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Marwencol

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/15/10 00:54:46

"The mind of an artist can be truly uncharted territory."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2010: Documentaries about artists and art are frequently disappointing. Filmmakers try their best, but as artists themselves they can make intuitive leaps between their subject and his or her work that is not obvious to a general audience, who hear vague words and see abstractions. That's not the case with "Marwencol"; the artist and artwork are not just inseparable, but unusually accessible.

On 18 April 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York by five young men, and sustained tremendous brain damage - he had to relearn how to walk, talk, and even feed himself; he not only lost his memory, but a great deal of control over his anger and ability to concentrate. Naturally, he had a wholly inadequate rehabilitation program, and when released from the hospital, was more or less left ot his own devices. What he came up with was "Marwencol", a 1:6-scale Belgian village, circa World War II, that he built in his back yard and populated with army and fashion dolls. One was named after himself; others after friends and family. He would build an intricate narrative around these characters, and photograph them. Eventually, a professional photographer, David Naugle, would see his work, and forward it to Esopus magazine editor Tod Lippy, leading to a gallery show in Soho.

Even without context, Hogancamp's work is striking; he has a natural eye for composition (although, before he had a digital camera, it took long rounds of trial and error to learn the craft of photography), he can use a still photograph to tell a story, and an eye for detail. His photographs flit across the uncanny valley without being trapped in the middle; though clearly made of toys and sometimes out of scale to the environment, the scenes often seem real. I would (and will) happily purchase a book featuring Mark's photos.

But that's only one surface layer; while all artists take inspiration from their lives, it soon becomes very clear that for Mark, this therapy is not just about exercising his fine motor skills and the visual centers of his brain. His attackers become Nazis in a scenario that re-enacts his beating; his revenge is bloody. What filmmaker Jeff Malmberg shows us is not just catharsis, though - Mark's interaction with the world he creates is a highly complex, sometimes uncomfortable thing. Though Malmberg presents Mark sympathetically, he is also very clearly damaged; his Marwencol fantasies sometimes lead to strained real-world interactions as he gives both worlds equal weight. Malmberg doesn't gloss over that, though he never pushes it so that we see Mark as some sort of pitiable freak.

That's an accomplishment, considering that one of the recurring themes is that Mark has more connection to the Barbie-doll girlfriends he invents for soldier-Mark than, say, his ex-wife because of his faulty memory. Malmberg gets us into Mark's world on occasion, spending some time relating the Marwencol stories but spending most of his time in the real world, talking with his friends, family, and neighbors. As noteworthy as his art is, the story of a man rediscovering and recreating himself is potentially more so, and by the end of the movie things have come intriguingly full-circle: Things we learn late in the movie impact what happened in the start, and Mark's latest additions to Marwencol's mythology offer food for thought while pulling us another level down the rabbit hole.

And that's as it should be. As Mark puts it, "People see art in what I film... It's still my therapy, no matter how much art people see." "Marwencol" is fantastic at showing it as both, a case where art and artist truly cannot be separated.

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