Lost in the Landscape: Barbara Loden’s Influence on the Contemporary American Female Road Movie

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The late 1960s and early 1970s proved a fertile period for creativity and innovation in American Cinema. Moving film production from the confines of the film studio to the highways and byways of America, a number of now iconic road movies such as Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Badlands (1973), Vanishing Point (1973), Scarecrow (1973) and Easy Rider (1973) were produced which directly engage with the topographical specificity of the American landscape. This body of work is associated almost exclusively with male directors. Yet, in 1970 Barbara Loden, perhaps better known at the time for her work as an actress and her marriage to Elia Kazan wrote and directed Wanda (1970). Although Wanda was awarded the Critic’s Prize at the Venice Film Festival it enjoyed release at only a single cinema in New York and was arguably for a time written out of the history of American Independent Cinema until its limited rerelease in 2007.

Wanda, the eponymous protagonist of the film, is the estranged wife of a Pennsylvanian coal miner and mother to two small children. She is a passive character who allows her husband to divorce her and gain sole custody of her children. She wanders aimlessly through the industrial American landscape with her lover, the criminal Mr. Dennis. Unlike the male protagonists in many of the road movies of the early 1970s, the road in Loden's film does not signal an open road to freedom nor conversely does it signal the manifestation of an existential crisis, rather Wanda is imprisoned wandering within the landscape with nowhere to go.

In more recent years, Kelly Reichardt’s predominantly female protagonists also find themselves trapped within the confines of a seemingly expansive landscape. Cozy, the heroine of her 1994 film River of Grass, is a housewife bored of her suburban existence who goes on the run with a drifter believing that they have committed a crime. Referred to by Reichardt as a road movie without a road, they end up drifting to a motel. Similarly, Wendy, the main character in Wendy and Lucy (2008) finds her journey to find work in Alaska curtailed after her car breaks down and she finds herself trapped in small town Oregon. Further to this, the characters in Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt’s 2010 articulation of the Western features three settler families wandering lost in the Oregon landscape.

Loden, Reichardt and more recently Andrea Arnold use unusual aesthetic approaches to their filming of female characters adrift in the landscape, for example employing academy ratio to create a sense of enclosure without walls in the apparently limitless environments they move through. This paper will investigate the legacy of Loden's film in the work of contemporary female directors such as Reichardt, exploring the manner in which the landscape in these erstwhile 'road' movies is representing and interrogating the aesthetic and existential representation of female figures stranded within the topography of the American landscape.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Wave, New Hollywood: Reassessment, Recovery, and Legacy
EditorsGregory Frame, Nathan Abrams
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
ISBN (Electronic)9781501360381
ISBN (Print)9781501360404
Publication statusPublished - 23 Sep 2021


  • American Independent Cinema
  • New Hollywood
  • New Wave
  • Landscape
  • Cinema
  • Cultural Geography
  • Road movie
  • Female Directors
  • Barbra Loden
  • Kelly Reichardt
  • Andrea Arnold
  • Psychogeography


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