Monday, May 8, 2017
Papa Mike's Video #17: MARWENCOL (2010)
There are two kinds of people in this world, those who will see the story and just the person that is Mark Hogancamp and completely dismiss him as some nutter who should go get regular old psychological therapy (whether by drugs or not), and those who have empathy and see how this man is hanging on by a thread... and yet by that thread he's created an entire world of his own.
Marwencol kind of works as an unofficial empathy test for human beings; we eventually find out in this documentary about this man's life and personal process for what he does about why he was viciously attacked by five assholes outside of a bar in 2000 (this also leads to other revelations about Mark which, really, are so harmless and yet depending on where you live it may not be), but that doesn't matter as much as the fact that a) he survived, and b) this film as an excellent example of the triumph of the human spirit - his, as a chain-smoking, gruffy-voiced, beautiful, damaged soul.
It's also significant that it's World War Two: it's never explained really why it has to be THIS setting (it's not said either way if he was fascinated by WW2 before the attack, though in a deleted scene on the DVD he shows us his grandparents and that his grandfather was in the war, even getting a doll that somehow, miraculously, looks exactly like him) and we simply accept it.
And it makes sense in this general way: when looking at American history of the past hundred years, this was the clearest "Good Guys" vs "Bad Guys" when it came to the West vs the Nazis. Mark's Marwencol is a safe space amid what on the surface would seem to be the chaos of war, but in reality (or Mark's reality) his dolls and sets and constructions are safe because the sides are so clear. He makes up his own stories for his army group, sometimes having fun with the ladies (the Barbies, I mean, hey, it can't be a town of just guys, you know?) and then other times when the SS comes in, and... it can't be helped if he plays out the attack in some direct or indirect ways with the dolls.
But he's not just laying out the dolls for his own amusement and that's it - there's not exactly 'amusement' when it comes to art therapy, an act that I think I took for granted but this documentary paints it in a whole other light - he has a camera and is constructing these narratives. Whether anyone else sees them doesn't matter, he could go his life and only make them for himself and maybe a few close friends, and that's it. And what are these photographs? Well, take a look below at some examples:
With Mark, his therapy is one of inclusion: his characters are at least largely using people he knows - friends, would-be lovers (or girls he has crushes on), and people he works with - and yet nothing is meant in the slightest as mockery. His is the kind of personal art that's like seeing someone writing a sincere poem, though with visuals the impact has another level, more stark and sometimes violent and brutal but also exhilarating and kinetic in its compositions in the process, so that it becomes something of a surprise when he might tell someone he knows (a neighbor or someone he works with) that such and such a doll is based on them and that his own doll may do this or that with them. The sincerity, one wonders, could cause some friction depending on who it is - what if Mark is constructing a narrative about marrying a woman who is already married, for example, which does happen - makes it all the more impactful; if it was all ironic or a lark, then people wouldn't respond to it. Hell, there might not even be a movie there.
It's good that the director has some background about Mark pre accident, that in a sense this was a reset that Mark perhaps simultaneously needed and didn't need. We learn he was an alcoholic, was married, and was before the accident an excellent illustrator. Part of the inspiration inherent in this story is that if you can somehow pick up the pieces of your life after being scarred and, indeed, everything being erased (Mark's brain damage was bad enough that he had to learn how to write and how to talk and walk and all of those things - he doesn't even know what sex is like, which leads a little too into how he constructs his Barbies and their relationships with the men, I think), and that the artistic impulse and drive and, basically, talent can be there still. We also learn too that he was, yes, a cross-dresser, and perhaps was bi-sexual too (he loves women, but he may also love men too, that latter part is left a little more ambiguous), and this is only a matter due to the visual of all of those pairs of high-heeled shoes Mark owns.
But how about how it works as a simple documentary, how the film about Mark goes? It's shot on not high-grade video or film, and this adds an intimate feeling, at least for me, and it makes for a strong contrast to all of the photographs that Mark makes himself (he goes from film to digital, why this happens exactly isn't clear, I wish it was since process is always the big thing in art). It's to the point where at one point director Jeff Malmberg is able to make at least once a semi-stop-motion sequence of one of the soldiers kissing one of the girls (quite much so), and that makes it entertaining when it's not just illuminating about this man and his world. He does a good job of showing how this man walks around, leading along his car of soldiers along the road as he goes into the main part of Kingston, New York, and making mis-en-scenes out of Mark's mis-en-scenes, if that makes sense.
And in the last third, one's heart goes out all the more to Mark. It's clear from what Mark says, both in the documentary proper and in the deleted scenes on the DVD that he could care either way if people think his work is "art" (you should watch those all, by the way, there's one that is especially heart-wrenching as he describes what happened to his face and how it was constructed back together that just... I'm going to cry thinking about him describing it). This isn't even about art, in a way, but about living... or, let me rephrase that, if there is art it comes out organically from the tableaus being created. And, again, this is WW2 being recreated - even Steve McQueen doll makes an appearance as the "tall, dark, handsome man" one of Mark's lady co-workers wants as a lover - and with the intricate detail that Mark has to make for himself.
It's a celebration of humanity and says, whether directly or not, that, hey, if THIS man can do this, what are you doing with yourself?