Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Review: Marwencol

It was the title that attracted my attention. Not because I knew what Marwencol (2010, trailer) meant, but because I hadn't the first clue.

It didn't sound like any word I knew, and if it was a non-English word I couldn't identify the language. It also didn't sound like a name or a place. The non-capitalization of the letters signified that it probably wasn't an acronym.


Well, it turns out that Marwencol is the name of a place, but Marwencol is not a place in the traditional sense.

'On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was in a bar', says Mark's doctor. 'Left the bar about closing time, and a group of five individuals had been in the bar harassing him, then they went outside, followed him and beat him senseless, stomped on him and did some pretty bad damage to his brain. The doctors had to rebuild his face. The impact on the brain from the assault was such that he was in a coma for nine days.'

Mark lost all of his memories and had to re-learn how to eat, walk and write. Mark could not afford regular outpatient therapy, so he...found some old plywood and started to construct a miniature building.

'I figured: 'All right, what's the first thing I gotta work on? That's my imagination'...I came flying over in my P-40 War Hawk, on fire, and it's all a flat field down below, and I crash-landed. And when I walked into town there was nobody there. And then, one by one, beautiful Barbie-looking women started emerging...'

Mark photographs scenarios using 1/6-scale dolls, his own verisimilar constructions, and natural scenery to create the chronicles of his fictitious World War II-era Belgian town Marwencol (named for Mark and his friends Wendy and Colleen).

My Take

One of the main threads of interest Marwencol had for me was the theme of artistic expression, and the question of whether or not Mark is an 'artist'.

If I consider the purest function of art - a means to express the angst and joy of the artist's life - then Mark absolutely is an artist. His Marwencol tales are not re-enactments of wartime skirmishes; they are original stories. They all directly pertain to Mark's life, and the characters are direct avatars of himself and the people he knows.

In addition to being an imagination exercise, Marwencol eventually became a memory-recovery aid: 'My memories that I do get, they come back in stills. Just a single shot, but no context. All's I have is a photo to remind me that, yeah okay, I was married. Wow. And to a good-looking girl, too.'

Mark's struggles to recall his own wedding inspired a Marwencol episode in which his figure gets married. Also, Marwencol social hub Hogancamp's Bar recalls The Anchorage, Mark's workplace and the site of his assault.

In the most intense and graphic Marwencol sequence, Mark is abducted and tortured by a gang of SS officers.

'There's one major difference I found immediately between Mark's work and a lot of other contemporary art that I look at,' says Tod Lippy, editor of art periodical Esopus Magazine. 'And that is: particularly when you're using dolls, there's generally a very strong sense of irony in the work...like, 'I'm photographing dolls, isn't that funny or subversive?' And the thing that struck me immediately about Mark's work is that...he's not using the work as a tool to do something else, the work is him.'

I found it funny to hear someone analyze Marwencol using terminology like 'subversive' and 'irony', because Mark is much too earnest to indulge in such arty, highfalutin concepts. Mark is not particularly interested in self-identifying as an artist, thinking about his place in the art world, or conveying abstract ideas
. However, regardless of this, his need to create and his emotional sincerity make his works so much more meaningful than they would be if he was just being cute and ironic.

Marwencol is a very intimate study of Mark's mind and personality. He comes across as a skittish and reserved guy, but he has such a strong bond of trust with friend and Marwencol director Jeff Malmberg that he lets his thoughts flow freely: 'Everybody at one time or another wishes they had a double that could do the things that they could never do. So what I do is, with alter egos, I tell my friends 'You can be anybody you want, you can do anything you want in my town.''

When Mark accepts a chance to put his photos on display at a New York City gallery, we hear the stream of consciousness of his hopes and worries. On one hand: '[In] Greenwich Village - the weirdest place on the planet - I can walk in high heels and nobody'd care! Some dude would say 'hey, nice shoes!' 'thanks, man, I like your shoes too.' You know what I mean? People like me! Nobody cares, they're all artists and stuff down there.'

On the other hand: 'I build Marwencol for me. For my therapy, and now it's like everybody's, like everybody wants to play in it or be part of it, and I don't want all that. It's like this is the one last thing that I don't ever want taken from me, and it seems like it is...but theoretically it's not, it's still mine.'

There are a couple of endearing moments where Mark self-consciously laughs at weird aspects of his life, such as when he reveals his secret proclivity for wearing womens' clothes - 'It gets stranger by the moment, doesn't it?' - by opening a closet containing 218 pairs of heels. 'None of these are ones I've stole. They were all given to me by women. They were, I'm not kidding!'

Marwencol mostly takes place in Mark's upstate-New York home town. This placid, suburban environment combined with Mark's mild manner and solitude really gave me the feeling of the film taking place in the aftermath of a huge, shocking event.

'My character in the story had to create something for himself to deal with the trauma that he still had from being attacked by five SS and beaten, and kicked almost to death. So it was a lot of wear and tear on his mind, so he found comfort in building his own little world, his own little town, peopled with 1/6 scale dolls, each with a personality.'

I suppose the question that remains at the end of Marwencol is: will Mark's self-made therapy enable him to successfully recover his lost life? If not, will he be able to find the help he needs to heal?

Or will his town just keep evolving into smaller- and smaller-scale levels?


Further Reading

For more Marwencol pictures, see the gallery of Mark Hogancamp's official Marwencol website.

For more documentaries, you can see my post about Corman's World.

Screengrabs: Marwencol was produced by Open Face. The DVD was distributed by The Cinema Guild.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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