'I doubt you will see a more important American film this year'

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The Independent Culture

Film Studies

Film Studies

The flat, pious voice of Ian Holm begins to extol the virtues of the country near Black River Falls, Wisconsin. He speaks as the editor of a local paper in the 1890s, the Badger State Banner; he describes the growth of the town, founded in 1854 and a haven for Norwegians and Germans; and concludes, like a chamber of commerce recommendation, that "nowhere can be found a more charming residence".

But we have already seen pictures of Winnebago Indians, their faces bumpy with pox; the railway locomotive, like a beast in the night; children looking out at a lake as large as the sea of melancholy; and a photographer's flashlight, like an explosion. Wisconsin Death Trip is going to be what its title promises - and I doubt you'll see a more piercing or important American film this year.

I am talking about an Arena production, directed by James Marsh, under the series editing of Anthony Wall, the work of Englishmen drawn to Wisconsin by Michael Lesy's 1973 book, Wisconsin Death Trip, which was largely made from still photographs in the archive of Charles Van Schaick, and news reports from the Badger State Banner. What was striking about the book was that the reports were a litany of disaster - suicide, murder, infanticide, the drastic onset of mania. In short, the book posed unmistakable evidence that amid scenic beauty, virgin spaces and infinite opportunity, many lives cracked like thin glass in the cold. It seemed to be the portrait of an age when not even the fuss and frills of late-Victorian costume and interior décor could hide inner disorder and terror, the readiness of nightmare to spring into life.

Lesy did not really attempt to explain this collective nervous breakdown. Rather, he was thunderstruck by the contrast of so much tragedy and so many homilies about the good life and its bulwark, "traditional values". The book simply said, see, the myth and the facts do not fit - how are we to react to the gap?

James Marsh's film is faithful to the book, yet it goes further: it employed modern-day locals from Black River Falls to take part in modest scenic extensions of some of the stills and stories. It discovers a unique, poetic style for showing these crises - albeit a style rooted in the manner of 1890 photographs. And it builds a soundtrack from musical fragments, whispers, the nagging wind and the mounting unease of Holm's narration. In other words, a movie has been made. But it holds to Lesy's reluctance, or inability, to explain. It makes you wonder why so many calamities happened in Black River Falls - and it leads you to a question asked recently by Luc Sante in Bookforum: "Either Black River Falls was some weird plague-stricken hole in the otherwise unblemished American tapestry, or else the whole notion of America's proud past was a myth."

Just as the film is horrifying as well as beautiful, so that's a question I can't get out of my head. We know that times were hard in the 1890s throughout America: there were bank closures in the panic of 1893, and epidemic illnesses. Recent research has shown that Americans after independence were not a gun-carrying people. The huge influx of weapons began in the Civil War - and I suspect that the full, damaging influence of that violence has never been understood. Suppose, too, that Americans were in fear of their own wilderness, and of the cruelties of nature - even now, fire, flood, earthquake and wind can ravage domestic order. Did the country feel out of control? Is it possible that size, weapons, arbitrary nature and the rampant opportunism of America were threatening the nerve of a nation which wanted stability?

I don't know the answers, but Wisconsin Death Trip gives you the facts so that you cannot ignore them. And it leads us to ask whether America needed those forces and mass media that were not far away - movies, radio, television, world war, even, as a way of conferring nationhood and cohesion.

When I saw the film recently, at the San Francisco Film Festival, several people in the audience were worrying over these things - you could feel a respect for history growing in the dark. It interests me because of my concern with the kind of society that was altered by, but which needed, the shock of the movies - an invention of the 1890s. And Wisconsin has a special place in film history. Black River Falls is 30 miles from La Crosse, Wisconsin, where Raymond Nicholas Kienzle (from German stock) was born in 1911. He grew up to be Nicholas Ray, one of America's most tormented film directors, a man who carried a kind of madness all his life. One hundred and fifty miles to the east, in Kenosha, George Orson Welles was born in 1915 - the man who startled the world with his dazzling study of the empty soul in American success.

I thought of Ray and Welles as I watched Wisconsin Death Trip, and of the old verity that the child is bound to escape from or improve on the parents' lives. I can only urge you to try this film (at the National Film Theatre next week, and on BBC2 in July). It is a way into the puzzle of what happened to America between the assurance of the Western and the modern anxiety of such urban genres as film noir and screwball.