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?

Sunday, May 7, 2017


The power behind the (originally) TV movie I Only Want You to Love Me isn't (or not necessarily) that because it's based on an actual murderer interview that Rainer Werner Fassbinder read it makes for a compelling movie. Who knows, this could've been boring as hell (and for some who might come to it, whether it's before or after seeing other Fassbinder films, they might feel this way), as any film has to present itself as being fully DRAMATIC, and Fassbinder's gift was kind of going for that but at the same time adding a peculiar distance - not all the time, but sometimes - in how the drama is presented.

But the power behind this, to get back to my first point, is that it feels so wholly personal for this filmmaker: I had the notion watching this, both feelings and thoughts varying between the two depending on the scene, that perhaps Fassbinder looked at this man Peter Trapper and said, "you know, I could've been this guy, in another life." The empathy is wholly palpable, and in a way it's like an (unintentional?) remake of Why Does Herr R Run Amok?, only better and more focused and experimental in small ways.

It's also a film that has a melodramatic force, and at the same time doesn't play by the rules of what one usually thinks has to be shown in a dramatic film (at least as far as what modern, usually BS screenwriter manuals tell us). This man Peter doesn't lead too complicated a life and yet, despite some flash-forwards (or is the movie all a flash-back, either way), it's simply about a working man who wants to do right by the wife that he loves and, as the title says, he only wants her love, but goes about things in some foolish ways. But it's not the foolishness of someone who is mean or spiteful or petty; Peter's fundamentally a decent and good person who was likely f***ed up in a bad household from unloving parents.

Although, come to think of it, that may not be fair; it's probably as foolish of me to try and play arm-chair psychologist regarding Peter and his childhood, regardless of the only flashback we get to when Peter's mother beat his butt senseless with a stick (the flash cut from this to adult Peter smashing someone with a telephone, we don't know who or why yet, and then to him talking to someone in a room about his past... it's one of those moments where you go, "now THAT is daring filmmaking!"), as it would be for Peter to buy his wife a coat or sewing machine without asking or talking to her first. The one thing that I do think is there to witness, and this is looking beyond the lines (though not by much), is that Peter is fully shaped by the upbringing he had and the world he's in, whether he'd acknowledge it or not, and it goes to how he treats Erika as far as "Don't 'but' me, I'm doing this for you," and the general sense of, as nice as he is, everything is about what HE thinks he has to, MUST do, for her (this extends to the workplace as well).

Something else about Peter: he has a thing about always buying flowers to try and correct a wrong, whether for his wife or his mother, but especially his wife Erika - everything's prettier now, but won't they wilt and die?

Does this mean it doesn't date well? I don't think that's the case: on a personal level I related to this as I've been a working class person for much of my adult life (not a brick-layer, but that economic bracket, living paycheck to paycheck), and as far as creating that realism, Fassbinder knocks it so far out of the park there's no more parks to look down upon. I can believe there are men who think and act this way because it's all they know, this is the world they have to work in and, as much of the Western world is, THINGS matter so much as does money and how much there is and, going back to Peter's stiff and probably terrible parents, how Peter's been taught to view money. Is he going to do better than them? Does he want to BE them, to have that kind of wealth - he can go to his father for money but, often, the shame is excruciating more-so than the long hours he over-works himself for - and what does that say about him, decency aside?

There's so much rich stuff here that it's worth mentioning the actor Vitus Zeplichal, who's Peter. I didn't remember seeing him before (he had worked with RW before and after this, albeit in supporting roles), but I'll never forget him after this. I'd love to find out whether it was Fassbinder or Zeplichal's idea for Peter to rarely, if ever, blink. It's a clear decision as it's not something you can tell from the other actors, and it stands out as well due to how big his eyes are, how much we can read in to it.

Intercut interviews
But it's not the intensity of like an Al Pacino; his eyes convey mostly terror (at himself, his circumstances), fear, worry, the occasional, almost maniacal joy, and perhaps an emptiness. There may be full sadness as well, but I don't want to say it's only that since that's too easy and limiting what he does to one emotion. And there is a distinction to make for how he is doing this through much of the film, and then when it comes to this conversation with this woman in the room (post telephone smash one can see) that his eyes have changed, whether it's due to being resigned to his fate or whatever.
Something I pondered too at the end of this is... was Peter's fate, well, fate? Did he have a choice to change, or would he be doomed like other Fassbinder characters in these melodramas? I'm not sure if this is "better" than, say, Ali Fear Eats the Soul or Petra von Kant, but this carries such a degree of realism that I'd have to think the Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation would have a poster of this on his wall, and yet it has a level of stylization that marks it as being a cinematic experience, not just like docudrama or other.

(Or, to go back to 'documentary style, the in-name-only Fassbinder collaboration, Herr R, which was shot hand-held but was much looser than this film, which feels tight for all of its experimentation and propels the tragedy forward much greater than that work).