Arena: Wisconsin Death Trip

Sunday, July 2, 2000 by

Drug addiction, sexual dysfunction, spiraling violence, the corruption of childhood innocence , suicide, adultery… the very stuff of Millennial angst and the staple diet of sensationalist tabloids, but are these phenomena unique to our own times? This was one of the questions which anyone viewing James Marsh’s extraordinary film for Arena must have asked themselves.

The film strongly suggested that the James Bulgar case, playground drug-peddlers and rising teenage alcoholism are but contemporary versions of our timeless cravings for excitement and the desire to ward off loneliness. In 1890s Wisconsin, dysfunctionalism sometimes took different forms – arson, murder, hysteria, mental illness, suicide – many of them made possible by the easy availability of guns, and perhaps fuelled by something of the isolation and inward lookingness of a 19th century small American town.

“Wisconsin Death Trip” took as its basis the events which befell the townsfolk of Black River Falls between 1890 and 1900 as described in the town’s local newspaper. These events, narrated in dignified, measured tones by Ian Holm (slight echoes of Alistair Cooke here?), were accompanied by mostly monochrome visuals – in turns, stark and limpid – incorporating stills, tableau, and set-piece reconstructions. The film’s style veered between the lyrical and portentous, though always laced with an undercurrent of darkness. There was no dialogue – only occasional sounds such as gunfire and shattered glass, (a recurring motif thanks to the compulsive window-breaking activities of a local schoolteacher) and the repeated whispered fate of yet another inmate bound for the lunatic asylum. The camera dwelt on faces – young and old, unformed and worn, pensive and withdrawn – and on set-piece tableau mildly reminiscent of Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, but here a slow-pan across a shelf of pots and cooking vessels evoked not homely nostalgia but a sense of emptiness and unease. As the catalogue of misery unfolded, we were invited to empathise with these people, separated from us across time and space, surviving only as photographs and as the subjects of newspaper reports, but, in spite of the extremity of their behaviour, linked to us in terms of human desire and failings. That we were able to do so, was perhaps due to the fact that an emotional response was not demanded of us, as it is in so much of news crime reporting. Here, the poetic simplicity of images married to factual reportage, was allowed to work its strange spell and we were left to wonder about what had driven these people to such desperate measures.

The film delivered its narrative across the 1890-1900 period in what would have been a seamless flow but for its division into spring, summer, fall and winter. This construct allowed the seasons and countryside to be seen not as a mere backdrop to events, but as an elemental force shaping the lives and characters of the people. Poignantly placed visuals carefully established the passage of time and seasonal change – drops falling into a bowl of water, a flower dancing in the breeze marking the brief respite of summer. Another effective device was the use of silent-film style captions announcing forthcoming “events”. This gave the impression that the unlucky participants were acting out some kind of melodramatic, turn-of-the-century silent-film drama, yet somehow this witty device succeeded in encouraging our sympathy, where a more heavy-handed approach could easily have tipped the balance into queasy humour.

The film started and ended with the same glowing litany to Black Rock Fells, extolling the virtues of its people and open spaces. Heard for a second time, it sounded more like a hollow mantra repeated to ward off the darkness we had witnessed over the last hour and a quarter. Most disturbing of all, perhaps, were the occasional (colour) images of contemporary America intercut into the otherwise black-and-white archive – drum majorettes, the singing of the national anthem, children playing – what relation did these “outer” images have with the incidents of the 1890s? And what lay behind these display of conventions which now so singularly failed to reassure us?

Some might have found the film overtly ponderous and relentlessly bleak – accusations which could be justly leveled against it. But it’s originality of perspective, clarity of form and visual beauty for me, worked to present a moving portrait of human desperation, which never collapsed into the mawkish or morbid and asked unsettling questions of us all.

Today, tabloids, docusoaps and exposés of various kinds all noisily stake their claim to “reality”. “Wisconsin Death Trip” made no such claims but left me feeling it had touched upon some uncomfortable hidden truths – about the United States, about how we view the past; how we live today; and, most of all, about the destructive potential of our human frailties.


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