A note about the following essay, from the author.
Wisconsin Death Trip is a 1999 film directed by James Marsh, an oddball, morbid documentary inspired by a 1973 nonfiction book of the same title. The film is structured as a chain of anecdotes and vignettes about life in small-town Wisconsin in the late 1800’s. This was a period of depression and hardship, and the psychological toll it took on the populace is apparent: most of the anecdotes are about murder, suicide, and madness, provided with a total lack of context that makes them seem uncanny and inexplicable. The visuals are a combination of period black-and-white photographs and stylized reenactments, and all the accompanying narration is drawn from actual newspaper reports of the time.
The film is a dreamy, dissociative experience, the ramblings of a ghost walking through a funhouse of bad mojo. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend going in fresh, and then reading this essay afterward. As an analysis of the structure and subtexts of the film, this essay is intended to augment and heighten that pure experience, rather than preview it or assess it. It’s a beautiful, stark, unapologetically eccentric documentary, definitely worth a couple hours of your time. If it intrigues you as much as it did me, come on back, and hopefully you’ll get something out of the critical observations to follow.
The Poisonous Image in Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)
From the photographs and newspaper reports, the last decade of the 19th century was a tough time in rural Wisconsin. In the sick sunlight of a national and regional depression and a hard winter, a garden of small disasters sprung up, blossoming with incidents of suicide, murder, and delusion; this was where you could see the fragility of civil society and stoic reason, the hard ground of rationality cracking over the pressure of the uncanny. Wisconsin Death Trip–a 1999 film by James Marsh, adapted from a 1973 book by Michael Lesy–is a walk through this poisoned garden, like a gallery showing, each little disaster packaged and reproduced for our consumption, complete with obscure images and brief captions. Through this fragmented presentation, Wisconsin Death Trip speaks to its audience, not just about general depression and hardship, but also about how a town can suffer by losing sight of itself, and by losing control of its self-image.
A great many studies of images could accompany this nugget of twisted anecdotes, which is, itself, basically a study of how we project images of ourselves, generating representations of our lives within the contexts in which we live them. A book by W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, published 1987, is particularly instructive in understanding some of the nuances of Wisconsin Death Trip. Mitchell and Marsh graze many of the same topics, though their methodologies are incongruent, and their lines of thought never directly collide. Iconology is particularly concerned with the way we see images–whether as literal visual representations, or as abstract likenesses, or as reified essences. Mitchell references a number of periods in history when this was not just a theoretical concern, but a political one, periods when military conflicts were fought between iconophiles and iconoclasts. And though it’s never made explicit, Wisconsin Death Trip suggests that for Black River Falls, Wisconsin, the late 1800’s was such a period–a time when lives and deaths were determined by confused projections and corrupted images, people seeing their world, and themselves, in a poisoned light that caused them to fall victim to a kind of collective insanity.
Early in his book, Mitchell explicitly defies the standard assumption that “images” are primarily visual, and that all other types of images are offshoots of the visual type. He notes at least five families of images: graphic, optic, perceptual, mental, and verbal (pp. 9-10). Wisconsin Death Trip deals with at least four of these, with the most important being the individual and collective self-images that the citizens of Black River Falls project.
The first complete, comprehensive, and focused image in Marsh’s film is actually a verbal one:
“We can say, honestly, that we know of few states or cities which offer the advantages of those enjoyed by Wisconsin and Black River Falls. Our city was founded in 1854. It soon attracted established families from the east and industrious settlers from Norway, Germany, and other countries of the European continent. The Winnebago Indians, who are native to the region, never made any trouble worthy of mention to the white settler. Some years ago, they were encouraged to leave for settlements in the West, but many have returned to live in bands around the county, where they remain largely hidden away. Our site is not only picturesque; it boasts a rich and fertile countryside which grows everything known to this climate in abundance. And we are proud to have a railway line, connecting our site to other parts of the state. When considering all these advantages, it is safe to assume that nowhere in the length and breadth of this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls.”
This selection (with small alterations) is read aloud at the beginning and end of Wisconsin Death Trip, presenting us with the breezy, refreshing facade that Black River Falls likes to project. According to the title cards, this blurb was provided by Frank Cooper, an Englishman who ran the local newspaper. His visual counterpart is the photographer Charles Van Schaik, who captured scenes from the area throughout the decade. Van Schaik’s work serves as stylistic source material for James Marsh, the director of the film, who includes both the photographs themselves and a number of ethereal reenactments that draw their style from the photos.
