The Lonely Female Taxi Driver: Barbara Loden's "Wanda"

At Toronto's Images Festival, a new print of Loden's unusual "lonely woman" drama.
Jacqueline Valencia

In 2013, I attended an introduction of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver by writer/director Paul Schrader at The Royal Theatre in Toronto. In his opening remarks Schrader explained the process of writing a ‘lonely man’ film during a paranoid depressive state he was going through.  Since then, I’ve realized that I  have a fondness for ‘lonely man’ character films. Films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Spike Jonze’s Her, andthe Coen brothers’ A Serious Man fit neatly into this category. Each of these movies has their own version of a disenfranchised soul searching for an identity in the world. They resent society because of their isolation from it and they try various ways of connecting with to find a purpose in it. I am also highly aware of the lack of ‘lonely woman’ films or rather a good enough variety of them as of yet to pinpoint a solid genre. Eric Rohmer’s Le rayon vert, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, Noah Baumbach’s Francis Ha, Olivier Megaton’s Colombiana, and Jack Cardiff’s The Girl on a Motorcycle are just of handful of examples that occur to me.  One particularly vivid ‘lonely woman’ film that stands out is Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), which is included as part of the 2015 Toronto Images Festival, an event that concentrates on the experimental and independent side of filmmaking

In Wanda, which will be screened in a 35mm restored print, Loden herself stars in this story of woman who has abandoned her family because she cannot cope with life. She sets off on a wandering journey fueled by alcoholism and depression, at the mercy of whatever or whomever she encounters. In order to demonstrate what makes Wanda an exceptional ‘lonely woman’ film, it would beneficial to compare Loden’s film to the paradigmatic Taxi Driver, released six years later, looking at their protagonists’ relationships with society, and not only the way they are each treated by the world, but also the way they both parse the world in their heads.

Taxi Driver starts off the hustle and bustle of 70s ‘dirty’ New York. The street is wet and grimy with giant headlights blurring the camera. The lens suddenly focuses on the eyes of Travis (Robert DeNiro) in the rearview mirror of his cab. Judgment and cruelty are revealed in those few seconds in his eyes. He isn’t looking at himself, but whoever is in the back seat or whatever exists outside, beyond the backseat window. Wanda’s opening scene starts off with the giant expanse of the coal mining town she lives in. Little houses jut in between the stark blackness of the coal being shuffled about by yellow dump trucks. A camera pans inside a messy worn out home where Wanda (Barbara Loden) is woken up by the cries of a friend’s child and the sneer of a man walking out the door. Wiping the sleep from her face, Wanda says, “He’s mad because I’m here.”

These opening scenes are very different, but they speak to Travis and Wanda’s relationships with their worlds. While Travis is actively seething at a society he views as hell on earth, Wanda doesn’t care about the world at all. She knows she’s a burden to her friend by sleeping on the couch, but dismisses it by stating the obvious, that man is sneering at her because she exists.

Later on in Taxi Driver, Travis goes to his personnel officer looking for more work. He is looking to rejoin society in some way. He’ll take anything that’s offered to him, “Don’t make no difference to me,” he says. He doesn’t need the job for the money, but instead as something to do, a place for him to observe the world he hates. When he does actively attempt to form relationships with people, he does so on his own terms. One example of this is in his seeking friendship with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a political campaign worker. Instead of finding out more about Betsy, he imposes his views on her by telling her how silly her male counterpart at her office is and how a porn theatre is a perfect place for a couples date.

In Wanda, the protagonist goes to her workplace to ask for money and more work. Her boss, who very much looks like the personnel officer in Taxi Driver, tells Wanda that she is slow and that he has nothing for her. Wanda isn’t looking to join or rejoin society, rather she looking for money just to get by to her next destination, divorce court. At court, the judge incredulously lashes out at her informing her that her husband would like a divorce. With her two children screaming in the background, she quietly says, “If he wants a divorce, just give it to him.” She claims he’s a better father than she ever was a mother.

Soon after she ends up at a bar, sleeping with a stranger who abandons her the first chance he gets. Wanda doesn’t make attempts at connections, but fully blunders into them. She meets Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), a violent thief who’s rough and controls her. While she is given many opportunities to leave, she stays with him because she has nothing else. In turn, Mr. Dennis asks her to explain her life of nothing, why she doesn’t have anything in her life for her to speak of. “You might as well be dead,” he says.

