Wisconsin Death Trip

on September 14, 2001 by Tim Cogshell
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   Death, as its title suggests, is the focus of "Wisconsin Death Trip," as it occurred in the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, between the years of 1890 and 1900. All this death was documented by the paper of record--unnamed in the film--edited by one Frank Cooper, formerly of the United Kingdom. Frankly, it's a good thing somebody was writing this stuff down. There's the man who purposely blows his own head off with a stick of dynamite, which, it turns out, is a fairly complicated undertaking. Then there's the deaf boy who shoots his sister through the mouth with the family handgun while giggling senselessly; the brothers who kill a local farmer and use his body for target practice before eluding a posse for several days, killing a deputy in the process; and myriad murders involving infidelity. Cheating husbands and wives, jilted lovers and unrequited advances, all of whose conflicts ended in death--most often double homicides. There's the death attendant to disease--a diphtheria epidemic that mostly killed babies; suicides to escape the despair of abject poverty; and, of course, death resulting from insanity, including more suicides--especially deliberate exposure to the Wisconsin winter.

   Director James Marsh ("Burger & the King: The Cuisine of Elvis Presley") uses the archives of the source newspaper, read by Ian Holm, along with several period photographs taken by a Charles Van Schaik, as the primary frame of his macabre little film. He also uses produced segments to recreate certain events. The footage (often extraordinary with beautiful cinematography by Eigil Bryd and Frank DeMarch), though inappropriate for a traditional documentary, is very effective here. It's minimalist and unobtrusive, providing a sense of the moment without suggesting that it is the moment.

   "Wisconsin Death Trip" is a stirring little documentary. Though its episodic recitation of the litany of death in a small town during an arbitrary period of time doesn't seem to be about anything (other than the morose spectacle itself), one might take it as a treatise on the unchanging human condition. Much of what the film documents could come from today's headlines. It's creepy, but proves that there is indeed nothing new under the sun.    Narrated by Ian Holm. Starring Jo Vukelich, Jeffery Golden, Marilyn White, John Schneider, Marcus Monroe, Raeleen McMillion, Krista Grambow, John Baltes, Nathan Butchart and Zeke Dasho. Directed and written by James Marsh. Produced by Maureen A. Ryan A BBC/Cinema Reel Life release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 75 min.

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