Jul 9, 2013


It's a tall order to successfully adapt a book of photographs and small passages of non-narrative text. To do so requires creating a visual representation of the strange assortment of photographs found in Michael Lesy's infamous book, Wisconsin Death Trip.

Part documentary, part art film, James Marsh (Man on Wire) successfully transports the odd and terrible beauty of the 1973 book, which chronicles genuine news stories taken from a ten-year period in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. This strange decade between 1890-1900 contains stories of murder, mysterious disappearances, as well as the completely indefinable profile of Mary Sweeney, who suffered from an unexplainable condition that compelled her to smash windows.

There are even re-occurring "characters" - not just Mary, but an opera singer who goes to great lengths to deny her irrelevance, and a young boy who steals his father's rifle, murders a man for no real reason, and lives in his house by himself for the winter.

There are spurned husbands and wives, unrequited love, and more than one botched suicide. There's also a little levity thrown in from time to time just to lighten things up.

Mary Sweeney: Hair-whipper, window-smasher.

All the still photographs that appear are lifted directly from Lesy's text, and re-enactments (thankfully dialogue-free) bring to life the photograph's origins. Captured in striking back-and-white photography, like the original photographs, Marsh's adaptation manages to paint a portrait of middle-America that's disturbing, horrifying, saddening, bleak, and yet still beautiful.

According to Marsh (via the film's website):
“The title immediately intrigued me. And it certainly lived up to its promise - the book is a catalogue of strange, disturbing, and darkly humorous vignettes of real life tragedy, from a forgotten place and a forgotten time. As you read it, the photographs begin to resemble these weird apparitions from the past, staring right into your eyes. I wanted to convey in the film the real pathos contained in a four-line newspaper report that simultaneously records and dismisses the end of someone’s life. I also sifted through hundreds of newspapers from the town as well. Certain themes began to emerge, which the film was structured around - the anxieties of the time focus on suicide and madness. That is what the people of the town seem most afraid of...”
Images of 1890s Wisconsin are randomly juxtaposed with its modern day counterpart, showing that in some ways an awful lot has changed, but in others, not much at all. A nearly unrecognizable Ian Holm (Alien, The Lord of the Rings) provides narration culled directly from the pages of Lesy's text.

Wisconsin Death Trip has proven to be a very polarizing experience for audiences since its debut on BBC's Arena series. This can be chalked up to any number of reasons, such as the possible misunderstanding as to the origins of the adaptation (a film based on photographs); others seem to find the content itself shocking, though one would think the film's title would have been a dead giveaway. 

The first time I watched Wisconsin Death Trip, I thought, "That was beautiful, but it's something I never have to watch again."

I've watched it three times so far, and I'm sure there will be more viewings in the future.

The DVD is out of print, but it's been known to show up from time to time on Netflix's streaming service. Here's hoping with the explosion of blu-ray that the film will receive another lease on life.

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