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[whitespace] Wisconsin Memento

'Wisconsin Death Trip' revives some troubling memories

By Richard von Busack

In scores of movies, amnesiac characters try desperately to remember some urgent, forgotten matter--and other characters try to help them. Most recently, Kurt Russell in Vanilla Sky and Joe Pantoliano in Memento played figures trying to tease reluctant memories from Tom Cruise and Guy Pearce. The popularity of this kind of mystery echoes a national problem: we in the United States have a chronic case of historical amnesia.

Michael Lesy's fascinating 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip chronicled the true-life crimes and mortality wave that took place in the vicinity of the small town of Black River Falls, Wisc., during the last two decades of the 1800s. Reading this book, it seems the hamlet was built on a Hellmouth, a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Black River Falls may not have been average America, nor were there really average Americans living there. (Where do "average" Americans live, by the way?) Yet what was Black River Falls, if not the real America of dreaming, hard-working pioneers?

The locals were recent immigrants, come to mine and farm in the newly opened territory. But the land was too scrubby to live off of, and the banks, railroads and mines were subject to sudden failure. Even by the standards of the Norwegian immigrants, the winters were cruel. The pressure crushed the settlers through hard work and bankruptcy. Thus the local history, set down in a small weekly newspaper, is a record of depression, suicide, disease and murder.

James Marsh's film version of Wisconsin Death Trip condenses the themes of the book into 76 minutes. Marsh captures the mood of the threatening wilderness with complete success. His bare-bones budget complements the rawness of frontier life, which he studies with the velvety cinematic obsession of a David Lynch.

Here a nonprofessional cast reenacts, silently, the old crimes. Marsh divides the film into seasons and connects his almanac of doom with recurring characters.

The film finds a charismatic anti-heroine in Mary Sweeney (played fiercely by Jo Vukelich), a traveling madwoman who loved to snort coke and smash windows. Here also is a parallel to the Susan Smith case, in the account of Mrs. Larson (Molly Anderson), who drowned her three children. And there's even a decadent celebrity: Pauline L'Allemand (Marilyn White), a noted opera star who retreated to the wilds of Wisconsin--and then into madness.

Actor Ian Holm, most recently seen as the ring-jonesing Bilbo Baggins, narrates the casebook. Aside from his narration, Wisconsin Death Trip is mute, accompanied by a beautifully eclectic soundtrack from Debussy to Finnish folk songs to Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."

Marsh goes a step farther than the book by visiting Black River Falls today. He seems to wonder, How could a past this flamboyant be interred underneath the peaceful small town? He observes the high school homecoming game and parade, children playing, the old people left in a retirement home.

Naturally, some critics have accused Marsh of patronizing the town--by filming, for example, nursing-home residents drowsing through a visiting glee-club's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." But isn't this a perfect metaphor for how Black Rock Falls' memory sleeps? And though the film doesn't mention this, Black River Falls isn't a backwater today; it's visited in the summer by Chicagoland hikers and mountain bikers. ("Your quintessential Our Town-type of community," one tour book calls it.)

What we see today may look a little stodgy, but it's a triumph over a lurid, agonizing past. In its way, Wisconsin Death Trip is an optimistic film. Today's young people are supposed to be lost, addicted to drugs and television--so many nihilist lawbreakers, whose misdeeds testify to the lapse of family values.

Wisconsin Death Trip, set in a time of thoroughly religious, strong families, is alive with murders, drug abuse and teen crime. By forgetting the trouble we once had, we exaggerate the trouble we have today

Wisconsin Death Trip (Unrated; 76 min.), a directed by James Marsh, based on the book by Michael Lesy, Eigil Bryld and starring Ian Holm plays through Jan. 9 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.

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Web extra to the January 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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