It's called "coping" - figuring out a way to deal with overwhelming emotional or physical trauma. We do it every day in small, incremental doses. For the bigger things, we seek the advice of therapists or mantras of self-help guides. Sometimes, however, the severity of the event requires something equally severe in response. In the case of Mark Hogancamp, a horrific crime that nearly killed him mandated that his memory-free brain be fed with something/anything to reconnect him with the world. His coping mechanism? A small scale recreation of a World War II era town complete with bar, church, and numerous doll sized 'characters' based on people in his current life. Within the imaginary burg of Marwencol (a secret code combination of favored female's names), Hogancamp indirectly recreates the night he was jumped outside a northern New York tavern by a group of young men and nearly beaten to death. Using Nazi soldiers and SS officers, as well as a main hero version of himself, he slowly begins to work through the morass of missing information, hoping the come back to a place of purpose. In the meantime, his intricate work become a cause celeb of outsider art, much to its makers confusion.
There are actually three separate storylines simmering through Jeff Malberg's masterful Marwencol. The first deals with who Mark Hogancamp really is - his past in the military, his first marriage, his seemingly set existence. Bits and pieces filter in as we get a broader view of what he was like prior to his victimization. Then there is the tale of who Hogancamp is now - disconnected, vacant, obsessed with Marwencol and his various narratives occurring within. For the most part, his stories center on kidnapping and torture, victory and revenge - all connected in part to what happened to him in reality. In Marwencol, however, Hogancamp has women flocking all over him, girlfriends and allies that often sacrifice their own safety to save him. Lastly, there's the unusual reaction to the photographs that our confused hero takes of his various tableaus. Very authentic and resonating with a certain amount of imaginative power, they get the attention of local media types, which in turn excites the art circles of New York City. Before he knows it, Hogancamp is being asked to come to the Big Apple and "show his work." The final act of the film follows his decision over what to do, and the consequences of same.
If aliens were to ever land on Earth and ask to have the documentary form explained to them, Marwencol would be a perfectly suitable example of the genre. It takes a formerly unknown story - Mark Hogancamp's horrible beating and his unusual means of remaking his memories - offers it up with brilliant artistic acumen, and delivers in the end a kind of informational epiphany. Secrets are slowly revealed, while mandatory bits of information (like what happened to the callous criminals who did this???) are left for speculation. In the end, you are entertained and educated, learning more about the human condition and those struggling within it than one ever could have without the film. So Marwencol is definitely one of those...and more so...and somewhat less. Because Malberg allows Hogancamp to speak for himself, without a lot of talking head experts sitting back and pontificating on why he's doing what he's doing, there's more insight and intrigue. When our story's center starts discussing an obvious shoe fetish, or a former/current desire to cross-dress, the gloves come off and we get the kind of eye opening information that turns the normal into the exceptional.
And then there is the stories centering around Marwencol itself. From how it all started (a desire to build a little bar where his alter ego could hang out free of any real threat) to the way in which many of the dolls reflect real people in his life, Hogancamp has created an escape which, on occasion, has clearly overwhelmed his desire to reconnect with reality. The attention to details (one torture sequence shows a doll becoming progressively bloodier and more scarred) as well as the intricacy of the narratives turn this hobby into a whole other world - one you get the impression that Hogancamp would much rather exist in. Such a precarious balance between truth and fantasy, therapy and falling further down the rabbit hole gives Marwencol a creative angle that constantly keeps us invested. Toward the end, when Hogancamp is contemplating the "big step" of going to Manhattan, the confusion seems real, especially when you consider all the complex layers of fiction the hosts are asking him to strip away and be without.
Yet there is a minor undercurrent of exploitation that clouds a bit of Marwencol's majesty. We feel really bad for Hogancamp, and are constantly put off by the lack of closure on the legal aspects of his life. We never learn about the crime in any kind of necessary detail (a prosecutor lays out the barest of facts, that's it) and how the case progressed (or didn't) is never addressed. Similarly, Hogancamp was a veteran, married, and invested with a previous life. None of that is referenced after the opening. Instead of painting an overall portrait of this man, the movie wants to focus on his backyard doll games and little else. Granted, this stuff is dynamite and really carries the movie thematically, but there is obviously more to Hogancamp than meticulously recreated miniatures. Marwencol seems to suggest - perhaps rightfully - that there is nothing more to this man than his 'art' and his photos of same. More detail might distract from the subject and the strangeness of this therapy, but it begs a question Malberg and his subject appear unwilling to answer. While not perfect, Marwencol is still wonderful. The lack of completeness might eat at those looking for more than army men in the mud, though.
On the plus side, the digital video aspect of this release is not put through the post-production "film-look" process, allowing the original footage to resonate with a nice level of "you are there" detail and presence. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is good, lacking significant defects and capturing many of Hogancamp's "scenes" with cinematic quality. Light levels are always maintained, and some of the outdoor footage is fascinating in its "just like the movies" magic. Overall, the transfer is terrific - not reference quality - but otherwise excellent.
Since this is a documentary, not some big budget Hollywood extravaganza, we expect passable aural elements and that's all. Thankfully, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix delivers same and nothing else. Dialogue and conversations are easy to understand, and when Hogancamp narrates his recreated "adventures", there is no distortion or overmodulation.
As part of the package, we get a collection of eight additional Marwencol war scene scenarios (all very engaging), a collection of deleted scenes (bits and pieces best left on the cutting room floor), an introduction by film critic Elvis Mitchell (not on video, but in an enclosed pamphlet), and a photo gallery. There is also a discussion with Hogancamp regarding his reaction to the film as well as his own "red carpet" premiere. The only thing lacking is a commentary track from Malberg. Perhaps he believes the movie speaks for itself. In some ways, he's right, though it would be entertaining to hear how he came upon the subject, as well as his initial reactions to same.
Initially stunning, Marwencol is the kind of documentary that makes you think - and sometimes, the thoughts are negative. There are parts missing here that end up picking at the back of your brain like a burrowing tick. We assume the best for Mark Hogancamp and the worst for his attackers. We hope that people appreciate his work for what it is, and not some glorified, of the moment, gimmick. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is a very good film which misses greatness by microns. Mark Hogancamp's means of coping creates the kind of experience that you'll remember...but you'll also wonder about things that the story never fully addresses. Luckily, most of the movie is so magical you won't really care...much.