Wisconsin Death Trip (1999, James Marsh)

Sometimes one can’t see what is under their nose. Peruse the reviews of Wisconsin Death Trip from the time of its release and the film is described variously, in positive and negative terms, as a document of one particularly crazed and cursed town, as a fever dream and as the equivalent of a couple of hours of flipping through local newspaper microfiche (a revealing comment in itself). Wisconsin Death Trip is none of these things.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Michael Lesy, a collection of newspaper cuttings from the local newspaper of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, found photographs by Charles Van Shaick and contemporary theorising that attempted to document and explain the high rates of violence, murder and insanity that afflicted an small town in the 1890’s. In James Marsh’s rich cinematic collage many of the cuttings are read on the soundtrack by Ian Holm, re-enacted impressionistically in stark but luminous monochrome, and mixed with colour footage of the town in 1997.

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What becomes clear is that, for Marsh, Black River Falls is not meant to stand alone as some sort of monument to human fragility or nightmare. The film isn’t particularly subtle in making its point, Marsh featuring numerous American flags and a men’s choir performance of the national anthem during the material filmed in the present day; this is a film about Anywhere (particularly rural), America and it’s unique version of a history of violence as motivated by religious hysteria, economic boom-and-bust and the stark, wide-open loneliness of the Midwestern land. This is a work that suggests that the roots of the country lie not in the immigrant dreams of freedom and prosperity, but rather in the bleak vastness that met those immigrants and the maddening interior claustrophobia it created. A country is laid bare, a romanticised era thoroughly deromanticised; fortunes are made out of/amongst despair and desperation, myths of outlaw joy lead to senseless murder and individualism means only isolation. Marsh doesn’t give us any form of explanation through didactic narration or intertitles, but rather allows the meaning and closely-linked range of causes to emerge from sheer accumulation of incident and detail, of glimpses of wider economic and social unrest that troubled those beyond the film’s collection of murderers, visionaries and broken-hearts. In the contemporary footage, too, we hear radio news updates that bear a striking resemblance to newspaper accounts from Lesy’s book and suggest that either what planted itself in the psyche of those inhabiting this landscape has refused to budge, or that the conditions and environments which provoke such reactions and behaviours continue to preside in similar or new forms in the United States. This is the shadow becoming the corporeal.
Wisconsin Death Trip is not a perfect film. Marsh is skilled at building a fluid montage, but some vignettes verge on an over-beautification that seems facile when the best segments have something in common with the harsh, strange but still natural reality of Van Shaick’s photography. There is sometimes, too, a reliance on a sort of (particularly British) wryness that threatens to overwhelm the real feeling and meaning of the material. But this is a valuable work, a sort of twisted folk history that reveals more on a grander scale than most would be willing to admit.

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