Photo from the town of Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp
Marwencol is utterly compelling. At some level I want to just leave it at that and tell you to do whatever you can to see this documentary (a schedule of cities and theaters where it is playing in limited release can be seen on the film’s website.) But the film is so rich and so complex I can’t just leave a one line tribute to such a fascinating and unforgettable experience.
Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg and his crew hit pay dirt when they found Mark Hogancamp, a man who had been badly beaten by a group of young men outside a bar in Kingston New York in 2000. He was in a coma for nine days and suffered brain damage that included a complete loss of memory and identity. When Hogancamp’s medical coverage ran out, he had to find his own way of recovering his life. The approach he came up with is remarkable and unforgettable at so many levels—the politics and complexities of identity, the nature of art making, the power of storytelling, the permutations of therapy, the sociological/demographic determinates in life, the elemental essentiality of the self.
Outside his rural trailer home, Hogancamp has created a fantasy town he calls Marwencol (taken from names of characters—Mark, Wendy and Colleen). Set in Belgium during World War II, the town is populated by dolls that are accoutred in era-appropriate attire and living through wartime scenarios. Hogancamp creates his narrative with characters that are stand ins for many of the people he knows from his circumspect life in Kingston. He himself becomes a kind of GI Joe Wounded King, playing out adventures in romance and survival against the German SS soldiers that mirror many of Hogancamp’s own struggles. This backyard therapy/fantasy takes on a whole other dimension when Hogancamp begins photographing tableaux of his town residents. These photos are hauntingly evocative without being in the least self conscious or intentionally “arty.” (At one point in the film a downtown hipoisie comments on how Hogancamp has created a narrative without a trace of irony, something extremely rare in the current world of art.) No, there’s no knowing wink with regard to this “installation.” Hogancamp’s creation speaks directly to the Roberta Smith equivalent of Occam’s razor for what makes art meaningful (and a line immortalized repeatedly in my postings here since it appeared in her New York Times article last spring): “Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”
The full story is a complex one, with some unexpected revelations that unfold as the film progresses. There is so much to cherish about this film and the remarkable Mark Hogancamp, but one of the most moving aspects of the telling is how pure the connection is between Hogancamp the man and Hogancamp the maker. He blends these two domains with such an absence of self consciousness, emotional distance or downtown tude that it is almost startling. In the current landscape of media distortion, manipulation and depersonalized fragmentation that flattens what it means to be a human being, this deeply nuanced portrait of a life—that still leaves room for the incomprehensible mysteries as well—is an extraordinary achievement.