March 4, 2004

Wisconsin Death Trip. The recent film, Wisconsin Death Trip, newly available on DVD, is a dramatization of the book of the same title that was published in the early 1970s. The film takes the newspaper articles from the book as its voice-over script, and, using the style of the period photos from the book, silently reenacts the stories from the old articles, which all tell strange, sad, or violent tales of happenings in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the 1890s. (LOTR fans--and others--may be interested to know that the voiceover actor is Ian Holm.)

Is there something especially morbid and sick about Wisconsin? As a person living in Wisconsin, I had to wonder if the book was picking on us, or, no I didn't really, because there is always the out for us here in Madison to say Madison is an island of difference within the state. But I knew this film was well regarded, and when I saw yesterday that it had arrived in the mail, I immediately sat down and watched it through. It was quite beautiful and original visually and quite moving and full of fascinating characters (like Mary Sweeney, a cocaine-sniffing woman with a mania for breaking glass).
One could see the film as expressing the idea that in bad economic times, in desolate places, people go mad with despair. Or one could see it as saying that in some very specific times in very specific places, people just go off-the-scale weird.

Here's my interpretation. We tend to think of Wisconsin as a notably healthy, wholesome place. (Notice the characters in movies who say they are from Wisconsin: Annie Hall, Jack Dawson in Titanic, etc., etc.) So I am thinking: to show the dark side of Wisconsin is to say something about the dark side of humanity. This story of Black River Falls in the last decade of the nineteenth century is (as presented through the film, if not the book) a universal story of passion and violence and death and madness.

UPDATE: Another wholesome thing set in Wisconsin, which I only know because I did the NYT crossword puzzle today, is the TV show Happy Days. Wisconsin Death Trip could have been called Unhappy Days.


Meade said...

I shall move to Wisconsin and protect you from the dark side of humanity. It will be my mission of love... my raison d'tere.

Ann Althouse said...

And help me with my typos.