The Poetry Project


Reflections on Barbara Loden’s 1970 film WANDA by Erica Ammann

When she was 19 / She had a fever / But the office was now closed – “Boyfriend” (Screaming Females)

I sat in the middle of a scrappy theatre on a weeknight to watch a film about a woman in a coal-cinched town. I sunk into the beat-up chair like a bathtub. Hollow yet commodious enough for a rough outline to be gently cradled, a spine floating in shallow water.

In the film, the woman is entrenched in a space void of commodities but ripe with desperate consumption. Amid this absence, her hair becomes a bifurcated commodity, an object of scrutiny and desire. The dirty blonde hair looks crystalline and jewel-like against the dusty air. She gathers her hair in a ponytail on the top of her head, kitschy and stylized, but also unwieldy and cascading.

We know nothing of her marriage, except that it has dissolved. We know it was a trap. We know she was vilified, slandered. We know that being devoid of agency, the only means for her to regain agency—a mode of being we associate with activity, with motivity—was to do nothing.

We imagine she let the dishes pile in the sink. Let the coffee burn, go stale. Let the bright clothes fade in the sun. Let the cast iron pan sit on the stove, cold, and grease-stained. Perhaps she read magazines. Took long baths. Stood in the open door frame for hours. We wonder if she scribbled in the margins of the newspaper. Ate all the fruit ripening on the windowsill.

This nothingness is withholding-as-resistance. When we first see Wanda in the movie’s frame, the non-act has already taken place. After the act of the non-act, she is diffuse. Severed from one binding violence, she is dumped into another.

In the dark, I shuffle my feet in familiar formations, the positions that widened my hips, exposing my body to a particular harm. I like to perform this silent choreography. Yet as my legs slip into comfortable shapes, I feel the resistance from my knees and calf muscles. Feet clad in tennis shoes, in lieu of a fabric that acts like tight plastic, I re-triangulate my pain.

I imagine my aimless days like hers, short shock-circuits that reverberate for hours. I imagine taking a long walk to the sprawling mall. It is bleak and sanitized, it looks like the arcades Walter Benjamin describes, grand and desolate, as if the defunct public arenas he writes of were not abandoned but maintained as an archive of long-gone temporality. I walk across the mall’s skywalk, looking down at the gray freeway. In an interview, Barbra Loden states, “I really hate slick pictures.”

In the frame, Wanda stares at a coat with lust. I don’t think she actually wants to buy the coat, but perhaps instead occupy its space of existence. She, having been brutally objectified, longs for this coat, an object displayed in the window. I imagine she notices how it is handled with care, draped over a mannequin, upon its pedestal. The mannequin’s boundaries and edges are sanctioned; its clean vertices coalesce like the contours of a legible word. On the other side of the bisected frame, Wanda’s abjection reeks.

I imagine rifling through racks of hangers, the plastic screeching and sometimes getting dug into the skin on my palm. I envision buying a corduroy dress, something the color of mud or clay, rough and textured to slip over limbs that hang loose. I think I could look like a doll or stuffed animal sitting on a shelf, a child’s toy. I could wear this garment to a formal dinner or holiday gathering, languid in the background. There’s another student in my theory class who, when describing a text’s academic interlocutors, uses the analogy of the author’s guests. She says, Who are you inviting to the dinner party?

In the booth, Wanda eats a bowl of spaghetti. At this point, we are unsure of the last time she has eaten. Time has blurred. She sops up the sauce like she’s scooping blood back into her body.

A week ago, in a booth down the street from the theatre, a friend tells me I look glowing. I feel like a specter. In a group text thread, songs by Gia Margaret are being shared. I type the line: Though it’s not easy to see / there’s always glimmer.

Wanda looks glowing, too, with her fountain of hair. She adorns her body many times. The man throws out her tube of lipstick but permits her to continue painting her nails pale pink. These bodily modifications are controlled by a man she doesn’t know. He just forces her to. The hair that the man hates is cast across the screen, altering the focal point of the frame.

I sit in the theatre wearing an old sweatshirt segmented by colors; deep purple and burnt orange offset by light gray sleeves. I remember huddling inside the garment on the train, in the park, taking comfort in noticing my torso in candy-color swaths. I thought: I am adorned, too.

