Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****
[This review originally appeared on GC Daily, updated for DVD release.]
After nearly dying from a vicious attack that left him brain damaged, Mark Hogancamp had to learn to walk, talk and write again—only finding solace in the building of a small-scale WWII European village in his backyard. Named for this fictional, war-torn town, Marwencol is filmmaker Jeff Malmberg's four-year chronicle of Hogancamp's life and project, a film as much about the restoration of a human psyche as it is the story of an intricate art form rising out of tragedy.
It's both extraordinary and heartbreaking to see how fully Hogancamp lives in his constructed world. By piecing together WWII history for his town, he attempts to piece together the mystery of his former life before the attack. Malmberg has clearly built a trusting relationship with his subject, allowing him to reveal multiple sides of Hogancamp—fascinating shades of who he was and is now.
Hogancamp uses doppelgänger dolls to represent everyone in his life, which one of his friends explains to be flattering. A Goldfinger-era Miss Moneypenny stands in for his mother, and a Barbie-like beauty for his boss. (He kills off the alter-ego of one of his coworkers, who doesn't feel so good about that.) His own double—a handsome Steve McQueen type in a Great Escape bomber jacket—exists in the fictional bar at the center of the mini-village, a place where Americans, British and Germans all drink together in his ahistorical fantasy. The meticulous attention to detail is impressive, down to the tiny weapons, clothes, and vehicles. In one of the more bizarre moments, we witness Hogancamp taking his jeep full of mini-passengers out for a walk as if it were a dog.
Sure, this guy seems an oddball and outsider, but his story is profoundly moving because of how universal it is. In one sense, these recreations are a slow-motion, lo-fi version of online role-playing communities. (At one point, he refers to his post-trauma existence as a "second life.") What transcends the eccentricity, making an overgrown dollhouse into a powerful work of art can be seen in Hogancamp's expertly shot, macro-lensed photographs, which capture key moments in the invented wartime narrative. Virtual lives are being lived, and it's through these close-up images that the art world took notice. As a magazine editor interviewed in the film says, what's refreshing is the rare lack of irony and winking in his posed-figurine photographs.
Hogancamp speaks of his characters as if their stories are vividly real, but worries about his delusions are quickly replaced with the appreciation for a gifted storyteller's keen imagination. Perhaps most interesting is the effect of seeing these photographed actions coupled with Hogancamp's real life, which, bittersweetly, seems to have less meaning to him. Eerily, he barely remembers his own wedding (we watch him watching video footage of the festivities, two decades later) while his fake persona's wedding has become more poignantly memorable.
At times, Malmberg's film felt a bit too slow for my taste. At a still-brief 83 minutes, it could've tightened to an hour. Still, it successfully builds to the moment when Hogancamp's work is to be exhibited in New York. Art patrons take in his work with open arms, even if many don't know what to make of this odd, shy man who loves photography, dolls... and another secret I won't reveal here.
The new DVD includes quite a few cool extras, including eight additional story sequences; Mark Hogancamp's reaction to the film; and an introduction by one of my favorite film critics and interviewers, Elvis Mitchell.
[For more info on the film and Hogancamp's work, visit the official website.]
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