Wisconsin Death Trip

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WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP to "The Good Old Days" -- and Back!

Jun 5, 2003 (Updated Jun 12, 2005)
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Pros:Haunting collection of 19th Century funereal photographs. Keen, unstated commentary on America, then and now.

Cons:Some critics find the film random and unfocused.

The Bottom Line: WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP presents a season by season record of events in a Midwestern town between 1885 and 1899, providing a memorable perspective on the American enigma, past and present.

WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (1999) is a strange curiosity: based on a Phd. thesis in the form of a "documentary novel," which became a best seller; subject of the Heavy Metal Rock Band Static-X debut album, "Wisconsin Death Trip"; and of course, a Scandinavian-BBC TV movie I'm reviewing here about the little American town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Strange, haunting, beautiful, funny, morbid, disturbing, I have seen WISCONSIN DEATH twice over the last several years, and for reasons I can't explain, I would see it again.

Why Black River Falls, Wisconsin?

The reason has to do, in part, with a forgotten and macabre ritual of 19th Century American life (and death): The Funereal Photograph.

In many towns in America, in a time when people could not afford their own cameras, they entertained themselves of evenings, taking turns looking at subscription sets of stereo-photos, an early day 3-D product. And before the marketing of the Kodak Brownie Box Camera, photography was a costly consumer craze. Each town worth its salt supported a local photographer, who immortalized weddings, parties, christenings . . . and deaths.

To be photographed was an occasion, an expensive one, the more so, if you were "gone to glory, or the other place."

As British gadlady Jessica Mitford liked to quote our undertakers in her The American Way of Death, and as Evelyn Waugh entitled one of his best satires, "the loved one" was embalmed, made up elaborately, clothed in whatever finery could be afforded, and, if at all possible, set out for public viewing. "A closed coffin funeral" was often remarked in scandalized whispers. Somewhere, in the process, often in the price of the funeral, the coffin was tipped upright, in full sunlight if possible, and a cumbersome camera was used to photograph the corpse. Until it became deemed in bad taste, perhaps in silver frames, draped in black crepe, several photos of the "loved one" might be kept for a year or more, on a side table and on the mantelpiece.

But why Black River Falls, Wisconsin?

The town was particularly lucky to have the services of Mr. Charley Van Schaick, who brought all the way from St. Louis special glass plates capable of making sensitive half-exposures. In the latter years of the 19th Century, Van Schaick took 30,000 photos of local life and death among citizens from, in or around, Black River Falls. Unlike cheaper processes which deteriorated; unlike other collections which were destroyed, or scrapped for their silver content, Van Schaick's plates, in all their eerie purity, were maintained intact until a Sociology Phd. Candidate, Michael Lesy, selected 200 of them to illustrate his Sociology thesis/novel, in 1973.

In order to chronicle the lives of rural Wisconsin people caught in the pressures of tremendous change during a forgotten period of American History, Sociologist Lesy combined the photos with morgue files of father and son Frank and George Cooper, Editors of the local Badger City Banner, for roughly the years 1885 to 1899.

After Lesy's thesis was given the rare honor of being commercially published, after it became a surprising success with readers here and abroad, the fact that Frank Cooper (enacted here by Jeffrey Golden) was English attracted BBC Arena TV to the story, and the affiliation with Scandinavia [especially with Norway] of many subjects brought capital for a theatrical release of the project from that sector, in the form of Hands-on-Productions.

British Writer/Director/Editor James Marsh worked with Cinematographer Eigil Bryd to intercut the photos (and some re-constructed photos, I should note) with black and white re-enactments and contemporary color documentary footage, in order to present a kaleidoscopic impression of Black River Falls history. All of this was explained, cryptically on occasion, by using the matter-of-fact, detached but gossipy articles and editorials of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Episcopalian-Protestant Coopers, narrated in the film by masterful British character actor, Ian Holm.

In a fashion which reminded me of Aaron Aronofsky's *REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, the film is time-framed over a year of seasons in 1895, drawing on stories from a circle described by the towns of Black River Falls, Beaver Dam, Poynette, Appleton, Eau Claire, Rhinelander, and Kenosha in Wisconsin's wildly beautiful and bleak countryside.

