March 16, 2011 by abbyo
If I’ve learned anything from writing this blog, it’s that documentaries are a surprisingly versatile genre of filmmaking. The stories they tell are true, but the way in which that story is told could be any of a variety of ways. There’s the cut-and-dried journalistic approach—talking heads, photos, and archival footage. There’s verite filmmaking, where the camera simply follows a subject around and the director records what they see. Then there are the numerous ways filmmakers play with these forms, combining them or even manipulating the element of truth on the screen, causing the audience to wonder what’s real and what’s not.
Among these form-experimenters, James Marsh, the director of such movies as “Man on Wire” and the much-buzzed-about “Project Nim,” is kind of unique. His element of choice is re-enactment, bringing narration and archived photos to life by illustrating the story being told. The concept may seem a little corny—usually it’s a poorly-done gimmick associated with shows like “America’s Most Wanted” and “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” but with Marsh, it’s tastefully done, engaging approach to storytelling. It’s a tactic used with disturbing effectiveness on “Wisconsin Death Trip,” Marsh’s 1999 debut feature (before this he’d been working on TV docs for the BBC). The film is about a Wisconsin town at the end of the 19th century that experienced a set of incidents so bizarre and creepy that even Mulder and Scully would be scratching their heads in confusion.
Each one of the dozens of stories in “Wisconsin Death Trip,” all told either through the town’s historical record, newspaper, or records from the Mendota Asylum for the Insane, sound like the kinds of stories you tell around a campfire to spook little kids. A former schoolteacher travels around the state impulsively breaking windows and snorting cocaine to calm her nerves. A new father goes out drinking to celebrate the birth of his son, then returns drunk, dashes out the baby’s brains, and attempts to strangle his wife. Loads of immigrant farmers kill themselves out of desperation. None of these events are ever explained—in fact, it’s probable that they were all but forgotten until Michael Lesy discovered the articles in the 70s and turned them into the book on which this documentary is based. The idea that these horrible acts faded from history like the photographs they accompany is sad and eerie—the viewer feels much the way Lesy must have felt upon his discovery of this material.
To bring these accounts back to startling life, Marsh has actors play out many of the documented crimes (minus the infanticide, of course) as a set of beautifully shot, silent movie-style tableaux, an unsettling move that puts the events into a kind of context. It’s one thing to see photographs of the criminals. It’s another to watch them in the act. Over all of this, narrator Ian Holm recounts these happenings with a sense of surprising nonchalance. The looks on the faces of many of these murderers and insane people are fairly expressionless, too. The result is that we see a lot of awful things happening, but that nobody seems to care much. These incidents of madness and murder become so commonplace that they’re just another inch of text in the paper.
If there’s any part of the film that feels misguided, it’s in the occasional sequences that depict modern-day Black River Falls. Apparently these sequences are meant to tie the town’s past and present together, and suggest that perhaps the same weird factors still exist. But the current town doesn’t seem nearly as stark and scary as the footage or photographs we’re shown—it just looks like a normal small town. In this respect, it’s not surprising that “Wisconsin Death Trip” was Marsh’s first major release effort. It feels like the work of someone who’s still figuring out how to express himself through his work.
“Wisconsin Death Trip” is the documentary equivalent of a ghost story, the kind of thing Ken Burns might make if he read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s not meant to make us re-examine our lives, or expose us to an issue we’d never heard about before. It is, however an odd little document of a period of American history that’s largely been swept under the rug. As a piece of entertainment, it’s a neat, thoughtful diversion that leaves a faint whiff of creepiness behind it. In the chronology of Marsh’s work, it’s an interesting early example of the form he’s continued to use with great success.