“I guess, I’m dead then,” she carelessly responds, “I guess he got himself a real good wife now...I’m just no good. Just no good!”

The ‘lonely man’ narrative in Taxi Driver is one where Travis tries to associate with the world through imposition. Travis takes Betsy to a porn theatre despite her misgivings. He attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate to get back at Betsy’s rejection. Then he guns down ‘the bad guys’ because he feels entitled to bring justice to the world. The ‘lonely woman’ narrative in Wanda is one where Wanda tries to disassociate with the world by dismissing her role in it. She doesn’t want to be a mother or a wife and gives it all up without protest.  Wanda doesn’t look for another job despite her lack of money or a home. She falls into situations with blind eyes and is honestly surprised when she finds herself an accomplice to a robbery or possibly murder. Travis finds freedom in control while Wanda finds release in her lack of control.

In many ways, the ‘lonely person’ archetypes displayed by Travis and Wanda are informed by their gender roles in society. Travis tries to be  active in his role within society, while Wanda takes on a passive role in the situations in her life.

Travis is isolated from society because he doesn’t understand it and in a lot of ways he fails to find meaning in himself because of it. He judges the sex and violence around him and even refuses drugs when they’re offered to him. Yet he buys guns to murder people and downs his (I assume depression) meds with alcohol. He fails to see wrongness in his own choices while pointing a capricious finger at the world. Betsy says it best when she quotes Kris Kristofferson to him, “He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.”

Wanda refuses to be a mother and a wife. She gives up those roles because she cannot fulfill them the way others want her to. The tiny hint of her past is in a photo of her with her husband. She drunkenly holds a beer bottle as she sits on her husband’s lap. There are no clues to her taking on responsibility. She doesn’t look for a purpose or meaning in her life. There’s a symbolic scene where Wanda goes into a movie theatre. She falls asleep and wakes up to sixties Mexican singer Raphael singing “Ave Maria” to Shirley Jones (not seen) in the film El Golfo. The song pleads with the motherly archetype of the Virgin Mary not to leave while Raphael’s character sings it to Jones, declaring his love for her. The fact that Wanda has woken up to this scene signifies her displacement with the gender role she’s expected to fill. To herself and to society, she is nothing without acting on her duties as a mother and a wife. To the film viewer, she’s a solitary wanderer without a life or a home.

It’s in the hands of Mr. Dennis that she finds one moment of meaning. When Mr. Dennis botches the kidnapping of a bank employee, Wanda feeling that her man is being threatened, rushes in, takes the gun, and regains control of the situation for Mr. Dennis. This is the only time we see her taking initiative. He tells her, “You did good. You’re really something.” Wanda receives this with a smile, which is actually the first time we see her smiling in the film. When Mr. Dennis is caught and shot inside the bank, Wanda is seen in the crowd outside. She backs away and cries, once again a character that gets captured and given up purely by happenstance. She is nothing once again.

It should be noted that Travis shaves his head into a Mohawk when he goes on his final rampage in Taxi Driver. He posits himself as tribal vigilante out to defend the world from its debaucherous ways. Meanwhile, Mr. Dennis demands Wanda change her hair and put on different clothes to fit his vision of how a proper woman should look like. Wanda haphazardly puts up her ponytail into a flowery headband and is made to wear a neat dress that makes her look like a seventies flower child. She no longer looks like a lost and disheveled housewife. Travis is anger become incarnate while Wanda is dressed to look like an innocent beauty. Their disenfranchised characters inhabit guises that are both segregated from society: rebellious (Mohawk) and submissive (flower child).

While Scorsese’s Taxi Driver went on to both critical and financial success including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Loden’s Wanda didn’t see the same recognition. Despite it winning the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film at the 31st Venice International Film Festival, Wanda received little to no attention outside of the U.S. It would be the only film that Barbara Loden would direct. Loden died of breast cancer ten years after the making the film. In its cinéma vérité style, it is a raw and innovative view of  a woman who goes against what society expects of her. There’s no uplifting theme or a glimmer of hope for Wanda’s character and she ends up right where she began, alone and disconnected.

Wanda is a gutsy film about a woman, directed by a woman, and for those of us looking for gritty truth in feminist isolation, it’s encouraging to see that festivals and movie houses are revisiting Barbara Loden’s take on lonely woman.

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