Wisconsin Death Trip
The Mel Novikoff Award, named for the pioneering San Francisco art and repertory film exhibitor, acknowledges an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema. This year’s Mel Novikoff Award program features an onstage interview with Anthony Wall, series editor and executive producer of the BBC series Arena, “one of the greatest television shows ever put together and sustained for forty years” (David Thomson). The conversation is followed by a screening of the Arena film Wisconsin Death Trip.
“To label James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip a documentary might risk prosecution from Black Falls River, Wisconsin, where its events occurred. Nor is this simply a filmed version of Michael Lesy’s innovative book, published in 1973—for Lesy only gathered original photographs of that part of Wisconsin in the 1890s, and newspaper accounts of horrendous, yet everyday, events that happened there. The movie . . . uses those elements, but it adds two more: snow-bright black-and-white moving imagery, ‘melodramatized’ as it were, of the suicides, the murders, the madness, the bereft gazes; and languid, yet eerie, color footage of that part of Wisconsin today. The effects are strong and disturbing. Lesy’s book had fixed upon a time of economic depression when some lives cracked up. But Marsh’s film is a litany of nearly exultant disasters that may embrace all of America. Some argue that the stylish impulsiveness of the recreations, the swoon of outrages, ignores the pain of bleak lives. Yet the skill of the movie is reaching for a new tone or genre—not far from surrealism. This effect is enhanced by the tender, gossipy narration, slipped into the ear by Ian Holm.”—David Thomson, SF International Film Festival 2000
“Wisconsin Death Trip is a piece of twisted Americana that stays eerily in your mind. Based on one of the counterculture classics of the Vietnam War era, Michael Lesy’s 1973 photo-book on the darkest days of Black River Falls, Wis., it’s not exactly a documentary—and not quite a period horror movie either. But it has elements of both. At its best, it’s hypnotic and provocative.”—Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune