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Based on the controversial book by Michael Lesy, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP was originally shown on British TV as part of BBC's excellent ARENA series. ARENA often showcased excellent documentaries... including one about Bukowski, amongst others. It's since been replaced by STORYVILLE, which does the same great job. It buys in worldwide documentaries and gives them a healthy TV audience... WRESTLING WITH SHADOWS, THE STORY OF ANVIL and many more. For all of our previous bitching about UK films, Britain can be very proud of its dedication to interesting documentaries.

For those who don't know the book, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is a collection of real-life photographs and newspaper reports from late 19th Century Wisconsin... particularly a town called "Black River Falls". The documentary begins and ends with the chief news writer (an Englishman called Frank Cooper) gushing:
"We can say - honestly - that we know of few states or cities which offer the advantages as those offered by Wisconsin and Black River Falls. Our city was founded in 1854, and soon attracted industrious settlers from Norway, Germany, and other countries of the European continent.... Our site is not only picturesque but it also boasts a fertile countryside that grows everything known to this climate, in abundance.... When considering all of these advantages, it is safe to assume that nowhere in the length and breadth of this continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls."

This sets up the sucker punch of the movie. Because - as is still the case with modern news - despair is the most newsworthy emotion. The news reports - and the documentary - fixate on death, suicide and psychosis. There are a few funny notes - including a nice little piece on runaway lovers getting married - but it's largely a downbeat ride. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP pissed off a lot of folks when it originally came out in the 1970s, due to its negative vibe. They felt it corrupted the past of Wisconsin, which already is often portrayed as desolate and loopy because of their harsh winters... and because both Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer came from there.

The movie lays on the comparison between the past/present Wisconsin stronger than the book. With little pieces of voiceovers of people in asylums to a few cutaways to modern Wisconsin life. The director consciously tries to show the relevance of these old stories to modern life. That touch adds extra weight to the original book and works beautifully.

I loved the fact that the stories from the past are so similar to the stories now. For all the bleating about the past being better than today, the same problems exist. Poverty driving people insane. Teenage kids out of control. People committing suicide over unrequited love. A continuing thread through WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is Mary Sweeny who - after a bash of the head - goes around smashing windows because it makes her feel better. To calm her nerves beforehand, she does cocaine (which was legal back then). So many people forget the truth of their childhood, and the further history goes back the more romanticised it becomes. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP does a spectacular job of exposing that myth.

For all the modern complaints on drunkedness and binge drinking, 18th Century London (and Gin Lane) was much worse. If you think drugs are bad now, in 19th Century Britain, babies were given opium sticks (called "laudanum") to suck on and keep quiet. In the early Victorian era, kids of 6 or 7 were regularly at work in factories. In iron mines, the average lifespan of workers was 27. For all those who bitch about the present, the truth is a different story.

Aside from the historical insight of WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, it's been put together very well. The incredibly powerful photos from the book (by Charles Van Schaik) are included, and the narration of the news reports has been pared down to the most eye-catching stories. British director James Marsh (from MAN ON WIRE) is at the helm, and there's a beautiful attention to detail to WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP. From the beaten-up costumes, to simpler aspects such as the rootsy music and the beautiful, creepy lighting. Apparently this was a three-year labour of love for Marsh, and it shows. It creates as dynamic a movie as you can get from photos, voiceovers and crime-scene reconstructions.

WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP really hit a good note with me, and it should with you too. It's the information - and the great photos - that drive it, but it's done with such skill that it's also entertaining and addictive viewing. Fuck the British faux-documentary movies, and concentrate on the real thing.

Review by Steve Hussy