but a pair of drifting lovers, desperate for a place in a world hostile to their very existence. Bonnie is attracted to Clyde because of he opportunity for escape that he offers her, and Clyde loves Bonnie because her poetry turns his criminal campaign into legend.
Bonnie and Clyde was greeted by a generation of viewers wallowing in the malaise of the late 60s: assassinations, Vietnam, civil unrest, and a precarious national economy. Its message was a simple one, intricately delivered: the only way to make an impact on a society that doesn’t want you is to rebel against it. It’s a tragic, invigorating film that maintains a high degree of relevance to this day.
Despite its magic, it’s a movie that’s hard not to regard with a bit of suspicion. Was life as a bank robber really so romantic? Did Bonnie really come along so willingly? Was any of this really anything more than a splinter in The System’s finger? Whether or not Barbara Loden was asking these questions, she delivers a compelling set of answers in Wanda.
Wanda, Loden’s only film as a director, was released in 1970 to critical acclaim in Europe, ambivalence among American reviewers, and commercial oblivion just about everywhere. Filmed on a shoestring budget with a single-digit number of crew members, the movie’s vérité style spoke to a coming generation of films in 1970s devoted to showcasing human life at its grittiest and most unforgiving — two adjectives Loden’s film embraces fully.
Loden herself plays the title character, a woman not really making ends meet in the coal country of rural Pennsylvania. Early in the film, Wanda is seen arriving late to divorce court, where she quietly relinquishes all custody of her children before leaving to unsuccessfully ask to have her job back at a local factory.
We only get these tiny morsels of Wanda’s life, but the picture they paint is not one lacking in personality: Wanda is fully adrift; she often seems unwilling or unable to make her own decisions, instead simply conceding to the demands and desires of those around her. This demeanor lands her in the company of Norman, a thief on the run from the police. Wanda seems to take her time understanding this fact, but once she does learn the truth about Norman, she’s unwilling to leave.
In Bonnie and Clyde, it would not be unfair to frame the latter’s meeting with the former as a kind of rescue: the opening shot of the film is Faye Dunaway splayed languorously across her bedroom — the sight of Warren Beatty’s Clyde is more than welcome. He’s an escape from the endless niceties of a Midwestern life, one that would begin and end in boredom for Ms. Parker.
There is no such romanticism in Wanda. Norman is temperamental and abusive; he seems unwilling or unable to express any emotion towards Wanda save for frustration. Her new life of crime is far from a liberation for Wanda — in fact, it seems as though it has much in common with her marriage, a relationship for which Wanda is simply unfit. She finds herself outmatched and policed by the will of a man once again.
The final scene of Bonnie and Clyde is one of the greatest sequences ever put to film, and part of its brilliance is myth-making it engages in on the part of its main characters. The moment sees Clyde at his most amiable and therefore his most vulnerable — the onslaught of gunfire feels less like justice and more like a firing squad. As Hamer stares through the shattered glass of the pair’s vehicle, one almost feels as though he’s looking through a fractured lens into the moment of history in which he’s just found himself.
If there is a genius to Wanda, it is in its complete lack of sentimentality. Norman fumbles the final heist, ending in his being shot dead on the floor of a bank as Wanda weaves through traffic, unable to remember exactly where the bank she’s supposed to go to is. There is absolutely no heroism in either character, and the awe one feels in the face of Bonnie and Clyde’s deaths is nowhere to be found in Wanda’s haphazard finale.
The film, however, doesn’t end with the heist. After Norman is killed, Wanda finds herself at a rural tavern of sorts, drinking silently as she struggles to process the words and actions of those around her. She finds herself again overwhelmed, isolated among strangers, none of whom can connect with her in the way she seems to need.
If Bonnie and Clyde is a film about what it means to live in a economically ravaged, socially divided country, then Wanda is a film about what it means to exist in such a place. Wanda is fit to be part of neither her family nor of a factory — in this world, what other place is there for her?
Around midway through the film, Norman and Wanda visit Holy Land USA, a religious theme park of sorts, so that Norman can visit his aging father. The old man implores Norman to get a good job, something Norman promises that he will do, sharing that he’s brought a woman along with him as well. Norman’s father can only think of his son in terms of his occupation and potential for family — two areas in which Norman does not make any progress in the traditional sense. Like Wanda, he is existentially betrayed by the rigid confines of his society.
Wanda, meanwhile, wanders around the park, taking in the gaudy representation of Biblical scenes. She stands in stark contrast to the pilgrims around her, come to forge a deeper connection with their religious heritage — Wanda simply observes, detached. Religion cannot offer what she needs.
Bonnie and Clyde is an invigorating watch, one that tells the viewer of how there is purpose in rebellion. Conversely, Wanda questions what sort of rebellion is even possible in such a country, such a time, such a society. Norman and Wanda follow closely in Bonnie and Clyde’s footsteps, but in doing so they achieve no such glory — Norman gets a fleeting mention in the paper, and Wanda gets a new chapter in her life unmoored.