WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, docu-drama by James Marsh, 1999, based upon the famous 1973 book by Michael Lesy

Wisconsin Death Trip is a 1999 American black-and-white and color docudrama film written and directed by James Marsh, based on the 1973 book of the same name by Michael Lesy. Original music for the film was composed by DJ Shadow, with original piano music for the closing credits by John Cale.

The film dramatizes the photographs by Charles Van Schaick found by in the early 1970s by Lesy, connected to a series of macabre incidents that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th century, and, in part, the film was shot on location there. Marsh makes use of silent black-and-white recreations with voice-over narration by Ian Holm contrasted with contemporary color footage of the area.

Wisconsin Death Trip is a 1973 non-fiction book by Michael Lesy, based on a collection of late 19th century photographs by Jackson County, Wisconsin photographer Charles Van Schaick – mostly taken in the city of Black River Falls – and local news reports from the same period. It emphasizes the harsh aspects of Midwestern rural life under the pressures of crime, disease, mental illness, and urbanization.


The book inspired a number of musical works, including the opera Black River by Conrad Susa, which was composed in 1975 and revised 1981; the “dramatic cantata” Songs of Madness and Sorrow by Daron Hagen; and the 1999 album Wisconsin Death Trip by the band Static-X. British post-punk band Echo & the Bunnymen used photographs from the book as artwork for their 2001 album Flowers, as well as its singles. A song performed by Jerry Joseph also shares a name with the book, but it is not clear whether the song was also inspired by the book. Most recently, the book was adapted into a bluegrass/roots-rock opera by Tim Raphael and composer Jeff Berkson, which had its world premiere at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center on February 1, 2008. The soundtrack for the film adaptation of the book features original music by DJ Shadow and John Cale.

The Australian author Rod Jones cites Wisconsin Death Trip as an inspiration for his novel Billy Sunday, and the American author Robert Goolrick also cites it as an inspiration for his novel A Reliable Wife. Stephen King’s book of novellas, Full Dark, No Stars, cites Wisconsin Death Trip as the inspiration for the story 1922.

In commentary on the two-disc DVD release of the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes said that much of the imagery for the town of Riddle in the Richard Gere segment of the film was inspired by Lesy’s book. Director Walter Murch also used the book as an historical source for the 1985 cult classic Return to Oz.

The creators of the show The Heart, She Holler have discussed being influenced by the book in the creation of their show about rural America.

below, by Rick Poynor, for Design Observer (designobserver.com)

Wisconsin Death Trip was reprinted as a paperback by Anchor Books/Doubleday in 1991 (the version shown above) and reissued by the University of New Mexico Press in 2000 — it is still in print. The book documents events in Black River Falls, Wisconsin between 1885 and 1900, using photographs taken by town photographer Charles Van Schaick, which survive as glass plate negatives, and dozens of excerpts from news reports in the Badger State Banner, as well as insane asylum records, literary quotations, and local gossip. The texts form a grim catalogue of arson, cruelty, dementia, suicide, murder, business failure, incest, premature burial, and regular outbreaks of diphtheria and smallpox. Women kill themselves over grief at the death of their children. Men kill themselves for lack of work. Horror piles upon horror. A brother and two sisters go insane within weeks of each other; a woman poisons her baby with strychnine; another slashes her stomach with a butcher knife; and a man blows his head off with a stick of dynamite. In separate incidents, two elderly women douse their bodies with kerosene and set themselves ablaze.

