98 Colette Paul, Jo Brand
1 00 Mythology
100 Morrissey, D1 2
ovo WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (15) 78min ooooo
WI SCON s l N Di-A'HI TRIP A " " " . f all the states ‘ in America, there seems to be a certain something about Wisconsin that makes it, well, kind of weird. The area is probably best known for having housed two of the USA’s most notorious serial killers: Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. The former’s fetish for human skin and animal-stuffing influenced the filmic creations of Leatherface, Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates while the latter just liked keeping the severed heads of gay men in his fridge. In 1999, a very strange documentary entitled American Movie was made about a very strange man called Mark Borchardt, whose obsession with horror films and urban legends in his homestate (that’ll be Wisconsin, then) informed his determination to make the ultimate scary movie.
But arguably more odd than those was the 1973 book by Michael Lesy entitled Wisconsin Death Trip. Essentially a ten year record of a small town, Black River Falls (population 3618), the work was Lesy’s PhD dissertation and, once published, became a cult hit with its beautifully rendered accounts from newspapers about the
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‘THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SMALL SCREEN ARTEFACTS OF THE LAST TEN YEARS'
unusually high incidents of violent death, suicide, madness, arson, possession, child mortality and window breakages. The dusty book was spotted one day by British documentary filmmaker James Marsh and he fell in love with the hypnotic imagery of the residents and bizarre accounts of an idyllic small town gone terribly awry. He then set out to make a documentary that recreated the incidents in the book, season by season, while showing the town in its modern day contentment (aside from the odd corpse discovered in a dumpster). First shown in the UK under the BBC’s Arena umbrella in the spring of 2000, this dreamy film is one of the most beautiful small screen artefacts of the last ten years.
As the DVD’s making-of documentary Midwestern Gothic notes, Wisconsin Death Trip nearly didn’t get made. The budget was minimal, especially considering what Marsh had to do to get the end product he desired; shooting took place over two years, during scorching summers and brutal winters and he relied almost solely on the goodwill of the Black River Falls citizens for it to be made. All of the actors seen in the recreations were culled from the local populace and some were no doubt distant relatives of the victims or perpetrators. Narrated deliciously by
Ian Holm in his finest Midwestern accent, gloriously shot in black and white by Eigil Bryld and with a highly evocative soundtrack including the likes of DJ Shadow, Claude Debussy and John Cale, the result was not merely original and great telly, but soul-shattering art.
And alongside the creative triumphs, Marsh wanted to make some points, hinted at in the stark cutting from his black and white reproductions to the real-life now of the town. In Midwestern Gothic, he insists that the themes and worries of today can be traced back to the wild Midwest of the 18905. Then, like today, the newspapers were filled with scare stories of kids and hardcore drugs (cigarettes then, heroin now) while Marsh talks of how he, as a Briton, is both intrigued and fearful of America’s peculiar fascination with firearms. A number of the slayings in Wisconsin Death Trip are caused by guns fired in anger by jealous lovers, teenage outlaws or the deranged.
But the social politics of the film are secondary to the gothic, arch and divine quality of the filmmaking. As they say in the catalogues, if you buy just one DVD this year, make it Wisconsin Death Trip. (Brian Donaldson)
I Available to buy from Tartan, Mon 24 May.
1(3-2/ Mm. 300.: THE LIST 97