Marwencol

May 4, 2011

In attempting to explain a particularly inscrutable dream sequence from his particularly inscrutable TV series John from Cincinnati, David Milch discusses the significance of cave paintings.  The general crux of his argument is that when those early humans scrawled a buffalo onto the wall, it was a signifier that there was a herd nearby.  When they added human characters with spears chasing them down, it became a narrative.  It was the first instance of humans using stories to organize the world around them.  Milch goes on to declare this is how we imitate and connect (and possibly create) God, but the general organizing principle is itself important.  The power of narrative and art to allow us to better understand ourselves and the world around us might be its most important element.

Mark Hogancamp was a 38 year-old divorced alcoholic when five men beat him into a coma in 2000.  When he awoke nine days later, he had lost his memory along with a good deal of his motor skills.  His Medicaid only covered a short period of therapy before he was thrust back into the real world to rediscover and rebuild his life.  He is the subject of Jeff Malmberg’s debut documentary feature Marwencol, named after the miniature town Hogancamp creates in his garden to continue his therapy.  Marwencol is a fictional Belgian town during World War II, populated by old army and Barbie dolls.  Hogancamp poses these figures and photographs them to tell his stories of community, romance, and the ever-present threat of the SS.  The documentary tells the story of Hogancamp’s life since the attack and the parallel story of the adventures of Hogancamp’s alter ego in the town of Marwencol.

Hogancamp works one day a week in the kitchen where he worked full time before, we’re told of the places he’s lived since leaving the hospital, we’re shown videos of his wedding of which he has no memory, and we’re told of the interest shown in his work by a local art magazine editor.  These sequences work as the spine of the film, providing context for the continuing adventures of Marwencol.  He opens a bar in the town that is occupied solely by women.  Allied and Nazi forces alike turn up and adhere to the no fighting rule of the town.  Nightly planned catfights break out in the bar for entertainment.  And there is the ever-present menace of a troop of SS soldiers desperate to find the town.  Hogancamp recalls the crush he developed on a neighbour, a feeling that he didn’t understand at all having no memory of ever experiencing it before.  She turns up as a character in Marwencol, and as he lives out his fantasy he begins to understand his reality better.

The film largely works because of Hogancamp himself.  He seems like an affable guy, and crucially he’s not really an artist nor is he presented as an eccentric.  He walks around town towing a toy jeep with his characters in it; partly for the comfort and protection he feels having his characters with him and partly to wear down the tires so they look more realistic in his photos.  There’s a genuine function to what he does, whether he’s completely aware of it or not.

If there’s a flaw here, it’s in the climactic first gallery showing in New York.  There’s a lot of great stuff there, and it isn’t bad in its own right, but the real meat of the picture is in Hogancamp and his relationship to the narrative of Marwencol, so trying to make the gallery show a triumphant climax feels both unnecessary and a little forced given the richness of what’s come before.  Art as therapy is messy and not given to clean solutions because it is the experience itself that is rewarding.  I know criticizing the film for creating a narrative is somewhat hypocritical considering the subject of the film is essentially creating a narrative, but what happens in Marwencol the town works because it is for a specific person, and what happens in the climax of Marwencol the film is for the general audience.  It is an extremely minor quibble, however, and one of those small problems that only exist because what surrounds it is so strong.

Marwencol is thematically akin to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, only its artist and the world he creates is there to understand life, not death.  It’s a fascinating window into the creative mind, and one both unencumbered and constantly haunted by memory.  We care about the story of Marwencol because we care about the artist. While some of the events in the town are probably a psych major’s wet dream, they are always interesting because there is something so essentially honest about them.  And there is nothing more important to art than honesty.

-M

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