Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. James Marsh
viewed: 07/05/06

Back about 15 years ago, I found myself perusing Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, a reprinted version of a cult book originally published in 1973.  The book is a collection of macabre photographs and newspaper clippings from Black River Falls, WI just around the turn of the 20th Century.  The clippings detail murders, suicides, and other deaths, madness and depression and things that are just plain weird.  The photographs range from family portraits of stone-faced immigrants to lots of pictures of dead children in coffins.  It’s a freakshow.  A cultural snapshot.  Bizarreness.  Creepy.  It was often on display next to books on Clinical Pathology, also full of gruesome black-and-white photos of death and dismemberment.  It was one of those things that was hard to take your eyes off of once you discovered it.  It made a lasting impression.

I recalled this film coming out several years back and playing at the SF Film Festival.  I’d always wanted to see it.  It turns out to have a lot of scenes of re-enactment, which is typically not a good thing in documentaries.  The re-enactments are shot in black-and-white, to mimic the photos that also punctuate the visuals.  Ian Holm narrates excerpts from the newspapers in voice-over.  The whole thing has a disjunction of numerous strange and depressing items of death and depression.  Sometimes it’s comical.  Sometimes it’s sad.

The film’s approach is more open than your typical documentary.  It’s not trying to give the definitive view on what happened then, but to present the snippets and moments somewhat as the book does, but poeticizing them to an extent.  The major invented approach is to show moments in color of the current state of Black River Falls, contemporary of 1999, the time the film was made.  It’s small town America.  But the news report voice-overs at these points reflect how in some ways things have probably little changed over time.  The crimes and tragedies are essentially mostly contemporary.  The stories could appear in today’s newspaper as well.  While you probably wouldn’t show photos of dead children anymore, the rest of the weirdness is deflated, contemporized.  And while this is probably a more accurate understanding of the world of death and depression, it demystifies the sideshow qualities of the book that made it so strange and creepy.

Ultimately, it is a “death trip”.  It’s a heavy theme in the film and pervades the contemporary world as well.

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