Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A town where it's always World War II

A documentary helps us think about what it means to create an artificial reality -- and live in it..
Dolls at war in Marwencol.

When the year's top documentaries are announced, it's unlikely that Marwencol will appear on many short lists. That may have something to do with the fact that Marwencol shares no kinship with the kind of socio-political documentaries (Waiting for Superman and Inside Job) that currently dominate the non-fiction scene. Working against the trendy grain, director Jeff Malmberg has made a character study -- and an odd one at that.

Malmberg takes an immersive look at the strange life of Mark Hogancamp, a man of stunning peculiarity. The movie also examines how an obsessive hobby can morph into highly praised outsider art, and poses an additionally fascinating question: Can something be deemed art if its creator had no artistic intentions in mind?

Marwencol, which played at the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival and which may find most of its audience on DVD, tells the story of Hogancamp, an alcoholic veteran who was severely beaten outside a bar in 2000.

Having "recovered," Hogancamp devotes most of his time to building and maintaining a miniature World War II village in his backyard. The town -- Marwencol by name -- is populated by Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls that Hogancamp painstakingly outfits in tiny costumes. But that's only half of the story. Thanks to Hogancamp's active imagination, the residents of Marwencol are involved in an on-going soap opera that dabbles in love, heroism, Nazi cruelty and occasional moments of rapprochement. Fair to say that Hogancamp lives inside a pulpy narrative that springs from a mind that treats its creations as if they were real.

Hogancamp photographs scenes in his mock village as he dreams up various story lines. His photographs of Marwencol have been shown in an upscale New York gallery, but -- or so it seems to me -- it's not so much the photographs that prove interesting, but a process that has come to consume Hogancamp's life.

I seem to have forgotten to mention that Hogancamp is also a cross-dresser who has struggled to express that part of himself in public.

Hogancamp's predilection for women's clothing aside, Marwencol is more than a freak show; it's a serious look at the ways in which alternate realities function. They can help us work through terrors too frightening for real life, but they also pose a danger, particularly when artistic sublimation borders on evasion.

Whatever you conclude about Hogancamp, you'll find him difficult to dismiss. After suffering a debilitating beating, he created a world for himself, and he's as committed to it as you might be to yours.

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