Expertly explores a battered misfit’s fantasy world
‘Marwencol’’ is a strange and very beautiful documentary about the gray area between obsession and art — about the compulsive need to create something when the world leaves you with nothing. Its subject is Mark Hogancamp, a small-town nobody with an epic inside him.
Actually, he’s Mark Hogancamp version 2.0. The first Mark Hogancamp was a Kingston, N.Y., artist and alcoholic who had the bad luck to be beaten into a coma by five men outside a bar one night in April 2000. He awoke nine days later lacking memories, the ability to write, and, interestingly, his taste for booze. After five weeks in the hospital, his benefits ran out and he was sent back home to make some sense of his life.
Since no help was forthcoming, Hogancamp created his own therapy: a richly detailed World War II-era European village in his backyard, one-sixth life-size and peopled with modified GI Joes and Barbie-like dolls, and one green-haired, time-traveling Belgian witch. This is Marwencol, and it’s safe to say Hogancamp lives here more than in Kingston.
Over many months, he created and photographed scenes from his private mythology, a running narrative in which a US soldier named Mark “Hogie’’ Hogancamp wanders into a small village that has been abandoned by everyone except its women. They allow him to set up a bar and welcome in other battlefield survivors: Americans, British, Germans. The only rule is that everyone has to get along. In the evening, the women stage mock catfights for entertainment. When the SS invade, the Marwencol-ites fight back with startlingly undoll-like violence.
It sounds ridiculous until you see the photographs, at which point your jaw hits the floor. Using a point-and-shoot camera with a broken light meter, Hogancamp shoots eerily lifelike tableaux of wartime action and longing. He has a knack for naturalistic body positions and specifics of place and props; he often poses his dolls outside, using deep focus to situate them in a compelling make-believe reality. Some of the images look like frames from a long-lost WWII movie — aching moments of frozen melodrama. There’s no other word for these photos: They are art.
They’re also necessary to the artist’s mental and spiritual well-being. The movie is as much about Mark as Marwencol: about how a battered misfit creates order out of ruin by casting everyone he knows as dolls in a private fantasy world, and about his struggle to keep reality and fiction separate. Most friends and relatives are delighted with their tiny plastic alter-egos and understand their purpose; when a married friend gently dissuades him from his crush on her, he obligingly bumps her character off and gives Marwencol-Mark a new girlfriend.
The sharpest insights in “Marwencol’’ come when Hogancamp is discovered by artsy upstate locals — a photographer who befriends him; Jeff Malmberg, the director of this film — and is in turn embraced by the Manhattan gallery scene. His photographs are published in a literary magazine, then a book; a Greenwich Village show follows. Do the hipoisie appreciate the art or are they exploiting Hogancamp for his freak show potential?
The answer isn’t easy and, to their credit, Mark’s art-world fans ask themselves the same question. In its mythic detail, its naivete, its eccentricity, Hogancamp’s work shares qualities with the paintings and collages of the late Henry Darger. But what do you do with a live Henry Darger? Help him or just get out of the art’s way? What if helping him makes the art disappear?
It’s not likely that will happen. Witty yet crowd-shy, Hogancamp responds to his new fame by burrowing further into Marwencol while simultaneously opening it up to our gaze. The filmmakers keep us on our toes with ongoing revelations; toward the end, we learn something about Mark that partly explains why he got beat up and definitely explains his penchant for fantasy. Marwencol — the town, the story line, the psychic space — is an infinite universe sprung from a loneliness so intense even an audience can’t soothe it away.