Vanishing Americans

Film still for Vanishing Americans

The Midwest in the 1890s proved a harsh place for the fragile of mind, as 'Arena' film Wisconsin Death Trip reveals. Michael Eaton sees it as a parable of frontier hubris

Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip is an archetypal early-70s artefact. The book juxtaposes a series of photographs taken by Charles van Schaick in the northern Midwest in the 1890s with contemporary extracts from the Badger State Banner, the newspaper of the Black River Falls community. The images show the often far from photogenic settlers doing what folk did in front of a camera in those days - hunting, preparing for baptism, getting cheerfully intoxicated, posing with their children, burying their dead - while the text presents instances of their strange deaths and weird psychoses. The newspaper reports, penned by the editor, an Englishman named Frank Cooper, are written in a bland, 'objective', largely adjective-free style which serves to make the 'facts' at issue even more disturbing: "La Crosse was somewhat agitated last week by an alleged ghost. The spirit manifested itself by the usual symptoms"; "The Eriksen family had a free-for-all fight and the eldest son, Gustav, struck his father on the head with a trombone, killing him instantly." Wisconsin Death Trip was positioned as an art book rather than a work of social history: the selection and juxtaposition of the images and incidents allowed it to be viewed as a kind of downhome surrealism, a metropolitan discovery of the bizarre in the rural life of years gone by. But at the time of publication the material had a much more contemporary and political resonance.

In the wake of the ignominious latter days of the Vietnam war and the Watergate revelations of presidential corruption, these baldly stated tales of everyday frontier madness seemed to embody far more than a local dimension. The book connected with a widespread cultural desire to expose the sickness at the heart of American life by looking hard into the gory past to illuminate, if not entirely explain, the brutal present. It was as if the key to unlocking a deep and ongoing psychosis might be located in what these pictures could never quite show and these reports could never quite say: that violence and dementia are as American as apple pie.

It's unsurprising that this demythologisation should have focused on the frontier, the vainglorious attempt to tame the wilderness that was Americanism's founding myth. If the archaeology of pioneer life reveals the settling of the West to have been not the manifest destiny of civilising white man but a site of atavistic mayhem as destructive to the self as to any others who crossed its path, then surely any attempt to mobilise such values to underwrite the country's self-appointed mandate as policeman of the free world must be exposed as hypocritical at best and genocidal at worst.

This profound scepticism about Horace Greeley's exhortation to "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country" was also present in films which depicted the moral immaturity of the kind of young men who would once have been heroic Westerners. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) the protagonist's quest is to establish a brothel in the knowingly named frontier town Presbyterian Church; his madam is an opium addict, the church burns down and he eventually gives up the ghost in an engulfing snow drift. In Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972) a group of cocksure runaway kids empties round after round of their Colt 45s into a hapless jack rabbit. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973, script by Rudolf Wurlitzer) the father of a pioneer family blasts away meaninglessly from their steamboat at bottles thrown by his son into a river; when Garrett joins in the shooting contest uninvited the bearded patriarch suspiciously narrows his eyes and levels his rifle at the sheriff's head until they sail out of range. In Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973 - set in the 50s but still very much a frontier film) a teenage youth cuts a murderous swathe, his brutal actions immortalised through the uncomprehending diary entries of his female companion. In The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976, written by Thomas McGuane) a proud cattleman rides through the vast landscape he owns, lecturing his suitably impressed young companion on his Herculean labours to establish a ranch in this wilderness before we realise he's escorting this rustler to a necktie party.

All these films have in common the cinematically revisionist assertion that the attempt to transform the desert into a garden - the underlying structural principle of much Western fiction - exacted a fatally destructive toll upon colonisers and colonised alike, that it was nothing less than hubristic madness. Maybe there were some places where white feet should never have ventured. Wisconsin Death Trip was certainly a book of its time.

Now a feature-length film inspired by Lesy's book has been made by James Marsh for the ever-imaginative BBC2 Arena arts documentary series. How can this material speak to us today? Marsh deploys DoP Eigil Bryld's crisp monochrome photography to animate, if not exactly dramatise, a selection of incidents acted out by local performers. Ian Holm's understated voice reads Cooper's prose, interrupted only by occasional breathy extracts from the journal of the director of the local madhouse where many of these individuals ended up.

Already a subtle transformation has occurred: the texts are now married to images that illustrate them rather than allowing seemingly random juxtapositions to create a third meaning. What emerges is a shift of emphasis from the social/political to the individual/psychological. It's now far easier to view Black River Falls as an aberrant gothic liminal zone rather than as a cracked synecdoche for the whole of the Union.

