Wisconsin Death Trip: A Documentary Training Ground

Wisconsin Death Trip: A Documentary Training Ground

My inability to properly recall character poem works to describe an entire town is a bummer. If I could summon the title of that book, everyone reading this would be impressed with my connecting James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip to that book of writing. Either way, the film attempts to encompass the entirety of a town and its history through recasting various newspaper articles, photographs and remembrances from town members. If you haven’t ever been to Black River Falls, though, don’t worry. There’s no need to head out that way in the first place. And after watching Marsh’s’ film, it feels as if we’ve already been there.

Preceding the director’s award winning Man on Wire, Wisconsin Death Trip marked the first time Marsh received any sort of widespread acclaim despite working on a pair of films prior to this 2000 release. The surprising thing is, apart from Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ investigation of a crime scene, reenactments and the merger of fictional elements and documentary hasn’t always been met with too much appreciation. And to be sure, a variety of black and white scenes working to display what Black River Falls looked like more than a hundred years ago doesn’t always work well. But seeing as Wisconsin Death Trip feels like the visual reckoning of your local police blotter dating to the nineteenth century, it’s forgivable.

If nothing else, Marsh had a novel idea. Taking the most salacious stories – surely the sedate ones were omitted to allow inclusion of murder, cocaine taking and adultery – and dressing up a variety of players to reenact them while overlaying sporadic photography dating to the original period is engaging…for a while.

Watching a boob lay low on the screen, its owner’s fingers intertwined with her lovers, be disturbed by the cuckolded husband can only be entertaining so many times. And for some reason a woman’s predilection for smashing windows receives a fair amount of screen time. Wisconsin Death Trip may have been well enough received at the time of its release to allow Marsh to continue on in his career, but what’s most astounding is that it bears no similarities to Man on a Wire. Being able to work in such wildly different forms exposes Marsh’s extraordinary talent. He may not have figured out the narrative aspect of his craft at this early stage, but Wisconsin Death Trip apparently provided a decent training ground.