I never buy the garment. Later, I return to Loden’s New York Times interview, published in 1971, in which the reporter comments on her lack of adornment: bare face and brown corduroy slacks. Back in the frame, Wanda buys new clothes. She comes out of Woolworths looking like an angel against corporate phosphorescence. She looks like she could be dressed for a wedding, or maybe like a principal dancer in Swan Lake.

Benjamin famously wrote of the Angel Novus, or the Angel of History. Prior to this theorization, he was informed by his study of Talmudic legend and its account of the fleeting angel. This ephemeral angel who disappears once her sole duty is complete. The angel sings a hymn before the image of god, fulfilling her role, and instantly vanishes; a flicker. Wanda’s use-value is gone, but she’s still there. The fetishization of Wanda’s angelic docility is tainted by the brute fact that she bears a body. She can’t disappear because she still has guts and tissue and spinal vertebrae and four heart chambers. She sits on the roof of a car, her dress and garments tatter, become dusty. If the angel-ness is gone, we are left with the glistening residue of embodiment. Wanda’s sustained presence is political persistence. An endurance beyond predetermined value manifests as radiant excess leaking out.

I wonder what Poly Styrene would say. Wanda may look quartz-like against the muted primary colors of the parking lot, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also look worn and abused. Beneath the veneer, we can see all the rot and ruin and beady gore. Internal bleeding seeps into the film’s frame, its dust-choked scenes and rusty bathroom mirrors. Loden said, “The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.”

Marianne Joan Elliott-Said chose her stage name, Poly Styrene, because she wanted it to sound like plastic. She wanted to sound like the thing she resisted, to occupy on stage—for the ephemeral second—the object she was told she was, before bursting into rage.

Wanda assumes the role of Warrior. She is not the rebel we expect. She does not scream. We don’t know if the sex is consensual or not. We see a melancholic warrior, a warrior that can break into pieces but still refuses to leave the frame. I return to Styrene’s choral refrain, “She's the rebel of the modern town.” Wanda is an errant woman, a mother-labeled-deserter, a mute hysteric.

There is minimal dialogue in the film. I presume the phrase Wanda utters most frequently is huh? Most commonly, she employs this phrase when speaking to men who won’t answer her questions. Her mode of speech is a guttural semiotics, both a shield for the physical body and a vital assertion of her body’s presence. The word, both interrogative and declarative, builds a protective barrier while also forcing recognition of her mental and physical presence. An utterance that is colloquial but inchoate, it reverberates into the gestural. Wanda’s huh is not only a not-yes, it is also emphatically not a no. In this sense, the refusal of the no is not a passive submission.

In Anne Boyer’s essay, “No,” she constructs a manifesto on the poetics of resistance. Yet, she crafts a manifesto that refuses its own taxonomy. In which x is x but x is also y. She writes, “Silence is as often conspiracy as it is consent.” Wanda’s mode of refusal ruptures the binary of speech and silence, unraveling the normative affixation of overt verbal refusal to resistance. Her refusal is a refusal of the entire dynamic that ventriloquizes her presence; she opts-out of the predetermined semantic recourse. A new psychic space emerges. Each utterance, which verges on non-utterance, cracks the film’s smoggy glass walls.

I sit in the dark as the credits roll. The few bodies around me are not yet rustling for coats, no cell phone lights emanate. For an instant I become confused, forgetting where I am. Forgetting that I am sitting in a theatre in a cold New England town. I forget that outside there is hollow darkness too and that feeling stranded in a deserted town is its own kind of vagrancy. Now, as I type, a song bursts into my headphones. I am reminded of my friend with whom I habitually share song lyrics. I again recall us sitting together in that booth across town, our bodies caught against neon light. We rushed out the door and across the barren street, our arms wide in the bitter cold. The errancy felt rampant.


Epigraph: Lyric from “Boyfriend” by Screaming Females [Album: What If Someone is Watching Their TV?]

Barbara Loden quotes: Both are from a New York Times article “Barbra Loden Speaks of the World of Wanda

Gia Margaret quote: Lyric from “Groceries” [Album: There’s always Glimmer]

Poly Styrene quote: Lyric from “Warrior in Woolworths” by X-Ray Spex [Album: Germfree Adolescents]

Anne Boyer quote from the essay “No” in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (Ugly Duckling Presse)

#262 — Fall 2020