Monday 31 October 2016

We Don't Go Back #6: Wisconsin Death Trip (1998)

A documentary creates a special kind of illusion: it wishes to convince you that what it presents is not only true, but factual. This is how it was, and it casts a mirror on how it is. Or that's what the documentary maker would like you to think.

Of course  a documentary is really a thesis rather than a theorem, a body of research intended to present to you an interpretation of observed phenomena as authoritative. Documentarists deserve a category as artists in their own right. Inconvenient facts can be irrelevant, troublesome. So for example, in Searching for Sugar Man, it would dilute the story of the forgotten folk singer who discovers he's big in South Africa thirty years later if the viewer knew that he'd done a couple of tours of Australia in those intervening decades. Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me is spoiled if you know before going in that he's going to inflate both the negative effects of fast food and the healing qualities of a vegan diet for effect.

Wisconsin Death Trip, based upon Michael Lesy's book, takes photographs, newspaper articles, asylum admission reports and the like, and paints a picture of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, at the close of the 19th century. The photographs it dramatises in black-and-white vignettes; in between the four sections of the film, each titled for the names of one of the seasons, the life of the town as it is now is presented in bright colour.
We can say honestly, that we know of few states or cities that afford the advantages of Wisconsin, or Black River Falls.
All is not as it seems. at the start of the film, as the narrator (Ian Holm) concludes the reading of an editorial from the local newspaper describing how peaceful, beautiful and generous life in Black River Falls is, a photographer takes a portrait of what seems to be a sleeping girl. After the photographer is done, the girl is taken and returned to her coffin.
She rests.

As much as it's designed to imply that a beautiful front hides misery and death, it's also an indicator that what follows is an artifice, a story.
Krist Wold, a farmer living near Paskin Lake, committed suicide by deliberately blowing off his head with dynamite. He placed a quantity of explosive in a hole in the ground, laid his head over it, and touched off the fuse, exclaiming, "Here I go, and the Lord go with me."
The genial newspaperman tells of suicides, plagues, murders and madness; the harvest fails and the state is hit by recession. The people, mostly German and Scandinavian settlers, are depressed, isolated, and lonely.
One of the stills. A German family.

People become consumed with a fear of witches. A woman believes she is Jesus Christ. Children commit shootings.
John Anderson, the 14-year-old boy who is alleged to have murdered a hermit called Marcus Humfeld at his lonely farm at Brannon, is in custody. He was hunted for several days by Sheriff Ward Young and his men, one of whom was shot by the boy. Young Anderson does not seem to feel the enormity of the crimes of which he is accused. He is a stolid German boy, with no education. 

...Judge Barton pronounced sentence on John Anderson. The lad goes to the State prison for life. The father was requested to be present, but refused, saying he did not care what was done with the boy. 
John Anderson.
An opera singer, once famous in Europe, ends up like so many of the people there with land sold under false pretences, eating cattlefeed with nothing but a ragged stage costume to wear. And Mary Sweeney, a schoolteacher and a prodigious user of cocaine, becomes seized by an urge to smash windows, only for her notoriety to consume her.
Mary Sweeney.

The parade of tragedies and horrors becomes a cacophony, each running into the other, and then mixes itself with present-day news reports. And in the present day, we see school football, and a Homecoming Queen, and a mayor, who tells us that Black River Falls is a great place to bring up children. And a policeman talking about finding a human head in a carrier bag. And people in an old people's home talking about Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who ended his days in the same psychiatric hospital that Wisconsin Death Trip draws material from.
The mayor.

I wonder if the mayor and the Homecoming Queen were pleased when they found that they were being interviewed for a film about the darkness of rural America.
Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls.
You could argue that Wisconsin Death Trip perhaps better fits that subgenre of films where Something Is Wrong with Small Town America that David Lynch so made his niche; which I suppose counts as the true American equivalent to folk horror. I wonder what a canon of films like that would include. 

Folk horror is seen as a British genre – and note that the director is British, and brings a British sensibility to the film. It was originally made as an episode of BBC1's Arena documentary series, which is where I was lucky enough to first see it. You have the forbidding landscape, worthless for lumber or farming, sold on a lie, and the people who have tied themselves to it; you have boredom, mental illness and despair. And you have rural people with their own way of seeing themselves and the world, apart from others. Simple, direct statements and images that seem spare and straightforward but which are heavy with symbolic intent. And a sense of history, of time.

But with all that, you have a real place, wracked by poverty, and poverty brings with it disease, discontent and suicide. It does. A horror is imposed upon a real town. As good as Wisconsin Death Trip is, and it is good, it is very good, I don't know how I feel about that.