This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.
“Marwencol” opens the way I might imagine the fleeting final seconds of memories would flood through the mind of a G.I. Joe figurine before meeting its maker. There’s a montage the includes the daily raising of the flag, that time Joe made it with one of the nurses, the day he shuffled off the battlefield wounded with the help of a medic. And then director Jeff Malmberg pulls back to show there’s a man in the background documenting all of it with a digital camera.
Moments later, we realize these could’ve just as easily been the images that passed through Mark Hogancamp’s consciousness as he was laying bloodied and beaten outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. Hogancamp, the man with the camera, had been left in a coma and lost much of his memory in the attack by five strangers. When he regained some of his cognitive ability, he began to develop the alternate world of Marwencol, a fully realized World War II-era town “in Belgium” populated by immaculately detailed Barbies, Steve McQueen dolls and other plastic figurines.
A place where men are men and women wear Manolo Blahnik slingbacks, Marwencol is both a retreat from Hogancamp’s real life of trying to figure out who he was as well as the menial work of sweeping up at a local restaurant, and a playground for all of his obsessions and fantasies that have all the twists and turns of a 1940s pulp novel. Every person from his real life has a Marwencol doppelganger, from his best friend Bert, who is immortalized in plasticine as a British commander, to his next door neighbor Colleen, the object of Mark’s intense affections who indulges him up to a point and whose Barbie doll falls for Captain Hogancamp.
Though Colleen’s real marriage prevents that from happening in reality, it doesn’t prevent Mark from naming a tank (and the last third of the town’s name) in her honor. (To the director’s credit, as compelling as Hogancamp’s personal story is, Malmberg’s smart enough to realize Hogancamp’s storylines for his characters, full of love triangles and combat intrigue, are equally entertaining and devotes plenty of time to simply displaying the still portraits of the villagers in eerily realistic action.)
Malmberg actually wasn’t the first to come across Hogancamp’s pictures; instead, that honor would belong to a photographer named David Naugle and Tod Lippy, the editor of the cultural journal Esopus, which was the first to publish Hogancamp’s work in an artistic context. Ultimately, the duo’s legitimization of what had simply been a therapeutic exercise for Hogancamp plants the seed for what becomes the film’s narrative backbone as he prepares for a gallery opening in the city. The film also gradually weaves in the details of the brutal attack that befell Hogancamp in 2000, suggesting that the creation of Marwencol wasn’t his first attempt of creating an alternate identity for himself.
Since Hogancamp is fuzzy on the details of his life before the beating and still a bit taciturn — he was married once and an alcoholic, with his diaries from his recovery being among the few items left that can jog his memory — the film itself is a bit rough around the edges as the interviews with Mark’s friends and family mostly only illustrate how much of an enigma the man always was. Still, “Marwencol” is a film that never sits in judgment of its subject, a quality that allows for unforced answers to the usually ineffable questions of how art is created, how it can heal and how artists can reconcile their reality to the one that stands outside their door.
“Marwencol” opens in New York on October 8th.