The concentration is on the community of Black River Falls, only 40 years-old in 1895, a product of the railroads, very religious, seemingly at peace with its Indians "who decided to move of their own accord." But at the point of the film's beginning, it would appear, as reflected in the news reports and editorials of the "local rag," that economic collapse, madness, depression and inexplicable acts of violence and despair had begun suddenly sweeping the countryside.

As if in a Gothic nightmare of Our Town Meets Psycho, we learn about the deaths, murders, suicides, drug addictions, insanity, jealous and outraged acts, instances of poisonings and attempted poisonings, "obscene mail," struggles with the remainder of the Indian population, and cases of mixed marriages between whites and "coloreds" (illegal then -- and until recently -- in many States of the Union).

And even way out in the sticks, Dr. Sigmund Freud's wonder medicine, Cocaine, is becoming a problem among the young and up-to-date.

We pick out one story and drop another, perhaps to pick it up again in a different season. Reports of vandalism and wife murder are interspersed with approving accounts of cheerful civic activities, meetings of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and church sermons on promiscuity. We see a wedding, and then the bride later in her coffin; twins at their christening and, while the Banner Editor dryly reports a new outbreak of Scarlet Fever, we creep up upon them, wreathed with flowers, in tiny matching caskets. Accounts of suicidal and berserk citizens are matched by conflicting testimony on the efficacious application of medical sterilization at the Mendota State Hospital for the Insane (or Criminally Insane, as it might then have been considered).

There are sightings of benign spirits or ghosts and demons reported, people possessed, and arsonists at work. People swear they have seen visions. Several times, we watch the River and the Lake searched or dragged for missing citizens. An unhappy out of work man repeatedly tries to commit suicide with a shotgun. Another sticks a lighted stick of dynamite in his mouth, with disfiguring consequences. A ruined farmer swings by the neck in a fruit tree.

All in a setting of magical black and white scenes of gorgeous billowing clouds, soothed by ethereal music, and piercing sunlight breaking over Black Falls River, Lake, and at the Falls themselves. Occasionally, we are shocked into the present by color sequences of the town today. Elderly women sing forth the "Star Spangled Banner" at a 4th of July picnic. Local stores sell souvenirs of -- what else? -- the Wisconsin Death Trip. A local sheriff shows us where a woman's head was recently found in a barrel.

Several stories stand out.

There are the teenage boys who, left to themselves in the isolation of their farm home, played with a rifle, shot a handyman by accident, and then shot others to cover up their crimes. They have to be hunted down by a posse. A highly intelligent local woman, Mary Sweeny (enacted well by Jo Vukelvich), descends into apparent insanity, angrily breaking windows, smashing up railway stations, making escapes from authorities. (Whenever the action threatens to lag --CRASH! -- there is Mary throwing rocks at plate glass.) A mysterious retired European opera singer, Pauline L'Allemand (who actually introduced an Offenbach work in Paris a few years earlier), alights from a train one day with her son Edgar, convinced somehow that Black River Falls is a center of culture. Duly reported by the Banner, and as played by Marilyn White and Zeke Dasho, they have a mansion built outside of town, where they create their own society circle, until the Diva's money runs out . . . .

[All the actors, with the exception of Ian Holm, are either local thespians or amateurs, and they bring a strange, raw authenticity to their reenactments.]

Liberties with the material attributed to the influence of Errol Morris (THE THIN BLUE LINE, 1988) are decried by some critics, but so far as I can research, nothing is contained in the film which is not documented in the photos, or in the news archives of the Banner. Other critics say, the film lacks a sense of History, that events "just sorta happen." They may have stumbled on the point of James Marsh's documentary, without being aware of it.

We have lived through some of the most momentous and unsettling events in U.S. History ourselves during the last 25 years, but can the average American, can any American not at the top of the information tree, explain what has really happened to us and our country in those years? Perhaps in 50 or a hundred years, it will become clear to our grandchildren. But not entirely to us, not now.

Clearly, Sociologist Michael Lesy, in his book, sees what happened to the unfortunate citizens of Black River Falls --and some of the more fortunate, too -- as being similar to what was happening in much of America around 1885. (Say, roughly a period from the Assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 through 1899, or to be consistent, the Assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.) Although few were aware of it, they were living through a period of American economic and political corruption rivaled only briefly in the 1920's -- and then recently. At the time, most citizens of America could only react like Pollyanna, in denial, with resignation, or sometimes in emotional, violent, anti-social ways. We can see it all, naturally, in retrospect, if we really think about it.

