As the line of bad films pouring out of Hollywood grows ever longer, people have begun turning to documentaries as a true form of artistic expression. As with any movement, the growth leads to an influx of work that is both good and bad. The endless films about the environment, corporate greed and legendary music makers have become a cacophony of noise that it’s hard to make sense of. I am not saying that they are bad, but the topics have become a bit repetitive. Marwencol, a new film from Open Face studios and director, editor, producer Jeff Malmberg, is a rare entry that actually seeks to document something both unique and inspiring. Sure there is tragedy and sadness, but also a sense of hope and a look at how true and honest artistic expression can lead to wonderful things.
Marwencol is a fictional town set during World War II where soldiers come to live, drink and get into adventures. It’s the brainchild of Mark Hogancamp, who created Marwencol as a response to his own personal tragedy. That tragedy came in the form of a vicious beating by several young men, a beating that left Mark comatose for nine days. Mark awoke to the reality of having no memories and no ability to perform the most routine human functions. At thirty-six years old, he was forced to learn how to read, write, eat, walk, all the things we take for granted. Even worse, the beating almost completely wiped away his memories, leaving Mark nothing but mental snapshots without context.
While trying to recuperate, the harsh realities of medical insurance and medical insensitivity caught up with Mark, leaving him to heal on his own. After re-mastering the basics, Mark decided to really move forward he needed to work on his imagination. Starting with one twelve inch, poseable doll that Mark made up to look like a World War II soldier version of himself, Marwencol was born. This wasn’t just a hobby for Mark, but a purpose, a driving need to create a world he understood and felt safe in. Using the resources at J & J Hobbies in Kingston, Mark built an entire town from the ground up.
The history of Marwencol is as fascinating as anything in the real world. Having lost all the men in the town to war, the woman welcomed Mark’s alter ego, giving him a place to live and his own bar. The bar is open to anybody during that time, German, American, British, but all the soldiers had to get along to remain. For entertainment Mark’s bar has staged catfights between the woman, and a constant flow of alcohol. From there the adventures grew as Mark’s imagination grew and with every scene he set up, Mark would photograph them. It became a pictorial history of Marwencol as well as Mark’s therapy.
The film itself, as most documentaries do, splits into two different stories. The story of real life Mark Hogancamp attempting to deal with the world around him, and the stories going on within Marwencol. The stories often weave together as Mark creates scenarios within his fantasy to deal with real life situations. For instance, in the real world Mark had been an alcoholic that, after the beating, lost any interest in drinking. To mimic that, the Mark within Marwencol doesn’t drink, though he owns a bar. At one point in the film Mark tells the tale of Colleen, a woman he had fallen in love with who was married with children. Mark created a Colleen doll and had her and his alter ego doll involved in a lengthy relationship resulting in marriage. When the real Colleen found this out she reacted to Mark’s story with concern, saying she was uncomfortable with it. In Marwencol a Belgian witch named Deja Thoris appears, steals Mark’s heart and makes Colleen disappear. Life imitates art in the most precise meaning of the term.
Marwencol, the movie, is made up of little moments, things stitched together into a storyline that need each other to make sense. There’s Mark’s two-mile weekly hike to the hobby shop for supplies. As he walks Mark explains that he drags one of the many army jeeps he’s built by hand in order to give the tires and the jeep a used, worn in look. He also tells us that when he puts the hand built weaponry into the hands of the dolls in the jeeps, he brings the most firepower he can for protection. It’s a great moment showing how the beating still haunts Mark and how Marwencol helps him cope.
In one of the most poignant moments, Mark explains how Deja Thoris’s time machine was created from a VCR that “ate” one of his best porn tapes. Mark proceeds to destroy the machine to get the tape back and uses the parts to build the time machine. Though it’s a funny moment, it also speaks to the incredible sense of loneliness and isolation Mark is experiencing and how he wrestles with not having a woman in his life.
The filmmakers here build the movie in a smart way by letting Mark’s art and story do the talking. You’re first caught off guard by the sheer brilliance of Marwencol and Mark’s painful dedication to every aspect of it. If God is in the details, then he may be resting comfortably in Marwencol. The town is so realistic, the costumes, the hairstyles, the weapons, the jeeps; everything is so authentic that it leaps off the screen. Even the leather bomber jackets the dolls wear have the logo and artwork of Mark’s fictional bar hand painted on the back. The guns all work the way their real life counterparts do, the attention to everything here is astonishing. There are million dollar war films that don’t have a tenth of the realism Marwencol has.
As the movie progresses the details and the work then blend into the story of Mark Hogancamp and his search for acceptance, love and some idea of who he is now. The movie is balanced wonderfully, taking us into Mark’s real world and then cutting back to Mark creating adventures for Marwencol. By doing this, Marwencol draws these parallels between life and art without becoming pretentious, allowing the audience to make the connections themselves. The film also doesn’t saint Mark or give us shallow resolutions to his problems. What’s happening to him is a life long journey, one that the movie is only a small part of. By stripping down to those kinds of realities, it makes Mark’s story much more powerful and his work that much more striking.
As is always with honest works of art, the art world discovers it and conflict arises. Through a series of circumstances much more enjoyable to watch then explain, the art magazine Esopus publishes Mark’s photos and Editor Todd Lipp decides to bring Mark to New York for his own gallery show. This is where we, along with Mark, are forced to step out of the fiction Marwencol and face the real world. Watching Mark struggle with going to New York, coupled with what he imagines Greenwich Village to be like, is some of the best work in the movie. I lived in New York, I grew up in that area and hearing Mark’s beliefs versus what I know of the art world is heartbreaking. When Mark gets to New York and finds that he still doesn’t fit in there the way he thought he would, his story and his reality gets even deeper.
On a personal level I laughed throughout the entire New York scene but only at the nameless people at the show. Todd Lipp treats the whole thing with an incredible amount of care and respect; he realizes and understands that this is a true passion for Mark. Nothing in the world of Marwencol carries the distanced, ironic nature of other modern artists. This isn’t a piss take or a commentary, this is art bled from the soul by a man who needs it to survive. Watching the shallow, pretentious, fashion driven art crowd pontificate and act fabulous around that kind of honesty was wonderful, it shined a powerful light on just how full of shit those people are. I don’t know if it was a quiet dig by the filmmakers or a happy accident, but it’s a wonderful section of the film.
If I had one reservation about Marwencol, it would be the lack of some of Mark’s history. For instance we know he was married but the film doesn’t offer much in the way of what happened to his wife. They don’t get too much into his upbringing or his family life, though they do introduce his mother if only for a second. Probably the most glaring of these omissions is the idea of Mark as a cross dresser. Apparently this is something Mark was dealing with before the attack and was partially a reason behind it. That aspect of the film is dropped on us midway through the movie and very little is talked about as far as his struggles in the past with it. It’s not a major issue; it just makes the end, when Mark decides to wear high heels to his art show, kick with a little less oomph than I wanted.
My bitchiness aside, Marwencol is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, easily one of the best documentaries. It might be that being a toy collector I feel some kind of kinship to Mark but more so the style and direction from Jeff Malmberg works very well, letting the story unfold on its own… As for now Marwencol is being shown in art theaters in select cities while also collecting a series of awards. If the film is playing near you, even if it’s a drive to get to it, I urge everybody to see it as soon as they can. Marwencol will not only touch you, but it might reawaken some long dead artistic desires in your own life. I know it did that for me.
For more or Marwencol the film, or to donate to Mark Hogancamp’s continued work please check out: www.marwencol.com