The moment of discovery is a complex thing for any artist working in obscurity. For the fascinating, unclassifiable subject of “Marwencol,” it’s also the most recent side effect of a brutal barroom beating. Director Jeff Malmberg’s debut documentary is an intimate portrait of Mark Hogancamp, whose recovery from devastating trauma revolves around a world painstakingly created from dolls and miniatures. Critical praise and the lure of a mysterious story will draw the doc-adventurous when the film opens today in New York and Nov. 12 in Los Angeles.
The fictional Belgian town that gives the film its title is a place of derring-do and unlikely harmony, a 1/6-scale World War II no-man’s land where German and American soldiers coexist. Hogancamp’s creation calls to mind the outsider art of Henry Darger, but in three dimensions and with a far more realistic bent (Gen. Patton is one of the characters in the Marwencol drama).
A part-time restaurant worker in the upstate New York burg of Kingston, Hogancamp had to learn to walk and talk again at 38 after five men beat him to a pulp. He also had to construct a bridge to his former life via photographs, journals, the recollections of friends and, not least, his “drunk journals,” filled with accomplished illustrations and the rants of an angry, unreliable and rudderless man. “It was like reading something that Stephen King wrote,” the chain-smoking Hogancamp recalls.
Having lost the motor control to draw as he once did, and with his Medicaid-covered therapy cut off, Hogancamp explored new sections of the art-supply store and began constructing Marwencol in his backyard. It’s unclear whether he intended the pursuit as a substitute therapy or merely followed an urge. Either way, his efforts transcend their DIY aesthetic, packing a dime-novel/B-movie punch that is, as one art-minded observer notes, free of postmodern irony.
Hogancamp’s Marwencol alter-ego, a handsome and heroic captain, is the unofficial mayor of the town, where he runs a bar and drinks only coffee; Hogancamp, who lost his alcoholic proclivity after the attack, likens his character to Sam Malone of “Cheers.” But there’s little comedy in the exploits and romantic entanglements of Marwencol, whose 27 Barbies stage catfights and engage in bloody clashes with the encroaching SS.
Malmberg frames the unfolding melodrama in tight close-up, with period tunes enhancing the bygone mood. Hogancamp’s photographs of his mini-world interest an inquisitive neighbor, who urges the hesitant backyard mastermind toward art-journal publication. The resulting series of events stirs up anxieties concerning not only Hogancamp’s privacy and post-trauma wariness but also, in a matter-of-fact revelation an hour into the film, a facet of his personality that relates to his beating.
Unpredictable and absorbing, “Marwencol” poses penetrating questions — about art, outsider status, the mysteries of the human brain and the possibility of second chances — all while circling, ever closer, an unforgettable individual and the unknowable creative impulse.
Opens: Friday, Oct. 8 (Cinema Guild)
Production: An Open Face production in association with Different by Design
Director-editor: Jeff Malmberg
Producers: Jeff Malmberg, Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, Chris Shellen, Kevin Walsh
Camera: Jeff Malmberg, Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, Kevin Walsh
Music: Ash Black Bufflo
No rating, 83 minutes