[Many of us react to what is going on today in a like fashion.]

For instance, in the 1850's and 1860's, many of the citizens of newly founded Black River Falls had followed the Railroad lines there. (Such lines expanded in America from a few thousand in 1855 to over thirty-thousand by the end of the Civil War.) Buoyed by inflation brought on by the War, some citizens of the town became well off.

[The zenith and fall of a family which acquired property in 1878 on the outskirts of a midwestern town makes the subject for Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, from which Orson Welles (born in Kenosha, Wisconsin) fashioned his ill-fated movie of the same title, in 1942.]

The Civil War caused many changes. Sensational Patriotism became the rage in Northern States, and in the context, there was a religious revival in the depth of the War. When the introduction of paper money was imposed and greatly expanded to pay for the righteous conflict, the words "In God We Trust" were added to our coinage. [But that Godly motto was not phased onto the bills themselves until 1959, as we began to remove their guaranteed backing in silver bullion.] Cities and industrialism grew. City dwellers needed meat and potatoes, and not incidentally, we experienced our first great real estate boom; the Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged "land rushes."

Then, to promote and extend the boom, companies went to Europe, and in Europe, to places like Norway, for instance. Emigrants were encouraged to part with their savings and possessions with promises of rich farmland, and climates as bracing (but more temperate) than those they lived in. There would be land, work, and fortunes to be made, without government regulation! These adventurous, eager men and women used their savings or their labor to come to places like Wisconsin, where some prospered, but many others were soon stuck with the reality of a hard, unforgiving land: sub-zero in Winter, hot and often dry in Summer.

By the 1880's, the Railways had become over-extended. They began to relentlessly raise their charges for freight, on which farmers depended to send their produce to the great Midwest and Eastern cities; and to bring back equipment and goods in return. Banks contracted, called in loans. Foreclosures began. The new cities drew impoverished people off the land, despite a large rise in urban unemployment. The value of money continued to fail. The Railways raised their freight charges again, and in 1893, one of those periodic financial panics occurred which continued for the next three to four years -- in other words, during the period WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP records. The deflation of currency and land values were not really abated until a reluctant McKinley and then, following his murder, an ebullient Teddy Roosevelt expanded our economic grasp in the Western Hemisphere, and extended our democratic/imperialist interests into the Pacific, soon around the World. The long distance grip of wealth and power on America would not be loosened in rural America, for more than a few years at a time, until three decades later with the coming of the New Deal.

The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain dubbed it, broadly from 1845 to 1916, was the harbinger of the American New World Order, but in the time period between the Panic of 1873 and the crash of the Stock and Grain Markets in the Panic of 1893, poor Scandinavian farmers around Black River Falls, and tens of thousands of others, lost their Heartland property and often despaired. In small towns, while thousands of businesses failed in our cities, the rural folk lived increasingly impoverished lives. Farmers could not purchase seed, equipment or manufactured products. They could not afford medical attention for their families. Husbands committed suicide, murdered their wives and children. People went crazy. The young turned to forms of oblivion, such as the new drug Cocaine.

Anarchism and Terrorism thrived.

To some, the angry vandalism of people like Mary Sweeny breaking windows, or the bombings and stabbings of the powerful by the Nihilists, seemed to make sense. To some others, it was the source of America's troubles.

And yet, many people untouched by the panics, who kept their jobs or invested wisely, moved placidly through their lives, complaining about panhandlers, "drunks" sleeping in doorways, depraved people defecating in the streets; worried about being robbed. But of course, in that time, there was no Income Tax to rail against for coddling bums, Indians or immigrants.

In our present New World Order, we see similar phenomena -- but all of us, as yet, do not understand what is happening.

Reason enough to see and ponder WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP.


For a Macresarf1 review of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM mentioned above, click on this hyperlink:



If you wish to explore all of Macresarf1's reviews, indexed by title and category, many with URL's, go to the following hyperlink --



UPDATE: June 12, 2005 -- I invite you to visit the "BLOG" which I now maintain on my Epinions Profile Page, where I occasionally discuss matters of the day:


Recommend this product? Yes

Movie Mood: Scary Movie
Viewing Method: Film Festival
Film Completeness: Looked complete to me.
Worst Part of this Film: Nothing

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