Wisconsin Death Trip


1h 16m 1999

Brief Synopsis

Using archival photos, newspaper stories, and hospital records to recreate life in 1890s Black River Falls, Wisconsin-- a Protestant community of merchants, farmers, most of them recent German and Scandinavian immigrants. The multiple cases of murder, madness and mayhem make today's tabloid headline

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
1999
Production Company
BBC (Network); Cinemax
Distribution Company
Cinemax

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 16m

Synopsis

Using archival photos, newspaper stories, and hospital records to recreate life in 1890s Black River Falls, Wisconsin-- a Protestant community of merchants, farmers, most of them recent German and Scandinavian immigrants. The multiple cases of murder, madness and mayhem make today's tabloid headlines seem tame by comparison. (Having Mendota Asylum for the Insane nearby certainly helps.) The area is plagued by ghost-sightings, bizarre suicides, teenage outlaws--and a cocaine-crazed school mistress with a compulsion to smash windows. 'Little House on the Prairie' will never look the same.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
1999
Production Company
BBC (Network); Cinemax
Distribution Company
Cinemax

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 16m

Articles

Wisconsin Death Trip


Since Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988), our very notions of what constitutes a documentary have become more indistinct and subjective. As with a fictional film, a documentary is usually subject to a narrative structure, capturing characters and events and distilling them into a digestible format which conveys something of value to the viewer. With Morris' film, reenactments, experimental filmmaking tropes, and hypnotic Philip Glass music managed to evoke a feeling, a psychological force, which became as tangible as the historical events unfolding onscreen. While Morris' lineage can be traced through mainstream successes like Capturing the Friedmans and the entire Michael Moore oeuvre, the more peculiar results of Morris' influence can be found in the remarkable and unclassifiable Wisconsin Death Trip, a film as beguiling and disturbing as its title.

Based on a particularly morbid coffee table book by historian Michael Lesy, the film combines still images and reenactments to chart one hellish year in the history of Black River Falls, a Wisconsin town that completely came unglued in the late 1890s. As Manifest Destiny plunged into an American nightmare, finances and jobs disintegrated, social order crumbled, and religion's attempts to instill hope resulted instead in blanket denial and further destruction.

Shot in beautifully detached black and white, the film offers a case study in group insanity by cataloging the events with a precision that would do Peter Greenaway proud. A would-be Carrie Nation runs around town smashing every window in sight (when she's not being shuttled in and out of the asylum), children are wiped out by an epidemic, familes are slaughtered, underage marriages proliferate... and somehow each story is coldly rendered in newsprint for all to read.

Of course, the events probably didn't seem as immediately threatening during the actual experience since the film compresses an entire year into a tight 76 minutes; given this treatment, many other locales could arguably come off as the chilling epicenter of human evil with the right fact juggling and cinematic treatment. That said, Wisconsin Death Trip is wonderfully effective for those willing to submit to its spell; what it says about human nature is ultimately less valuable than what it says about film as a tool to convey a mood through the power of still images. The eerie reenactments focus on off-kilter images (feet moving through down, dark figures descending staircases, Dutch angles of black-clad residents losing their bearings) which make the static power of the photographs all the more effective. English director James Marsh never tries to offer a solution or an historical context; instead he points the camera and rolls, capturing Hi-8 snapshots of hell on earth frozen forever in icy monochrome.

Delayed on DVD for some time due to music rights, the film is ably supported by a moody soundtrack featuring John Cale, Blind Lemon Jefferson, DJ Shadow, and Debussy, whose spare use here recalls the Saint-Saens strains of Terence Malick's Days of Heaven. The powerful sound mix is just one of the facets to recommend on Home Vision's DVD, which features the full participation of Marsh including an informative audio commentary (in which he's joined by cinematographer Eigil Bryld) and a solid featurette, "Midwestern Gothic: The Making of Wisonsin Death Trip," in which the major participants discuss the film intercut with fascinating on-location footage showing the "non-actors" being prepared for their roles. Also included are four deleted sequences (all individual stories excised from the final cut) and liner notes by essayist Greil Marcus.