Wisconsin Death Trip, detail of a photograph by Charles Van Schaick

This was remarkable enough but what made the book extraordinary — and controversial — was the way it used photographs alongside the texts. Of the 30,000 images taken by Schaick, 3,000 survive. From these, Lesy selected about 140 that he judged to contain sufficient information. Some of the most affecting show dead infants in their coffins. Such photographs were commonplace then, but many viewers, including me, saw them here for the first time. Many of the pictures are single or group portraits taken in the photographer’s studio; others show families in front of their properties and groups of people outside shops. Lesy, credited with sequencing and montage, intervenes in various ways. (The designer was Stevan A. Baron, later production director of Aperture.) Sometimes Lesy blows up a salient detail, as with the young woman with the haunting eyes shown above, who is photographed behind her mother in the family portrait used on the 1991 edition’s cover. The negative’s emulsion has decayed, causing dark speckles in the corner, like droplets of blood, as Lesy noted later. Lesy doubles images and constructs montages to repeat and intensify key parts of a picture: people’s facial expressions or the positions of their hands. He also includes engravings of hats, a revolver, a doily, a corset, a railway locomotive. These date the book — countercultural designs of the period often made use of Max Ernst-like Victorian collages — but they colour its atmosphere and add to the sense that it is aiming for a heightened poetic understanding of the tragedies it records.

It was this that troubled some of the book’s reviewers. Lesy spoke of constructing the text “as music is composed”, using tone, pitch, rhythm and repetition. By treating images and excerpts in this way, he was attempting a new kind of “poetic history” or “psychic history” that uncovered interconnections and made tangible experiences that other kinds of history writing overlook. “Those who read the book couldn’t decide whether it was poetry or history, a fabrication or a discourse, a hoax or a revelation,” Lesy recalls in another book he wrote about death, The Forbidden Zone (1987). At the end of Wisconsin Death Trip, he suggests that his book reveals how harsh economic conditions produced high levels of obsessive-compulsive behaviour and paranoia among people exposed to unemployment and sudden death who were naturally fearful for themselves and their loved ones. By extension, the book might seem to be an attack on the capitalist underpinnings of present-day America. As Warren Susman notes in the original preface, Lesy shows us not the American Dream, but the American Nightmare.

With stakes this high, it is not surprising that some critics felt Lesy should have paid closer attention to socio-economic conditions in Black River Falls and provided more information about industrial failures and the depletion of farm land. How representative were the pictures he chose? Was it acceptable to modify and distort the work of a photographer in this way? Was Lesy guilty of selecting only evidence that reinforced his own point of view?

No doubt Wisconsin Death Trip does present problems when viewed from the strict methodological perspectives of historical study or journalism, but few would dispute its power when experienced as art, or as a kind of clairvoyant fiction-based-on-fact, a subjective remembrance and resurrection of actual events. A “death trip”, in 1960s drug talk, was also a vision of death and a rebirth. Lesy’s compositional methods did, in any case, have precedents, as Susman’s preface makes clear. He notes that German writer and critic Walter Benjamin’s ideal was to produce a work entirely out of quotations. (The final section of Sontag’s On Photography, “A Brief Anthology of Quotations”, is a homage to Benjamin.) Lesy extends this method to his picture material then inter-cuts the two kinds of information, allowing the reader to make intuitive connections and discover meanings by sliding between these layers. He said recently that he didn’t intend readers to fixate on the book’s horrors, though with the book’s title what did he really expect? He also felt that people had tended to prioritise the text at the expense of the images and to that extent he thought the book had failed. His approach was nevertheless quite different from the conventional way of anchoring an image with a caption intended to direct and limit the reader’s interpretation.

Lesy’s first plan was to make a film out of the material. He didn’t have the money so he did the book instead. British director James Marsh’s film, released in 1999, has its strengths, but it lacks the book’s concentration and darkness, its sense of lingering miasma, of having stumbled upon an open grave that history had forgotten to mark on the map. Marsh inserts photographs not used by Lesy to fill out the narrative and the film predictably resorts to dramatic reconstruction, using actors to play characters such as notorious window smasher Mary Sweeney and a teenage killer on the run. News reports that give only the bare bones become costumed, art directed, screen-worthy anecdotes. Where Lesy’s book is the product of a particular era and says something about its own historical moment, the film version lacks the same feeling of necessity; and where the book stands out even today for refusing to be bound by the editorial and structural conventions of the medium, the film is ultimately just a classily made film. Thirty years on, still finding readers, still an overwhelming experience for those who enter its mysteries, Lesy’s cult classic remains a spellbinding piece of literary and photographic alchemy.

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