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The Scarlet & Black

In the dollhouse

Jeff Malmberg’s recent documentary “Marwencol” is one of many films this year that celebrate society’s outcasts and individualists. It sits nicely alongside films like “The Social Network,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Winter’s Bone,” “127 Hours” and “True Grit”—all films about peculiar or defiant individuals who surmount overwhelming external circumstances in order to doggedly choose their destinies. Mark Hogancamp—the subject of “Marwencol”—may be more fragile than the stars of those other films, but he is every bit as dead-set on defining who he is, despite the fact that grisly circumstances caused his identity to undergo a severe alteration midway through his life.

On April 8, 2000, Hogancamp was attacked and viciously beaten by five men. He spent nine days in a coma and forty days in the hospital, only to emerge with virtually no memory of his past life. Friends and family inform him that he was an alcoholic, painter and all-around town eccentric. After years spent relearning language, writing, and basic motor skills, Hogancamp decides to reinvigorate his artistic side and begins to build a miniature world out of dolls, cardboard and toy props, among other objects. The world is Marwencol, a small town in Belgium during WWII. In the town lives Hogancamp’s miniature alter ego, a more ruggedly handsome version of himself who runs a bar but, like formerly alcoholic Hogancamp, drinks only coffee.

With this fictional town, Hogancamp concocts hundreds of elaborate narratives and distinctive personalities, many of whom he based on the denizens of Kingston, NY, where he lives. In this little world, Hogancamp can relieve his anger and anxiety and can express his romantic longing. The men who attacked Hogancamp are represented by Nazis who come to Marwencol for trouble, usually only to be graphically murdered by the good American soldiers. More importantly, Marwencol is filled with beautiful women who adore Hogancamp and are willing to fight for his love. The life-sized Hogancamp isn’t so romantically successful. He misses women intensely, having once been married, and has an obsessive fetish for feminine attire.

Much of this film’s appeal stems from the joy of watching the meticulousness with which Hogancamp pieces his little world together. He washes his dolls’ hair so that it will have the right texture. He takes his toy cars for strolls around Kingston so that their tires will be properly dirty. His most poignant obsessions are connected to personal vulnerabilities. He crafts with loving detail a doll version of a local married woman who he has a crush on. She and mini-Hogancamp get married. Eventually, when Hogancamp persists in visiting the real woman and telling her all the details of their doll-alter-egos’ romance, she pulls away from him. In response, the hurt Hogancamp creates an elaborate narrative that ends the doll-romance and is as funny as it is discomforting.

In some ways, “Marwencol” is a much less pessimistic portrait of creative individualism than other films this year, such as “The Social Network” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Those films also follow outsiders who create their own alternate realities. However, they do so in fairly parasitic ways—in “The Social Network,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as someone who understands the dark side of American youth culture well enough to exploit and thereby become a part of it, while “Exit Through the Gift Shop’s” Thierry Guetta is a misfit who has little artistic ability but manipulates the superficial and hype-driven character of consumerist art world in order to turn himself into a sensation. Both figures are forces to be reckoned with, but their creations are made on society’s terms.

With his little models and his soft voice, Hogancamp is working on his own terms, always. He’s not sure he wants attention. He makes Marwencol because it is the only place where he can feel comfortable with who he is. It is completely his world.—maybe a little too much so. What makes this movie uncomfortable is that the toy town is a fairly creepy narcissistic fantasy, a land of beautiful dolls who all fight over Hogancamp. And, if Hogancamp cares about his female characters for reasons other than their physical beauty and their nurturing of his wounded ego, the film doesn’t show it. Perhaps this kind of personal sublimation constitutes a necessary solace for someone who has been to hell and back. But “Marwencol” raises questions about how self-absorbed a creative endeavor can really be while still possessing aesthetic value, however much craftsmanship and imagination that endeavor involves. Granted, Hogancamp is clearly not concerned with these questions.

-Colin Carr ’12

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