The film presents suicides, abandoned infants, arson, adultery, bank closures, epidemics, witchcraft panics, children who wreak havoc with firearms, depressed mothers who drown their offspring - stories, in fact, of the kind that fill today's supermarket tabloids. But two unforgettable characters weave their eccentric paths through the changing seasons. First, schoolmarm Mary Sweeney: "The notorious window smasher... was arrested again last week. She had destroyed considerable property with her uncontrollable mania... Mrs Sweeney says she uses cocaine liberally on such occasions because it quietens her nerves." Second, self-proclaimed diva Pauline L'Allemand, who gets off the train with her son to claim possession of seven acres of worthless land; after she has performed her musical act, compromised by her ill-fitting false teeth, the locals assume she must be a phoney, though in fact she is the erstwhile favourite of the composer Delibes. She too is incarcerated in the asylum; one night she slips away unnoticed and is heard of years later in Chicago complaining of spectral voices from the adjoining room where, it transpires, a ventriloquist has been practising his act. If any producer wishes to develop a feature based on this astonishing material might I offer my services as screenwriter?

Merely to describe these unmakeupable incidents risks overelaboration. Though Marsh's transposition of this Fortean material into cinema blunts any outrage the book might once have provoked, his film connects with what we might call the imaginative British documentary/drama, a hybrid that began its marginal life in the GPO and Crown Film Units of the 30s and 40s and later found a tolerated squat in the peripheral regions of public-service television. I don't think it's too far fetched to glimpse shadows in Marsh's film of Humphrey Jennings' Mass Observation film Spare Time (1939) with its bemused but eventually sympathetic delineation of those strange northern working classes at play, or even of Alan Clarke's Elephant (1989) with its numbingly deadpan recreations of sectarian murders in Northern Ireland.

This endangered species of film-making is still more alive than the docusoaps and talk shows that have invaded its habitat. Marsh's previous contributions to the genre include a moving account of Marvin Gaye's last days in a Belgian seaside town and an insight into the art and life of Elvis through the carbohydrate-saturated white-trash cuisine he shovelled into his constantly mutating but always iconic body. Without imposing some bogus housestyle to confederate 20 years of films unified only by a floating bottle and Brian Eno's theme tune, Wisconsin Death Trip is unmistakably a product of executive producer Anthony Wall's Arena. The culturally off-centre subject matter, the lack of anchoring voice-of-God commentary, the lateral tracks and pans across the action, the sequences which start on a hard-to-interpret detail before revealing a wider view, the deliberate fracturing of narrative structure - all these tropes have the effect of distancing both the film-maker and the viewer from any easy empathetic involvement with the events and characters depicted and of forcing the spectator to do some interpretative work.

Cooper's words which top and tail the film provide another point of entry. Entirely without irony he says of the unstable community where he too is an immigrant: "Nowhere can be found a more desirable residence. Our site is not only picturesque..." The Picturesque implied a natural landscape in which human figures could be placed - working, wandering or musing - a landscape fit to be pictured, which held the potential of being in thrall of the figures who could be depicted within it. It's evident this was more of a desire than a realisation - the backwoods had an awe-inspiring effect on the arrivals from northern Europe and the eastern seaboard who attempted to find a secure location there. "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger... whatever is in any sort terrible... is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (Edmund Burke, 1757). The Sublime landscape evokes infinite vastness, terrifying uniformity - it dwarfs humanity, crushing the human spirit and driving it to depression and despair. Faced with such terrifying prospects, the third pictorial category, that of the Beautiful - an aspirational classicism based on the perfect proportions of an idealised statue from Ancient Greece - becomes utterly impossible in rural Wisconsin.

The image of humanity that remains after it has been ground in the mills of sublimity must perforce be imperfect, distorted, perverted, literally outlandish - in a word, grotesque. But it is in its fascinated insistence on the grotesque that the film, to my mind, takes its only false turn by depicting the Black River Falls of today. These sequences, shot in colour, seem wearily familiar and cumulatively unilluminating: leafy streets of Lynchian clapboard houses; Diane Arbus kids posing in witchy Hallowe'en costumes while the mayor declaims that this is a "real friendly town, a wonderful place to raise children"; the crowning of the Homecoming Queen who has no apparent notion of the sexualised history of her position; the female preacher denouncing the Devil and serving communion wine in individual plastic containers... then cut to a woman in a bar sculling a shot of liquor; and, most demeaning of all, a barbershop choir performing 'The Star Spangled Banner' to the apparently comatose inhabitants of an old folks' home.

What are these images saying? That folk are still darned strange in the boondocks? That these kids might one day pick up their fathers' handguns and run amok in a fast-food joint? That these born-again communicants might drown their children in an excess of religious ecstasy? That these old people might slash their throats out of unrequited erotic desire? The characters of 100 years ago can reach out from the phantom zone only through fading photographs and uninflected prose. But these folk can still speak for themselves. They might even have something to say about their community that conflicts with Lesy's and Marsh's discourses. It would have been better to omit their real presence than to corral them into a caricature parade.

There is, however, a final contemporary sequence which seems entirely appropriate. The local Winnebago Indians live hidden away and have "never made any trouble worthy of mention to the white settler" - what misery does this phrase repress? We see photographs of the emaciated, pock-marked faces of their children, the crushed drunkenness of erstwhile warriors for whom this landscape was once far from fearfully Sublime. But now an idealised sculpture of a Ghost Dance warrior stands in the lobby of a casino run by the Winnebago who are scalping the white conquerors with gambling machines rather than tomahawks. The Vanishing American has returned.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012