For more information about Wisconsin Death Trip, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Wisconsin Death Trip, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson
Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip

Since Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988), our very notions of what constitutes a documentary have become more indistinct and subjective. As with a fictional film, a documentary is usually subject to a narrative structure, capturing characters and events and distilling them into a digestible format which conveys something of value to the viewer. With Morris' film, reenactments, experimental filmmaking tropes, and hypnotic Philip Glass music managed to evoke a feeling, a psychological force, which became as tangible as the historical events unfolding onscreen. While Morris' lineage can be traced through mainstream successes like Capturing the Friedmans and the entire Michael Moore oeuvre, the more peculiar results of Morris' influence can be found in the remarkable and unclassifiable Wisconsin Death Trip, a film as beguiling and disturbing as its title. Based on a particularly morbid coffee table book by historian Michael Lesy, the film combines still images and reenactments to chart one hellish year in the history of Black River Falls, a Wisconsin town that completely came unglued in the late 1890s. As Manifest Destiny plunged into an American nightmare, finances and jobs disintegrated, social order crumbled, and religion's attempts to instill hope resulted instead in blanket denial and further destruction. Shot in beautifully detached black and white, the film offers a case study in group insanity by cataloging the events with a precision that would do Peter Greenaway proud. A would-be Carrie Nation runs around town smashing every window in sight (when she's not being shuttled in and out of the asylum), children are wiped out by an epidemic, familes are slaughtered, underage marriages proliferate... and somehow each story is coldly rendered in newsprint for all to read. Of course, the events probably didn't seem as immediately threatening during the actual experience since the film compresses an entire year into a tight 76 minutes; given this treatment, many other locales could arguably come off as the chilling epicenter of human evil with the right fact juggling and cinematic treatment. That said, Wisconsin Death Trip is wonderfully effective for those willing to submit to its spell; what it says about human nature is ultimately less valuable than what it says about film as a tool to convey a mood through the power of still images. The eerie reenactments focus on off-kilter images (feet moving through down, dark figures descending staircases, Dutch angles of black-clad residents losing their bearings) which make the static power of the photographs all the more effective. English director James Marsh never tries to offer a solution or an historical context; instead he points the camera and rolls, capturing Hi-8 snapshots of hell on earth frozen forever in icy monochrome. Delayed on DVD for some time due to music rights, the film is ably supported by a moody soundtrack featuring John Cale, Blind Lemon Jefferson, DJ Shadow, and Debussy, whose spare use here recalls the Saint-Saens strains of Terence Malick's Days of Heaven. The powerful sound mix is just one of the facets to recommend on Home Vision's DVD, which features the full participation of Marsh including an informative audio commentary (in which he's joined by cinematographer Eigil Bryld) and a solid featurette, "Midwestern Gothic: The Making of Wisonsin Death Trip," in which the major participants discuss the film intercut with fascinating on-location footage showing the "non-actors" being prepared for their roles. Also included are four deleted sequences (all individual stories excised from the final cut) and liner notes by essayist Greil Marcus. For more information about Wisconsin Death Trip, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Wisconsin Death Trip, go to TCM Shopping. by Nathaniel Thompson

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1999

Released in United States 2011

Released in United States July 2000

Released in United States September 13, 2001

Released in United States September 1999

Released in United States Winter December 1, 1999

Shown at Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival October 20 - November 15, 1999.

Shown at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival July 5-15, 2000.

Shown at Telluride Film Festival September 3-6, 1999.

Broadcast in USA over Cinemax July 24, 2000.

Released in United States 1999 (Shown at Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival October 20 - November 15, 1999.)

Released in United States 2011 (Ripping Reality)

Released in United States July 2000 (Shown at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival July 5-15, 2000.)

Released in United States September 1999 (Shown at Telluride Film Festival September 3-6, 1999.)

Released in United States September 13, 2001 (Shown in Los Angeles (American Cinematheque) as part of series "The Alternative Screen: A Forum For Independent Film Exhibition and Beyond..." September 13, 2001.)

Released in United States Winter December 1, 1999