Mark Hogancamp went into a coma for nine days after being beaten by four guys outside a bar. The movies have told us that something strange and possibly sinister transpires in that fathomless non-place where victims of accidents, crimes and war plunge for a time, but for Hogancamp, what was lost while comatose seems to have been a blessing. He awoke with severe amnesia, which meant he forgot he was a ruinous alcoholic. Bottles of booze stir nothing in him now. Their faded allure has freed him to make a new life, but of what sort? He had to learn to walk and talk all over, but couldn’t quite shake off a tremor. He can only handle working one shift a week making meatballs at a diner. In his abundant spare time he discovered he wasn’t just brain injured but deeply lonely. Medicare bought him little in the way of therapy, so he had to invent his own. In his Kingston, NY backyard he constructed a Belgian village in miniature, populating it with dolls refurbished as soldiers and women seeking refuge from the Second World War. Jeff Malmberg’s documentary about Hogancamp is named after Hogancamp’s creation: Marwencol.
It isn’t to dissuade you from seeing Marwencol when I say that everything great about it is derived from Hogancamp’s own charisma, vulnerability, and creativity. I don’t think Malmberg went as deep as he could have. There’s so often the feeling that Malmberg stopped digging as soon as he uncovered a sentimental sweet spot—which is easy enough since Hogancamp wears his heart on his sleeve, and his heart is so directly connected to his endearingly desperate horniness. All of Marwencol’s most striking images come directly from Hogancamp’s own lens, his painstakingly made photographs of tableaus depicting the elaborate dramas unfolding in Marwencol, tales of bravery, sadism, romance and betrayal. These inspired pseudo-film stills are what brought Hogancamp’s project to public attention, first in the pages of Esopus Magazine and later via his solo exhibition in a Manhattan gallery. But it’s enough that Malmberg invested such time in allowing his subject to reveal himself, fears, obsessions, and fetishes included. I don’t like to let documentary filmmakers off the hook just because they chose a great subject, especially from the veritable gold mine of the outsider art world, but I have to commend Malmberg for recognizing that Hogancamp had a lot to say and mostly staying out of his way as he tried to speak.
You might say that what Hogancamp’s inadvertently achieved is a modest version of what Philip Seymour Hoffman undertakes in Synecdoche, New York, but all on his own, and without a MacArthur Fellowship. Hogancamp’s dolls are surrogates for people he knows, neighbours, friends and workmates, and he uses these figures to negotiate between fantasy and reality, desire and disappointment. Unlike Charlie Kaufman’s epic of proliferate simulacra, Marwencol ends not with death but the possibility of rebirth. Hogancamp had the need for alcoholic oblivion beaten out of him. He constructed a place where his inner demons could wage war without hurting his loved ones, and he may have become an artist while mostly just trying to heal himself. Some day Hogancamp’s World War II will probably have to end, but his postwar universe will be glowing with nothing but potential.