Marwencol (2010) dir. Jeff Malmberg
By Alan Bacchus
The title of this film certainly doesn't roll off the tongue. In fact, it's a made up word by the film's subject, Mark Hogancamp, an extraordinary artist who has created his own life by proxy in a made-up town named after his three favourite people: "Ma(rk)-Wen(dy)-Col(leen)."
In August 2000, Hogancamp suffered a horrific assault at the hands of four strangers, a beating that left him brain damaged and near death. His lengthy recovery, which had him relearn how to walk and talk, also inspired some latent artistic talents. Though his physical strength returned, his mental and social capacities were stunted.
As such, a deep fear of socialization prevented him from having a fulfilling life. And so, out of this despair was born a new world completely fabricated by Mark: a European village stuck perpetually in WWII, inhabited entirely by action figure dolls. Hogancamp courageously allows director Jeff Malmberg to point his camera right into his brain and witness this unorthodox form of physical and psychological therapy.
Malmberg is smart about how he parses out his information. As he introduces Mark to us, we see him as a slow simpleton with a weird fetish for G.I. Joes and military re-enactments. His dioramas, including proxy versions of himself, his friends and even his attackers, are all carefully set-up and staged with savant-like detail and precision. That's our first reaction, but the longer we look at these creations a wholly unique form of art starts to emerge.
Mark's photography of his inanimate characters miraculously takes on a life of its own. In another great documentary from this year ― Leon Gasts' Smash His Camera ― a photographer succinctly summarized the art of photography. It's the easiest form of art to create, but the most difficult to master. Lighting and decoration aside, the art of photography is not born from the manipulation of physical elements, but the ability of someone to capture the essence of emotion in an instant through the undiscriminating eye of the camera. Hogancamp has this gift.
Mark's journey eventually leaves his small town when his photographs are discovered by a New York art magazine, which not only publishes his photographs, but sets him up with his own gallery show. This means leaving his town, and for the first time, engaging in social behaviour, which completes his therapy and becomes the emotional climax for the film.
Unfortunately, if anything, Marwencol the documentary is only as good as Mark's photography. While Malmberg captures the photography of Hogancamp's art adequately enough for us to see the genius in his work, it lacks its own artistic panache that would elevate the film to its own level of greatness.
That said, Mark Hogancamp is one of the strangest and unique artists I've come across in a while, which is enough to render Malmberg's film a special creation unto itself.