Throughout the film, the voiceover (drawn from period newspaper articles) and the visuals (photos and reenactments) diverge and reconnect, weaving a tapestry of mutual illustration and interpretation. Together, they are far greater than the sum of their parts… the readings are dry and subdued, providing a deadpan narration of disturbing and uncanny events; the photography is largely in close-ups, often in slow motion, in a parched, high-contrast black and white. These provide the drama and the dizzying anxiety, putting the sentiment to the strangeness. The gap between the voice and the visual is something like the gap between fact and feeling, or between sensing and truly apprehending.
Of course, these strange and unsettling images are not just historical fiction, fantasies staged with Black River Falls as a setting. These are drawn from the actual reports, and the actual camera, of people who lived at that time, and who were tasked with documenting the truth of their lived reality. To remind us of this strong material connection, Marsh interjects close-up images of fingers at a typewriter, the camera shutter, and words set in movable lead type.
Frank Cooper’s account of Black River Falls, above, may be little more than a publicity blurb, but in Marsh’s film, it represents something much larger. It is an image of the town and an image of small-town life as a whole, an idyllic fiction created and taken as a faithful reflection by those who identify with it. It is a broad meta-narrative, a reassuring script – a framework to give larger meaning to many small lives and arbitrary circumstances. This is a category of “image” that Mitchell barely touched upon… the reflexive mental image called a self-image, which gives identity to both the individual and (by custom and consensus) the collective. Unfortunately, as the citizens of Wisconsin discovered in the late 1800’s, this self-image is a fragile thing, a glass castle on a precarious perch, and its destruction can be catastrophic.
Foremost in the section entitled WINTER, and occasionally in the other sections as well, the narrator observes the various ways that this idyllic grand narrative fell apart. A harsh winter put two feet of snow on the ground, and all the mines in the region closed down. A run on the banks resulted in the closing of local branches, and this was followed by a loss of key businesses, like investor H. H. Price and grocer W. C. Jones. A diphtheria epidemic devastated the infant population in the area. One by one, the fantasies of stability and abundance were being scratched out… employment, economic security, familial bonds. The townspeoples’ vision of a purposeful, civil existence was slowly and tortuously stolen from them.
The film, as a whole, follows the newspaper as it chronicles the downward trajectory of the townspeople, whose personal stories are poisoned and whose narratives and projections are corrupted. Most of the anecdotes are short episodes of madness, suicide, and irrationality. Many are cases of young love, thwarted and turned into self-destruction. Anna Mianek’s case is among the simplest and most illustrative: she is a teenage pyromaniac who constantly sets fire to barns and houses. When asked why she starts fires, she says it’s because she is lonely and homesick, and is looking for excitement. Her destructive impulse is among the most primal of her peers, unleashed because she feels adrift in the world. At best, the houses and barns of her employers seem “lonely”… at worst, they seem like the false idols of a broken promise, images of stability and prosperity that ultimately offer her no solace. In setting her fires, Anna is an iconoclast, at war with the deceptions of the rural community.
Not every character in Wisconsin Death Trip is an iconoclast. Some are actually twisted iconophiles, trying to replace their lost self-images with something positive, and tragically failing. Aside from the various accounts of delusions of grandeur, there are two longer arcs of this type of behavior: the story of John Anderson, and that of Pauline L’Allemand.
John Anderson’s story is woven through the section of Wisconsin Death Trip entitled SPRING. He is a 13-year old boy who, with his younger brother, escapes from the family farm with their father’s rifle. At a neighboring farm, Anderson kills the farmer, and decides to live at the house all summer, in “true outlaw fashion” (in the words of the news report). Of course, we don’t know John Anderson’s actual thought process, but the film would like us to think that he is intentionally playing the glamorous role of an adventurous fugitive from the law. If we trust this account, we see John Anderson projecting a new role for himself, presumably in the absence of any coherent role provided by his family. He looks into the mirror and sees an outlaw, and disastrously allows this outlaw to escape from that mirror world and come to this one, possessing the boy and inspiring his anti-social rampage.
Of course, John Anderson’s projection is promptly shattered, as he is captured by local lawmen (after killing one of them). After his capture, he is found to be an empty husk, unaware of the gravity of his crimes, a moral blank slate. This is partly explained by the callous and dismissive treatment of his family, who say they “don’t care what happens to him.” And so, having been denied the noble outlaw role that he tried to fill, John Anderson is assigned a new narrative: life in prison.
Another of the film’s failed iconophiles is Pauline L’Allemand, a famous opera singer whose story is largely recounted in the section of the film labeled FALL. She moves to Black River Falls “one fine October morning” with her son Edgar, having purchased a plot of land that she was told was in the shadow of a health spa in the mountains. Of course, there is no health spa in Black River Falls, and Pauline is forced to try to recreate herself, according to the dictates of her own mental image, in the troubled Midwestern town. She throws parties and wears her stage costumes, even as she is reduced to eating cattle food. Eventually she begins hearing voices, and is sent to the Mendota Asylum for a while, before finally escaping and relocating to Chicago. Her part of the story ends on a bit of a question mark.
