Wisconsin Death Trip DVD Review

Cover Art and Menu: 9/10
If you saw this cover would you know what this film is about? I say yes. The small images that are used from the original book that inspired this movie show suffering, pain, confusion, and history. That is exactly what this film portrays. The design is simple and it stands out as one of my favorite HVE DVD covers.

Extras & Features:  8/10

  • Commentary by Director and Director of Photography – A director with so much devotion to this project that he did it for no money. He discusses the budget and how they used and reused everything from an antique train to actors. The Director and DP discuss the innovative techniques they needed to invent as they shot to recreate live footage that looked like the old photographs. They talk about the limitations of having such little money to work with but the extensive help and support they got to give the film such high production values. They discuss how they were met with great generosity by people who offered up land to shoot on, actors who did their scenes for free, people who offered up the use of old clothing and even a civil war reenactment crew who brought their horses and authentic costumes and rode for several scenes all just for the offer of free food.
  • Deleted Scenes – A few scenes that got cut from the final film for time and pacing.
  • Midwestern Gothic: The Making Of Wisconsin Death Trip – For a small modern documentary this is a great extra they have given us. This is a series of short interviews with the Director, Producer and other people involved in the film. It shows behind the scenes of how hard it was to shoot in harsh weather and with the limited cash flow. We get to see the combination of modern day film crew against the backdrop of authentic clothing and sets from the late 19th century.
  • Essay by Greil Marcus (Rolling Stone, Village Voice, and New York Times Contributor) – A brief essay that gives an overview of Marcus’s thoughts about how the original book could possibly be made into a film. He praises James Marsh and how he translated the images of Wisconsin Death Trip (the book) into a movie. There are a few quotes mixed in the essay, but overall it’s quite short. I would like to see more of these essays, but I kind of crave longer more in depth perspectives.

The Movie: 9/10:
I love documentaries, and after seeing many of them over the years I have developed my own pre-disposed ideas of what documentary films will be like before even seeing them. Thank goodness for directors like James Marsh who see their projects through slightly different eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I adore every kind of documentary I have ever seen. It’s just that when someone has a new outlook on an already fascinating genre and takes enough liberties to inject a bit of innovation and artistry, I find even more to love about it.

Based on a pictorial book from the 70’s, Wisconsin Death Trip takes a stark but objective look at real life events that took place in the state of Wisconsin over the last decade of the 1800’s. Any state, city or even village could be researched to find as much pain, hurt, crime and disturbing events, but Marsh focuses on one small town’s newspaper’s accounts of what was happening in that time period.

The film chronicles the newspaper stories by showing some snippets of quotes right out of the articles and layering over voice narration by Ian Holm who reads often poignant passages. This narration is juxtaposed with the haunting old photographs from the book and new scenes filmed by Marsh and his crew.

The new scenes are recreations of stories that are told through the newspaper accounts. They are filmed and processed to resemble the look of the old photographs. Every bit of black and white footage in this film is gorgeous. It’s done with loving artistic sensibilities and with a real eye for what makes black and white photography and filmmaking so sensual and provocative.

There are scenes cut into the film of modern day life in the same small town where the original newspaper stories were published. These color scenes are done in true documentary style, but with a sense of design and creative camera placement. Narration by a local radio DJ reading current events highlights just how, while times change, the human condition does not. The stories we see of murder, suicide, drugs and drinking from the 19th century seem no less gruesome or fascinating than stories of drug abuse, homicide and other everyday tragedies of the 20th century (this film was made in 1997, thus the 20th century reference). The modern looks at the same small community are eerie in a way after seeing what the earlier generations of the area endured just 100 years before. The parallels are a reality check for anyone who thinks the world has become a more dangerous or more complicated.

Marsh’s fascination with how we record real life events through news stories comes through with his treatment of the very brief write ups from the book, which in turn come from real newspaper stories of the time. He mentions a few times how we put together our history from looking back at what was deemed news worthy at a given time. His point is that if we were to isolate newspaper stories from current events and look back at them in another 100 years we would get the same disjointed but clear look at what defined our culture.

Some people think that the news is depressing today..well, back then they would print pictures of dead children who were posed in idyllic settings by grieving parents and photographers, pictures and lengthy stories about victims of suicide, and all other manner of death and destruction. We have not developed an interest in the macabre and the dark side of life, it simply always existed. We just have newer technology to bring it to us faster and with more vivid images.

The film is paced with a fined tune perfection and is well organized. It is divided into sections that focus on the seasons of the year, but each season represents a stage in life, from childhood, to adolescence, to middle age, and finally old age. The harsh reality of child mortality is followed by the intensity of teen angst which often lead to lovelorn suicide, violence and substance abuse. An account of a teenage girl who is tired of being overworked by her parents lays her clothes on the shore of a lake and drowns herself. She leaves a note that reflects the exact same feelings and troubled spirit that so many young people of today experience. This is just a reminder that we do not evolve much emotionally over the span of time, we just relive the same dramas over and over and over.

Married life also came with many difficulties as told through these stories. Husbands who kill their unfaithful wives, fathers who kill their infant children in drunken rages, wives who abandon their families and go on crime sprees…no this is no the modern day section of the movie. All of this happened in the state of Wisconsin in just a ten year period from 1890 to 1900. Marsh does a brilliant job of not judging the people who committed the crimes and discretions, he puts it all into cultural context as an objective observer. After all, the newspaper articles would be an objective point of view to start with, most of the time. Since we cannot go back and interview the people involved, taking the skeleton of a news story that starts with basic facts and breathing life into it without making an overly dramatic mockery of what most likely really happened is a delicate process. A Hollywood representation of these people’s lives would have lost every trace of their heart wrenching reality. Sticking a famous face and big special effects on top of a “based on a true story” film has it’s appeal, but this epic adventure into real life deserves better, and that’s what Marsh gave it.

I can’t stress enough how amazing this film looks. I am always intrigued by black and white films, artwork, drawings, etc. The film flows along in a way that time passes and when it ends it seems like it only just begun. There are a couple of stories threaded through the film that hold the random stories together somewhat. We follow a couple of people from section to section while still getting dozens of other images, people and stories along the way. It is not just a montage of pictures and reenactments. This film feels like it is telling a story, which is admirable from a documentary filmmaker. Often a documentary, while informative and interesting, does not have that sense of moving through time with a beginning, middle and end. Wisconsin Death Trip should not scare you off just because it’s a documentary, quite the opposite. It’s entertaining and disturbing and interesting and it looks fantastic. It might also give you a strange curiosity to investigate the history of where you live, or even your family history to see if there are any of these kinds of stories in your past.

Value: 8/10
With little to no budget, and because it’s not a mainstream film, I can understand that once this film made it to DVD the idea of mass producing it was not an option. I can handle the 21.00 price tag since I know it was a labor of love and to put it into this digital format is an important step to preserve for future generations. It’s education and entertaining and it’s a movie bit of artwork. Usually I don’t like DVD’s to cost over $20, but this time I can make an exception since it’s not just the movie, but also has the commentary and the behind the scenes extra.

Overall Score 9/10

2 thoughts on “Wisconsin Death Trip DVD Review

  1. The essay comes in the DVD case as a printed insert. I wish I could scan it and show it here but I am sure HVE would not approve.
    Thanks for the comments.


  2. I just saw this movie for the first time (after reading a book that was written *because* of the book that inspired this film). I am awed at the quality of work produced on such a small budget. The only thing that was missing was the essay by Greil. I couldn’t find it in the extras! Or was it a print copy, included with the dvd (which I borrowed from the library)?

    Would very much like to hear/see the essay. I admire Marcus’ work greatly.

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