Sunday, December 5, 2010


(Marwencol/ Open Face)

           Conceivably, those of us who kept a distance from videogames and didn’t crave the unceasing attention of others in our childhoods would like to go back to that time now and then. We could build our fortresses in our mother’s gardens, fill them with soldiers, and make up stories in which they fight each other. This is exactly what Mark Hogancamp reminds us of, as he crouches on his lawn and moves around the doll soldier figures that occupy his miniature world, called Marwencol. Unfortunately, his stage of life is not childhood—it’s somewhere in his forties—and his reasons for building his imaginary town are rather more scarred than a child’s reasons.
(Marwencol/ Open Face)

            Hogancamp’s project only began after his mind was erased. An alcoholic with a talent for illustration, he had been married, then divorced, and only barely held down a job at local diner in Kingston, New York before being beaten into a coma one night outside a bar. He lay unconscious for nine days before waking up, but with no recollection of his past. He re-learned how to walk, read, write and speak, although his body movements remained somewhat jerky and his speech labored and grammatically dubious. What is most remarkable about Hogamcamp’s misfortune is that it has, in fact, saved his life. He no longer feels any desire to drink. His emotions are muted, his expressive abilities similar to an autistic person’s. All that is fully intact—stronger?—is his imagination. Forgoing conventional therapy, he sets about building his World War II-era town of American soldiers versus German bullies, available bombshell women (barbies), and a diner that acts as a central location to the wandering narrative he improvises. Each of the characters in Marwencol are figures of Hogancamp’s actual acquaintances; his boss, a neighbor he has a crush on, his mother, his roommate. A photographer who takes an interest in the project is eventually added as a character, as is this film’s director, Jeff Malmberg. Hogancamp’s creation is character-driven, gruesome, devoid of political correctness, and aware of genre conventions and pop-culture in a distant, passive way. It is, as Malmberg’s camera crouches with Hogancamp to re-position another figure, a thrilling place to be. Hogancamp manages to photograph every happening in the town, but keeps all the photographs stored away in boxes. Knowing what we do about modern culture, we know they will not be kept in those boxes for long. The film is evidence of their exposure.
(Mark Hogancamp in Marwencol/Open Face)

            But it is not cruel evidence. It has been evident throughout documentary history that every documentary about a person has used its subject to a great degree, and its release means the subject is exploited. But Malmberg’s film is toned-back and fixated; it is a portrait that enhances the mystery of Mark Hogancamp. It does not, like so many misbegotten works of non-fiction, explain him away and throw him on a screen. We only learn the basic facts about Hogancamp’s past life; there is no need for the probing details. Hogancamp sometimes seems to recall moments from his past, but he could be making them up as he goes along. He sometimes seems to be reminding himself to make a distinction between the characters in his town and the real people he knows. A psychologist would have a field day with this behavior, but Malmberg, correctly, does not. He is also correct to shoot Hogancamp against highly literal, non-emotive backgrounds; Hogancamp is seen walking down the main road near his home in many shots, dragging along a toy truck containing his soldiers, surrounded by evergreen trees and hills.  Otherwise, he might be walking around downtown Kingston, near the sight of his beating. The town looks desolate and rigid, like Marwencol. The people who are interviewed, or who interact with Hogancamp, are shown in sparse clips and are treated as exactly what they are; amused bystanders. Even when Hogancamp goes to New York City, for a reluctant show of his photographs, he is shown as an awkward figure in a hushed and hurried model of city. As one interview subject notes, Hogancamp’s creation contains no irony in its use of dolls. Malmberg’s camera gazes at actual society in the same way. 
            The few artistic flourishes Malmberg does allow himself are hit-or-miss. A stop motion recreation of a scene in the town is sloppy, random and delightful; a bloody fight scene staged to marching-band war music we could have done without. But Malmberg’s film is that rare brave and weird achievement that does not sensationalize the minor derangement of its subject, lectures the viewer on nothing and creates a pedastel for nobody. In the end, we may have seen a true existential film, but not a bleak one. Marwencol is spirited, playful and almost as ignorant as Mark Hogancamp is of modern trends and commentary. It is a film the Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer might have shot if he were a documentarian. But the childlike urges and the pent-up rage of a damaged man make Malmberg's film something even more aberrant. When Hogancamp proclaims that he wants to live in Marwencol all the time, we almost want to join him, as neighbors.
(Marwencol/Open Face)