Comfortable and Furious

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

The wonderfully stunning Wisconsin Death Trip is unlike any documentary I have ever seen, but then again, its story is unlike any ever told. The quiet town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, seemingly like any other in turn of the century America, was suddenly and mysteriously overtaken by violence, jealousy, and hysteria. No explanation is offered, and instead of judging these folks as products of a less enlightened age, filmmaker James Marsh, at least in my interpretation, the madness that occurred so long ago. I say this not only because the film is a stunning collection of crisp cinematography, lush vistas, and well-crafted re-creations, but also out of respect for the film’s ambiguity.

Had this been an attack on religious fundamentalism, or the exposure of a hideous disease, we might feel sympathy or even sorrow, but is content to present these bizarre events as if they are the most common things imaginable. Using actual newspaper reports from the 1890s, the film’s narration (provided largely by Ian Holm) is matter-of-fact, detached, and not at all pained by murder, brutality, and a rash of suicides.

There are archival photos in this film, but nearly all that we see has been staged by actors. And believe me, everything is entirely believable, as the style of the film is somber, respectful, and in no way similar to the sort of nonsense you might see on America’s Most Wanted. The filmmaker also returns to present day Black River Falls on occasion, for no reason that is apparent, although one could argue that he is attempting to present a contrast between the two eras.

Or is he? Because the tone is so obsessively objective, I simply cannot believe that Mr. Marsh is more approving of the current residents of this troubled town. Everything in modern Black River Falls looks ideal; lush lawns, grand homes, football games and parades, and the sort of small-town simplicity that has been romanticized for decades. But given the lack of judgment about the bloody past, Marsh could be saying that the town, while relaxed and harmless, is less attractive than before as passion (brutal or otherwise) has been stripped from the landscape. People may no longer kill each other without explanation, but they are poorer as a result. They have substituted a muted, robotic sameness for the savagery of their heritage.

And while the contemporary images are appreciated, it is in the past where we belong. To hear the newspaper articles read to us is to acknowledge that no one in town had a more exciting form of employment than reporter. In the span of a few years, and almost as if inspired by the forces of nature, a peaceful community was transformed into a hellish pit. A mad woman, with a fondness for cocaine, set about breaking every window she could find; women drowned their children in a nearby lake; young ones are thrown on trains and abandoned; jilted lovers shot their rivals in broad daylight; tramps gunned down sweet old ladies who offered them a bite to eat; drunken husbands bashed in the brains of their newborns; nude corpses were found frozen on the streets; despairing gentlemen were found sprawled out on railroad tracks; and on and on and on. Children dropped dead without notice, bodies were dug up only to discover that the poor victims had been buried alive, and not a day went by when someone wasn’t sent to the local asylum. Was it a UFO? A plague? Desperation resulting from a recent economic downturn? No one knows.

While it appears that an entire town went nuts for a brief period of time, I’d like to believe that the townsfolk were just expressing the more eccentric sides of their personalities. As much as we might recoil in horror at such behavior, I am fascinated; so much so that I’d argue the human experience would lack character if such things were to be avoided. There’s a hint (based on some scattered dialogue, attributed to no one in particular) that Wisconsin is just simply a wacky place to live and grow, and that may hold the clue to what Marsh is after. From its immigrant past of somber Scandinavians, to its radical political climate (socialism has always felt comfortable here), to its modern contradictions (Senator Russ Feingold competing with Governor Tommy Thompson), to its peculiar predilection for serial killers, Wisconsin is one of America’s most unique states. And as I have stated, Marsh is proud of that fact; not that the Badger State is a corpse-ridden, homicidal nightmare, but that one hundred years later, we can talk about these events, adding color, spice, and charm to any conversation about the times in which we live, and those who have come before.