They say that variety is the spice of life. In a continuing attempt to embrace that variety here with One Movie | Each Day, I’ve decided to dedicate each Wednesday review to the stranger side of cinema, the type of movies that I’d never normally watch, or, at least, admit to watching, but that I’m kind of secretly glad exist. So, in celebration or in condemnation of the eccentric, the odd, the freaky, the kinky, the ghastly, the freaky, the fearful, the flaky, and the freaky, I now present this, twenty-ninth and special Documentary Week edition of Wednesday Weirdness.
Today’s movie isn’t so much weird in itself, but it’s definitely about something weird. However, the film’s subject is weird in an utterly amazing and oddly All-American kind of way.
First-time director Jeff Malmberg has not only found an amazing subject, but he’s crafted a film that’s incredibly engaging. This is a film about a social outcast, but Malberg brings us into the man’s world and seems to truly paint a sympathetic portrait without seeming to pander, or feeling like a piece of advocacy. It’s a warts-and-all portrait of a true outsider-artist, and it’s wonderful.
The film’s official synopsis:
“Marwencol” is a documentary about the fantasy world of Mark Hogancamp.
After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five men outside a bar, Mark builds a 1/6th scale World War II-era town in his backyard. Mark populates the town he dubs “Marwencol” with dolls representing his friends and family and creates life-like photographs detailing the town’s many relationships and dramas. Playing in the town and photographing the action helps Mark to recover his hand-eye coordination and deal with the psychic wounds of the attack. When Mark and his photographs are discovered, a prestigious New York gallery sets up an art show. Suddenly Mark’s homemade therapy is deemed “art”, forcing him to choose between the safety of his fantasy life in Marwencol and the real world that he’s avoided since the attack.
This is certainly the best movie ever made about a grown man playing with dolls, but it’s so much more than that. The film is primarily constructed by voice-overs from Mark Hogancamp himself. Malmberg intersperses Mark’s descriptions of his everyday real life, with his accounts of the dramatic events in his fantasy world. It quickly becomes clear that Mark was a bit of an odd character even before he was beaten. He recounts his failed marriage, and severe alcoholism. When his brain was damaged he forgot almost everything about his life. However, one silver lining was that he also “forgot” his addiction to alcohol. A once-talented illustrator he lost the dexterity that enabled him to draw, instead he picked up a camera, and began creating intricate stories in the fantasy world he created in his backyard.
The film relies heavily on Mark’s photographs. It’s immediately clear, even to a novice art aficionado such as myself, that he has a real gift for understanding body-language, and an innate understanding of perspective that enables his subjects to belie their size. Thus, a chance encounter that lead Hogancamp to show his pictures to a local photographer soon resulted in his being discovered as an artist. The film centers around the weeks leading up to the first major exhibition of Mark’s art at a Greenwich Village gallery. Mark has a difficult time coming to grips with this. He’s not sure how to react in such a scenario. He’s not sure if he wants to share Marwencol, (which he created as an outlet for himself,) with the broader world. He’s not even sure if he even considers himself an artist.
This is a very unique film, about a very unique individual. It’s masterfully edited. It avoids sensationalism, holding back on at least one significant quirk until late in the film. (I’m sure that Malmberg does this, not to provide a “twist” but to keep the film’s focus where it belongs.) It provides a real in-depth portrait of its subject, and yet I’m left feeling that there’s a whole lot more depth beyond that.
This review has taken me far longer than normal to put together. I’m quite sure that I’m not doing the film much justice. I went back and forth on how much detail I wanted to go into, and how to talk about the film without detract from the experience of viewing it. I also went back and forth on what my recommendation would be, I finally decided that Marwencol is indeed good enough that I can’t call it anything less than a Must See.
PS, I highly recommend you take a few moments and take a look at the Marwencol photo gallery.