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Wisconsin Death Trip

Posted by martinteller on June 6, 2013

Michael Lesy’s 1973 book of the same name collects photographs and news items from the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the 1890’s.  It tells the tale of a community driven to murder, suicide, arson, vandalism, and fraud by a vanishing mining industry, poverty and harsh conditions.  James Marsh’s 1999 adaptation of the book reprints some of the photographs with narration of the stories by Ian Holm (and Jeffrey Golden as the newspaper editor), while also reenacting the scenes.  The film is broken into four sections — named for the four seasons — each ending with current footage of the town, and accompanying stories that suggest some of these problems still persist.

I have a morbid fascination with this sort of material.  I’m currently reading Bestial, a true crime book about Earle Leonard Nelson, a very odd man who was a serial killer in the 1920’s.  Earlier this year I read a book about the notorious ghoul Ed Gein.  In yesterday’s review of Drugs Are Nice I mentioned the band Caroliner, who sang about similar tales of bizarre 1800’s Americana.  So this is right in my wheelhouse.  I’m surprised I never heard of the book, apparently it was a cult hit.  I intend to check it out for myself.

The movie features absolutely stunning black & white photography (color for the modern day portions) with heaps of striking and haunting imagery.  The tone is melancholy but bemused, with Holm’s narration having a sardonic deadpan tinge to it.  I was quickly entranced with these weird and disturbing stories.  And I quickly grew tired of them as well.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how much better this must work in book format, where you can browse it on a whim, picking out a tidbit here and there.  Presented over and over again like this for 75 minutes, it gets wearisome, the same melancholy but bemused tone.

The structure reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, little snippets of bizarre stories with a deadpan narrator.  But while that film is more than 2.5 times longer than this one (though it wasn’t really intended to be watched all the way through in one sitting) it holds up better due to its fantastic whimsy, greater variation in the tales, and intricate conceptual backbone.  That film can be wearying too, but the effect isn’t as cumulative as it is in Marsh’s film… stick around a few minutes, and something different will happen.  Here there isn’t enough variety in either tone or content to hold one’s attention.  I found myself looking forward to the contemporary segments just for a change of pace and scenery, even though the tone of them is a bit too ironic for my tastes.

It’s an excellent exercise in style with gorgeous cinematography.  Some of the stories told were really something, and it made me eager to check out Lesy’s book.  But as a filmic experience, it can be too tedious and repetitive.  Rating: Fair (68)


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