Screening Log #45: Marwencol (2010)

Directed by Jeff Malmberg






To some extent we all create our own realities. By the nature of perception, the world that we apprehend is always mediated by our conscious mind to some extent; we never interact explicitly with a thing-in-itself, rather with the version of a thing that we have generated in perceiving it. Self-hood – that is, the idea of one’s self being a unified and consistent subject – is a construct of the mind, a beguiling fallacy. As such, the contingency of any self we identify with is perhaps what lies at the root of any potential universality. Each day we move through life we interact with constructs of other people and objects, our conscious mind inescapably inflecting these things, placing us at a remove from reality that is nearly seamless, invisible, in its mediation, like looking through a pane of glass submerged in water.

Jeff Malmberg’s documentary about outsider artist Mark Hogancamp, Marwencol, makes this mediation from reality explicit through its subject. Hogancamp was a solider, amateur artist/illustrator, and alcoholic before being beaten by five men outside a New York State bar five years before the documentary began filming. Hogancamp was beaten so badly that he was comatose for nine days and required some amount of facial reconstruction. When he awoke from his coma, Hogancamp had no recollection of events prior to his waking; he no longer knew how to eat, or walk, and remembered nothing of his previous life. Hogancamp never remembered being married, or, perhaps for the best, his alcoholism. He was presented with a tabula rasa, born of intense trauma.

As a part of Mark’s recuperative process he begins assembling a collection of dolls – Barbie dolls, GI Joe dolls – and constructs a small fictitious Belgian village named Marwencol. Hogancamp begins populating Marwencol with what he calls “alter egos” of himself and people he knows from his real life. The town is out of time, set during the second World War, and exists as a place where American, British, and German soldiers intermingle peacefully at Hogancamp’s alter ego’s bar. With each new figure, Hogancamp introduces a new person from his actual life into his fictional Marwencol life, constructing an ongoing narrative within the town that allows him to work through desires and frustrations that arise in his recovery. The head trauma he suffered caused a persistent shaking in Hogancamp’s hands that prevent him from drawing the way he once did, so be begins documenting life in Marwencol in still photographs that illustrate and preserve the narratives he constructs.

By constructing a proxy reality, and an allegorical expression of his internal life, with these dolls and his ever-expanding town, Hogancamp materially enacts the processes which every person engages in daily. His coping method is simply externalized in the physical world, rather than existing solely in his mind. That each person he comes into meaningful contact with gets their own alter ego in his town is perfectly apt; indeed, the town’s name comes from a portmanteau of his own name, and an amalgamation of friends Wendy and Colleen. His process of constructing a personal narrative is not so alien to the manner in which anyone constructs a life narrative for themselves, shaping their reality as they apprehend it, rather than as something objectively experienced.

Hogancamp himself seems open, receptive, honestly frail, and likeable. His openness with strangers attracts a local photographer who observes Mark with a small convoy of his dolls and inquires what he is doing. This photographer, and editor of an art magazine, seeing Hogancamp’s stunningly detailed photographs of his created world, asks to display Mark’s photos in the magazine. This, in turn, leads to a gallery in Greenwich Village, New York, wanting to have a showing of Hogancamp’s work. The residual anxiety of the attack, still fresh for Hogancamp, complicates his desire to be present for the show. Here the thin and strange line between appreciation and exploitation emerges that has, to this point, remained tacitly in the documentary. What the outside world construes, rightly, as art, is less art than therapy for Hogancamp; what is being commodified is a necessarily private need of a healing person. Certainly the show would not be possible without Hogancamp’s approval, and everyone involved seems invested in his work and its place in his life, but he himself expresses some discomfort with the idea of his town being taken away from him, insofar as it is no longer an object created solely for his own use.

The film ends with a fittingly appropriate coda that sees Hogancamp’s process taken to a logical continuance. The sympathetic relationship between the events of the real and the events of Marwencol blur a little further, the distinctions become less clear, if, perhaps, more problematic. The genuineness inherent in Mark’s photography is rooted in the veracity of his commitment to Marwencol. Functioning as an objective correlative for his internal life and a ground on which physical and mental healing converge, the town and its characters explicate a process in which everyone engages; the rest of us simply lack the necessary tragedy, and requisite courage, to manifest Marwencols of our own.


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