This book Wisconsin Death Trip 1973 and movie Wisconsin Death Trip 1999 combo is a weird trip in the old hippy sense of the word. The book is based on 30,000 glass plate photos taken between 1890 and 1910 by Charles Van Schaick. The text is mostly newspaper clips from Frank Cooper’s newspaper, the Badger State Banner, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin.
Black River Falls was about as beautiful a place as anyone could hope to live. They did have their problems though, and the newspaper, being what newspapers are, tended to focus on the problems and not so much on the good times. The movie is a moderate budget documentary, showing photos from the common source for the book’s archives and has a voice-over with selections from the book, and the whole thing is held together with a sardonic running narrative of unremitting black comedy bleakness. There is some generalized modern acting and dialogue to fill in the plot interstices.
One weird theme in the movie is about Mary Sweeney, the Wisconsin Window Smasher, who seems to have lived in the local jails. For years she would go from one town to another break some windows, get put in jail, and then be hustled off to the next town, where she broke more windows and did a little more light jail time.
When you compress two decades of small-town life into a few pages of photos and text, it’s the madness, murders and suicides, arsons, robberies and ennui that come to the fore. I noticed that decades ago when visiting my relatives once a year for Xmas, when a whole year gets compressed into an afternoon of high drama.
Wisconsin Death Trip compresses life to its essentials and it hurts.