'Wanda' Was the Film That Made Me Appreciate My Mum

Barbara Loden's film about an aimless woman who abandoned her children made me realise how grateful I am for my own mother's love and care.

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Feb 27 2015, 1:11pm

A still from 'Wanda'

Memory is something I've always struggled with, even on the most basic level. I forget to do the simplest of daily tasks on a regular basis – whether it's brushing my teeth or leaving a cup of tea to go cold. I forget people's birthdays; significant ones, too, like my sister's (despite the fact it's four days before mine) and those of my numerous ex-girlfriends, before they were my exes. I also forget things that are supposed to be landmark events – family holidays and arguments, for example – and important firsts, like days at school, kisses and awkward fingerings in arcades.

There's one place where my memory doesn't fail me, though, and that's the cinema. I think about films in the same way I'd imagine an addict plans their next fix. I'm obsessive and fastidious when it comes to my addiction. I remember exactly where I saw films and where I was sitting, thanks – in part – to the calendar I keep in Excel to help me keep track. Yes, I keep an Excel spreadsheet of almost all the films I've seen on the big screen. If you don't believe me, here it is:

The times that films have connected with me are tattooed onto my brain. I remember sitting in the second row for Jurassic Park: The Lost World in a multiplex in Newport town centre, being amazed by what I was watching, only to turn to my uncle at the end of the film and see that he was sound asleep. I remember watching The Emperor's New Groove (third row, aisle seat) on a 35mm print so bad I can still picture the scratches, and consoling my father after seeing Frances Ha at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, where we sat in the sixth row, slightly to the left of centre.

It was at the BFI's Southbank NFT2 that a film changed my point of view on the person closest to me: my mother. The film in question is Barbara Loden's Wanda.

Loden was the wife of Greek-American director Elia Kazan, perhaps best known for On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. He was the man who made James Dean and Marlon Brando famous. Loden was an ex-model turned actress playing a bit part in Kazan's Wild River when they met. That's not to say Kazan was the real success story here; in making Wanda, Loden would become the first woman ever to write, direct and star in a film, and one that was novel for its time (1970), in that it would take us deep into the psyche of an ordinary woman.

The film opens with Wanda waking up, hungover, on her sister's sofa, with two other men sleeping on another. This clearly isn't her home, but it's somehow obvious she has none. Wanda leaves and walks across a desolate quarry to get to where she needs to go, the factory she works at as a seamstress. She asks meekly if there's any work for her. There isn't. She also wonders why she wasn't paid her full wages. She just wasn't. She makes no protest.

What Loden does next is shocking, even by today's standards. When confronted by her ex-husband and a judge, Wanda shrugs off responsibility of her children. She doesn't want to be their mother. Loden never tells us why. She just walks out of the court, and their lives.

You think life couldn't get much worse for Wanda, but it does. She meets Norman, played with a brutish aggression by Michael Higgins, a petty thief who brings her into his life and proceeds to abuse her for almost the entire time they're together. The first night they meet he takes her back to his motel room and demands she goes to get him two hamburgers, an order she messes up and gets punished for. He hits her, shouts at her and generally degrades her. But she has nothing else, so why not stick around?

Wanda and Norman eventually hit the road together, and fuck me is it bleak. You think your family trips to the seaside were brutal? They have nothing on this.

The two of them drive through the exact middle of nowhere – a place not often used in films, for obvious reasons. Yet here it makes total sense. The pair are nobodies, so why should they be somewhere significant?

On the road, Norman continues to verbally abuse Wanda, before forcing her to help him rob a bank. The plan is, as he's robbing the place, she'll park up outside and, when he's made a break, drive them away. Except there is no driving away. Norman gets done in by the police, setting Wanda free of him. Only, when she sees what's happened she isn't happy. The one thing she chose to be a part of has failed. And now she has nothing.

Those in my generation were taught that things only get better by people like D:Ream and Tony Blair. Well, for Wanda, they don't. Loden ends the film with Wanda drinking a beer and looking up past the table in front of her, as though she's searching for something. That something turns out to be the camera. The last shot is a freeze frame, with Wanda looking down the lens. It's an obvious homage to Truffaut's The 400 Blows (NFT1, middle row, aisle), but her face is giving off any number of messages. It could be one crying out for help, or telling us to leave and never look back. It could be Wanda asking for us to just remember her, or not to bother mourning her at all.

The act of watching this film shook me. The first time I saw it I had a heavy flu, so it hit me as a kind of fever dream, half realised memories caught on grainy 16mm film. The second time seeing it, at the ICA (eighth row on the aisle), confirmed to me its beauty and tragedy. This was a film that poured from Loden's soul.

It made me think about my mum, because the central relationship between Wanda and Norman had reminded me of the one I share with her. Not in the sexual sense, but in their cloying co-dependency on one another.

As for a lot of people, my dad wasn't around when I was younger, and that left a void. I also hated school – especially the people in it – and my body. My mum knew all this, of course, and she knew that obsessively watching the same movies over and over wasn't always good for me, but that it gave me something.

They filled – and continue to fill – some kind of void in my life. She understood my obsessive relationship with films because she had the same obsessive relationship with me. Wanda left her kids, but my mother never left me. In fact, all she wanted was to figure out the best way for me to grow into a person. In the end, I'm thankful she let it be films.

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