Wisconsin Death Trip Review

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there
from “The Go-Between” by L. P. Hartley

Within five minutes of beginning to watch Wisconsin Death Trip, you will know whether it’s your particular cup of tea. I can’t think of many other recent American films which have been so uncompromisingly off-beat and determined to provoke the viewer into a personal response. Me, I loved it, but I can easily imagine that some people will find it unbearably quirky. What is beyond doubt however is that it’s a true original which doesn’t look or sound like anything else. The effect it has is somewhat similar to Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller but I can’t think of a documentary which has used real material in this unusual way.

The film is based on the book “Wisconsin Death Trip” which was written in 1973 by Michael Lesy. This was a collection of sometimes mundane but more often bizarre newspaper stories, from a small town in Wisconsin called Black River Falls, which appeared during the 1890s. The local newspaper was edited by an Englishman called Frank Cooper who faithfully documented the life of the town and seems to have been particularly interested in the more tragic side of everyday life. The overall effect, inevitably heightened through the telescoping of time in the book, is almost unbearably moving and a kind of corrective to the romanticising of small town life which had already begun and was to continue apace in the works of writers such as Thornton Wilder and was to reach it’s zenith (or perhaps nadir) in the Norman Rockwell pictures from the Saturday Evening Post during the 1940s and 1950s. Essentially, the book and the film do what a 1950s film like Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life does – present the idyll and then shatter it by dragging the complexity of real life into the scene.

Much of the material presented in the book and now in the film is slightly self-consciously bizarre. Although not quite becoming Fortean, the range of tragic occurrences is quite remarkable. During the 1890s, the Mid West of America suffered very hard times economically and was also swept by various epidemics which killed a large number of children. Add to this a remarkable number of suicides, committed in various ways, various murders, concerns about tobacco and alcohol and what sometimes seems to be an endemic outbreak of insanity and you have a story which is almost intimidating in the scale of human misery which it presents.

Deciding that it was impossible to recreate the almost epic human scope of the book, director James Marsh decided to choose certain stories and then group them together under the headings of seasons of the year and themes. This is partially successful although it does tend to mean that we are led into identification with particular stories rather than being presented with the material and left to form our own judgements. So, for example, a number of characters keep returning. The most notable of these are Mary Sweeney and opera singer Pauline L’Allemand.. Mary Sweeney was once a schoolteacher but she suffered an accidental blow to the head and subsequently began exhibiting signs of very odd behaviour. This involved spasmodic attacks of window breaking, followed by the taking of cocaine which was said to “relax” her. She was occasionally caught and imprisoned but upon release she continued to do exactly the same thing. At one point she took a trip around the surrounding area to extend her rampage into new territory and came back to Black River Falls as a seasoned veteran of various houses of detention. Eventually, she was committed, like so many other people depicted in the film, to the local Mendota Asylum for the Insane. The story of Pauline L’Allemand is even stranger. Arriving by train with her son and claiming to be the mildly famous opera singer of the same name, she went to live in some farmland that she had bought with the remainder of her depleted wealth. Reduced to extreme poverty and forced to eat cattle food, she eventually ended up in the asylum but once released, she moved to Chicago where she recovered some of her dignity. Both of these stories are fascinating but there are others which are just as interesting – the young boy of 13 who became, along with his younger brother, an outlaw and was imprisoned for life, for example – and aren’t treated in quite so much detail. To some extent, this is inevitable – documentary is all about selection and omission – but it’s a shame that the film wasn’t a little longer. We want more detail about these fascinating people and more time to study the original photographs and take in the glorious music. But it’s rare that I see a film which is flawed by being too short and maybe it’s best to be left wanting more than feeling bludgeoned into submission by overlength.

James Marsh has made the film as a semi-dramatic piece. Although there is no formal dialogue, Ian Holm’s beautifully controlled narration leads us through the stories while we watch monochrome reconstructions of events. These are very well done and they photographically match the archive images, even though it’s a style which has begun to get a little tiresome, especially when used in those Channel 4 documentaries about Tudor monarchs. There’s a tasteful distinction between what is shown and what isn’t. The words from the news stories is enough to move us without our needing to see graphic details of violence and Marsh is a sensitive judge. When we do see brutality, it’s usually fleeting and always pretty horrible. But more often the effect is weirdly beautiful. Marsh can do a great deal with a suggestive image, using slow motion and freeze frame where appropriate and he manages to bring out surprising and elegaic nuances. There’s something that feels just right about some of his juxtapositions – the way that the images of a mass baptism are immediately followed by an equally rapturous image of a suicide by drowning. The monochrome is ghostly and slightly beyond our reach, evoking a past which is historically recent but almost impossibly remote in terms of our understanding.

Figuring that we might get a little dazed and possibly a touch numbed by 75 minutes of tragedy, Marsh has leavened the monochrome history with some ‘video essays’ of Black River Falls in 1997. These are engaging but a little short and you sometimes want to see a little more of something which captures the attention – the faces on the girls who didn’t win the Miss Wisconsin contest for example, or the children in fancy dress lined up for Halloween. Marsh is very good at placing something suggestively at the edge of the frame and forcing us to look closely – in the Halloween scene for example, you will see that some woefully primitive costumes are followed by a fully dressed Darth Vader. In these scenes, there are brief interviews with older residents of the town and one with the mayor who puts the hard sell on us by informing us about what a good place it is for bringing up children. There is obviously meant to be a comment inherent in these modern scenes about how little we’ve travelled from the 1890s in terms of our own society; that the acts depicted in the 19th Century are still recurring in the 21st. But what I got out of it was a sense of how mundane our views about human suffering have become at a time when it seems to be all around us and the expansion of news coverage has brought us as many tragedies from around the world as we can bear to hear. It’s the local nature of the occurrences in Wisconsin that move us, the way that a lovelorn young woman can kill herself and have her action and the reason behind it recorded for posterity as a news story when, now, it would be a two line postscript at most. What Wisconsin Death Trip does most valuably is to give a voice to the sad, suffering, dispossessed and mad at the edges of society and, as a consequence, to give them the human dignity that they rarely felt when they were alive.

