Wisconsin Death Trip

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June 27, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Perhaps reminiscent of the film itself, I experienced a bout of metareality (or a coincidence if you will) while scanning the filmography of director James Marsh before embarking on this review. Just a few days earlier I watched Marsh’s directorial debut, a short BBC TV documentary on the Czech surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer entitled The Animator of Prague. That was a basic effort, pleasant and slight, but I had no idea he was the same man connected to this documentary film. It’s strange how things can connect like that, over time and space, so neatly and appropriately.

To a degree that’s also the lesson in this fine piece of documentary filmmaking; a stylised depiction of certain events in Black River Falls, a small town in Wisconsin, between the years 1890 and 1900. The details come from the writings of local newspaper and are coupled with photos taken during the era which twin with each other for an often startling effect. Originally a book by Michael Lesy, Marsh simply adapts the already proven formula to the screen adding in large amounts of re-enactments to keep the images flowing over the calm narration, recounting events that are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and very often gruesome. The film also takes some extracts from the logs of the local ‘Mendota Asylum for the Mentally Insane’ which shares some overlap with the news clippings of the time.

The film is divided into sections depending on season and opens with a brief summation of the main events of that season; the headlines, if you will. In turn all the events of the film are bookended by a monologue written by the newspaper editor who provided so much material for the film; a glowing report of Black River Falls as a wonderful place to live and to raise children. The stories themselves range from the bizarre to the brutal to the comic. Murder, suicide and insanity are recurring events during this period, but we also get tales of the strange customs introduced by Norwegian settlers, the ongoing tales of ‘Mary Sweeney the window breaker,’ the outcries of the Women’s Temperance League and so on and so forth. Many of the events are re-enacted, in part, by actors shot in black and white. Coupled with the news copy style narration and the period photos used to complement them the newly shot footage lends an unusual and effective edge. The actors never speak, silently playing their parts, while their performances are often recycled, edited in and out of other parts of the film lending a strong sense of connectivity between the various parts and the whole. The accompanying music, largely classical, provides an appropriately lyrical and spacey tone as the visuals unfold. As a final structural element each season closes with colour footage from the modern day Black River Falls, unifying past and present.

The film opens up a couple of interesting questions about both documentary filmmaking and news reportage alongside its core observations concerning our own perception of society as time goes on. Obviously documentary footage is not something to be found for these events; so much of these factual descriptions are instead lent reality by performance. This brings us back to that old chestnut of documentary filmmaking that’s been around ever since Robert J. Flaherty decided smoking in the editing room was a good idea and ended up incinerating half of what was supposed to be his key non-fiction film, Nanook of the North. Flaherty went back to Nanook1 and got him to restage much of what had already been shot; what was life before now had to be restaged. Nonetheless, Nanook is understood to be an important film in the documentary field and is often cited as the first documentary ever made. Re-enactment has become commonplace from Flaherty’s early efforts to Marsh’s film to Michael Moore’s attempts to secure a gun through opening a bank account in Bowling for Columbine.

The idea of legitimising re-enactment twins with another interesting question this film raises: the idea of a newspaper of record. The newspaper from which the stories derive is noted as being the paper of record for the area but, of course, verification is quite difficult given the time that’s gone by. The paper’s credentials are never really called into question and this is an obstacle that all historians must grapple with; just who is recording history and what perspective did they knowingly or unknowingly bring to the task? Of course the seeming preponderance on the bizarre in Black River Falls is no doubt as much a result of condensing nine or so years of news into 76 minutes as anything else.

Like any good newshound Marsh, and Lesy before him, chose the juiciest stories where possible. Still, the presence of these stories at all feed into what I’d take as the essence of this exercise, that is the twinning of past and present to provide a clearer perspective of both. The old bromide, recapitulated from time immemorial, proclaiming the contemporary age to be flawed or corrupted compared to the ‘good old days’ that came before seems almost a basic tenet of our conception of society; things were better when we were kids. Wisconsin Death Trip seeks to offer some counterbalance to that.

Between the years of concern we have insidious crimes—murder and vandalism—and the bizarre—sexual trysts, moral outrages, ghosts and more—all recorded by the local paper. There’s the yarn about a young thirteen year old boy who shot and murdered a man and then went on the run, shooting another man in his bid to escape. There were tales of poverty, suicide pacts and drunkenness. There were all the stories that garishly fill our papers today that elicit so much distress and lamentations for the downfall of society. Marsh’s film tells us that if this is a sickness and not just a tendency of people when grouped together then it’s been with us a lot longer than many would like to admit.

In the end, through the footage of the modern day Black River Falls, a sleepy little hamlet of 3,300 or so people, we see how unusual the history of any and all places must be. Because this seemingly quiet little place rests on the site of so much violence and mayhem we are given the suggestion that most other small towns are seated in much the same way. Wisconsin Death Trip is an unusual and interesting attempt to breathe life in to the historical record, allowing it to momentarily function the way contemporary news does now. In so doing we can compare the two, realising that the slippery moral slope of modernity is perhaps not quite as steep or as far falling as we imagined. It’s difficult to tell if it’s the people or the news media that has changed or if both are basically the same as ever but a certain sense of sentimentality and nostalgia prevents us from recognising it. That’s the discourse this little film opens up for us and it’s to be welcomed.

1 In an added twist Nanook wasn’t even the native’s real name.

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