Suicides, jilted lovers, errant outlaws, and fallen divas aside, there is one character whose story runs through this entire saga, rather than just one or two parts. Not only is she mentioned in every section; she also fills one of the most important symbolic roles in the edifice. This is Mary Sweeny, the window-smasher, infamous petty criminal of Black River Falls and greater Wisconsin.
Considered superficially, Mary Sweeny doesn’t seem to change much throughout the story. She smashes windows, eventually gets incarcerated, and that’s that. But her arc is actually interesting, and deserves close attention. At first, she is simply a local eccentric with a bad habit: an insatiable compulsion to smash windows. She does this when she is seized by a mania, which she also treats with doses of cocaine. However, in the section labeled SUMMER, she is noted to have completed what the report calls a “tour” of the state, claiming she caused fifty thousand dollars worth of damage. Later, during the section labeled WINTER, she uses her notoriety as leverage, demanding a train ticket from the local sheriff, and then smashing the windows of the train depot when she doesn’t get her way. By this point, her window smashing has clearly gone from being a manic compulsion to being part of a strategic public persona. In window-smashing, Mary has found a purpose and a role.
Windows are a potent symbol in this story of images. They are both a reflective surface and a translucent portal, a view into a private space and the bearer of a self-image. In smashing windows, Mary Sweeny is disrupting the barriers that mediate access to the world, and through the world, to oneself. Windows are the picture frame and the Lacanian mirror, and in a world beset by corrupted images, Mary Sweeny is the closest thing we have to a protagonist.
If Mary Sweeny is a veiled protagonist, is there an equivalent antagonist? Far-fetched as it may sound, the person most likely to qualify for that label is Frank Cooper, the newspaper man who supposedly narrates the whole documentary, and whose newspaper the writing is drawn from. It is Cooper (and Charles Van Schaik, who is essentially relegated to the role of a visual reference tethered to Cooper’s dialog) who elicits the moral question: is this psychic malignance simply a spontaneous effect of hardship? Or is it an artificial zeitgeist, fed by a self-image – propagated by newspaper reports – feeding negativity back into the psyches of a people already buffeted by misfortune?
If you fold Frank Cooper’s role into your larger narrative, and accept that his news reports themselves are expressions of a certain obsession–with death, with suicide, with minor madnesses, with virulent gossip, with sensationalism–then it’s easy to start seeing him as part of the problem. He is the one projecting this poisoned image of Black River Falls and greater Wisconsin. His are the filters that tint the lens (or mirror) through which Black River Falls sees itself. And once you grant that Frank Cooper’s detached, morbid reporting may be a bit voyeuristic, you’ve already stepped up to the edge of a slippery slope: how many blurbs of madness, or murder, or infant mortality did the average citizen have to read, before they started feeling the cold fingers of madness themselves? How many of these incidents might have remained private, personal tragedies, or minor banalities, outside the zeitgeist, had they not been so enthusiastically reported by an Englishman’s newspaper?
For the sake of contrast, we also get to see footage and found dialog from present-day Black River Falls. There is no Frank Cooper here to cast a shadow of malignance (except, arguably, James Marsh himself). Instead, we see a general outlook like the blurb from the beginning of the film, the image of a stable, welcoming community at peace with its history and traditions. Of course, the seed planted by Wisconsin Death Trip still peeks through the soil, as local law enforcement discusses the murders and dismemberments that checker the area’s recent history. Nonetheless, this contemporary town doesn’t seem to have collapsed upon itself in the fashion of that earlier incarnation, back in the late 1800’s.
Within the boundaries of this film, Frank Cooper’s projection has poisoned the whole grand image of small town life. His distrust can be seen even in these banal present-day sequences, shots of local beauty queens and old folks’ homes and kids in their front yards. This raises the question: does this idyllic present-day give the lie to those visions of madness and instability? Or is it the reverse?
Of course, James Marsh doesn’t provide a simple answer to this question. It’s largely left open for the audience to arrive at their own conclusions. But Mary Sweeny gets a final word in before the closing sequence of the film: when she is incarcerated, she insists that she doesn’t belong there. This, a woman who took perverse pleasure in the breaking of windows and the shattering of images, who used her window-smashing as a bank robber might use a hostage… still baffled by her own persecution. This is because she knows, despite all the newspaper reports and all the negative attention, that she is normal. She is honest and self-aware, representing the most natural, spontaneous, uninhibited reaction to the distorted image of Wisconsin that we see throughout Wisconsin Death Trip. But in the cracked, distorted mirror that Frank Cooper has furnished, there is no such thing as a normal reflection.