The other impression that the film leaves is slightly different. In a very subtle manner, it’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve watched for some time. There are few obvious effects used to upset or shock the viewer and the content is usually more sad than actively harrowing. But the accumulation of the stories, each one more tragic than the next, proves a little emotionally exhausting. The terse eloquence of the newspaper reports which are used for the narration involves us in so many individual stories that it’s hard not to feel a sense of being overwhelmed. There’s also the slightly unnerving sense of something going out of control in a particular time and place, as if a slight tilt of the heavens has led to so much suffering in one location. I know that this is a result of several years being compacted into 75 minutes and that we would get the same result if we were to do the same thing now. But it’s a tribute to the skill of the filmmakers that we are able to become so committed to the individuals in the film that we are able to empathise with them based on relatively little information.

Some viewers may not take to the film and I’m sure that not every viewer will feel as involved as I did. But the feeling of being transported to a distant time is richly evocative and, as I said at the beginning, comparable to McCabe and Mrs Miller, a film which recreates the past with a combination of tangible realism and a dreamlike, smoky beauty which you felt was so delicate it would shatter with the slightest wrong touch. Wisconsin Death Trip takes us somewhere and shows us things which we didn’t know. Put simply, it takes the dead and restores them to a place in history that they never suspected they would have earned. That’s quite an achievement.

The Disc

The second Tartan release I’ve dealt with in two days is generally good but not quite the knockout in the transfer stakes that Tattoo was. However, an impressive soundtrack and some nice extras go some way to making up for this and the level of presentation is certainly a far cry from some of the efforts that Tartan was releasing a couple of years ago.

Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, the film doesn’t look nearly as good as it should. Bearing in mind that the low-budget video origins of the movie mean that it inevitably looks a little too grainy for comfort and sometimes the harsh lighting results in a touch of smearing, the transfer is still a disappointment. The stunning cinematography comes across well at times – largely in the more epic shots of the landscape – but is sometimes a little dingy here and certain scenes are riddled with compression artifacts. The colour footage from 1997 looks a lot better overall. What does come across well is the mix of soft-focus and high contrast lighting which replicates the look of contemporary photographs. Detail throughout is good and when the film looks a little soft this seems to be intentional. Overall, not as good as I would have hoped but not disastrous. The quality is about the same as it was on the TV showing of the film. I’d be interested in seeing this in a cinema for purposes of comparison.

The soundtrack is considerably more impressive. There are three choices, all of them pleasing. You can choose the original 2.0 Stereo soundtrack which is clear and well balanced across the front channels. However, there are also two remixes which are surprisingly impressive. There isn’t much to choose between the Dolby Digital 5.1 and the DTS 5.1 Surround tracks as both of them are very similar. The expansion is largely confined to the music track but this is often remarkably effective and offers a feeling of immersion which adds something to the film. I’m not a fan of remixes in general, as regular readers will be aware, but I thought this was an exception to the rule. All the three soundtracks are crisp and devoid of hiss or distortion. The narration throughout is fine and the occasional whispered additions – relating to the patients in the asylum – are remarkably effective and genuinely disquieting.

Tartan have obviously decided that quality not quantity is the keyword and more power to them! This release offers two substantial bonus features along with some deleted scenes, a small photo gallery and a selection of “World Cinema” trailers. The first major supplement is a full-length commentary featuring the director and his DP, Eigil Bryld. This is hugely engaging and full of behind the scenes information. What is particularly valuable is the way that Marsh tells you a little bit more about some of the people featured in the film, filling in some of the background that has been left out of his movie but which is present in the book. His enthusiasm is patent and Bryld is equally compelling as he talks about how he produced such stunning visuals with relatively little time and money. The second key extra is a 22 minute making-of documentary. This was produced at the time the film was released and contains good interviews with Marsh, costume designer Ellen Kozak, wineglass toting producer Maureen Ryan and some of the actors. There’s a particularly informative scene, about how to set an actor on fire without burning him to death, which features some very laconic fire-fighters.

The five deleted scenes are of variable quality and a couple of them feature narration from Ian Holm. All of them could quite easily have been featured in the finished film and one, a Finnish funeral, is weirdly affecting. The photo gallery contains twelve small pictures and is nothing special. The trailers are all worth a look but there isn’t one included for Wisconsin Death Trip. Instead we get ones for the excellent L.I.E., Secretary, La Spagnola, Belleville Rendez-vous and two fascinating documentaries, Capturing The Friedmans and Eyes Of Tammy Faye.

The menus are very atmospherically designed and easy to navigate. There are 16 chapter stops. Regrettably, no subtitles have been included for the film or for the extras.

Wisconsin Death Trip is an engaging, sad and memorable excursion into the foreign country of the past. It’s a hearteningly original example of the currently flourishing documentary genre and I could quite happily have watched it for another hour. The disc is disappointing visually – although this is possibly characteristic of the film in certain respects - but well above average in other aspects.

Wisconsin Death Trip is available to buy from the 24th May

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