Wisconsin Death Trip
dir. James Marsh
Opens Fri Oct 26 at the Grand Illusion

Victorians were the Peacock Puritans, the highest caste in the culture of the Protestant Work Ethic. And they paid for it. Repressed and stifled, their lives were one long walk to and from a cold church. They looked clean but never bathed, believing their "essences" were essential to their hygiene. They wore three layers of wool in the summer because complete suffering was a state of divinity. Can you think of a happy story that takes place in the gaudy sludge of Victoriana? No, you can't. The only rays of narrative sunshine exist in fairy tales like Peter Pan. Theirs was a world that could only find peace and whimsy in dreams.

But from Victorians came a specific strain of expression, one that was dire and horrific and kind of funny at the same time. They were so tightly wound that harmless acts of emotional illiteracy exploded into rhapsodies of fury, and the lack of any therapeutic outlet turned everyday catharses into detonations of madness and death. James Marsh's Wisconsin Death Trip, speaks to all these stern, strapped-down miseries.

Adapted from Michael Lesy's 1973 book of the same name, Wisconsin chronicles the inexplicable unraveling of Black River Falls, Wisconsin during the recession of the 1890s, where a rash of crimes decimated the population. Done in a stark black and white, and in a mood that is just as much H. P. Lovecraft as it is Edward Gorey, the film's semi-omniscient narrator, the editor of the Black River Falls newspaper during that time, charts the trajectory of the town's disintegration, recounting the stories of a number of colorful, doomed characters. Most interesting of these is Mary Sweeney, a.k.a. the Wisconsin Window Smasher. An educated mother of two, Mary travels around the state, throwing rocks through windows while high on cocaine. No matter how many times she's incarcerated, she continues on with her work as soon as she's released, stone-faced and full of purpose.

Mary's story is light fare compared to most of the editor's obituary-style roll call of tragedy. Relayed like pebble spray from a shotgun, his reports include suicides, homicides, people buried alive, and the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a man 50 years her senior. Any time one of these reports involves someone being institutionalized, the narration is taken over by the clerk of the Mendota State Asylum, whose voice is a shaky, reed-thin whisper. In his trebly tones, Marsh captures the shame of the entire community.

Most films portray Victorians like little fucked-up dolls, their inner lives destroyed under the crush of whalebone corsets. But Marsh isn't judging these people. Instead, he confers courage onto them. Their Calvinist upbringing may have predestined their destruction, but at least they were wise enough to go out swinging. Marsh also has a keen understanding of nature's role in driving these people insane, that its chaotic organizing principles rattled their complete assurance that they could control everything on God's behalf, if only their starched collar was tight enough. The way he films them hanging from trees, or lying dead in the snow, shows the futility of such a pious stance. The trees and the snow humor these little creatures, looking on as pitying elders, like they're doing someone a favor. In these scenes, the real order of things is re-asserted, and an elemental retribution is at hand.

We'd like to think this way of being is completely dead and gone, that the mores and behaviors that drove the residents of Black River Falls to commit their crimes are a quaint sort of savagery unseen for generations. So when Marsh contrasts his monochromatic tales of suffering with the occasional flash-forward to the Black River Falls of today, showing skewed, saccharine scenes of high school homecomings, nursing homes, and children playing on lazy summer days, he makes a telling comment on the past's ability to inform the present. Hiding beneath the happiness of our 21st-century lives, the same basic fears and pathologies lie in wait, waiting to be set free by a bad turn of luck, or just a really cloudy day. Marsh implies that the Victorians, those eternal symbols of repression and dark solitude, haunt our daily struggle to evolve. It seems a scary, inescapable truth.