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Submitted by on May 10, 2011 – 11:13 AM5 Comments

Marwencol presents initially as your typical Independent Lens documentary feature, a bittersweet meditation on the strength of the human spirit that, while informative, doesn't maintain good boundaries with the twee. But this film, about Mark Hogancamp's recovery from a vicious bar beating through the construction and documentation of a one-sixth-scale World War II town, keeps it tight and unsticky.

Hogancamp's art is fascinating on its own, sans backstory. He hacks Barbies and GI Joe dolls to look like people he knows in real life; he ages toy Jeeps realistically by hauling them along the shoulder of a road in his hometown upstate; he set-designs his photographs, keeps track of subplots, and gives the doll who portrays him in the town the satisfactions and heroics he feels he deserves, usually with an off-brand cigarette dangling from his lips.

I enjoy looking through that sort of window, into a form of art or collecting. The subtext of most art, its attempt to perfect the world, is made text here, in a relatable and unpretentious way. Then, too, it's occupational therapy in Hogancamp's case; to see the precision, the nimble visual shorthand, the tiny historically accurate buttons and firearms, and then to know that Hogancamp came back to that dexterity from serious brain injury, is just really cool.

So the story goes along, introducing us to Hogancamp and letting Hogancamp introduce us to his town, real and created; the director weaves in mentions of the attack, the circumstances, a few specifics, but lets it seem rather random; Hogancamp is asked to show his photographs at a gallery in New York City. And about two-thirds of the way through, we get a significant bit of information involving footwear that immediately adds half a dozen layers to Hogancamp's life before the attack, to the attack itself, to the way he builds and disappears into Marwencol. Exactly enough is explained, and we're counted on to infer the rest; it's done so cleverly, so respectfully to both Hogancamp and to the various narratives in the movie, that I paused it for a moment just to mull it all over.

The best documentarians know how to manage the complicated relationships between the subject and the narrative without losing the pacing or making themselves too evident in the story; Jeff Malmberg does a fantastic job in that regard with his directorial debut. Marwencol isn't a "big" movie, but that's part of what I liked about it; check your local listings to see if Independent Lens is airing it again, and if not, grab it from Netflix. It's an hour and a half well spent.

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  • Dayna says:

    I stumbled across this on a PBS station when I was looking for a distraction. It was fascinating to watch for all the reasons that you mentioned. I found the scenes at the art gallery in NY very touching, Mark's very visible discomfort being out in the world again and his bravery at the end of the evening with his choice of footwear. You could see the change in him as he allowed himself to be who he is.

    I also liked how they didn't shy away from showing some of his anger and the changes that come from having had a brain injury. I think I would recommend this film to anyone.

  • Dorinda says:

    I agree–this was a really enjoyable and interesting film. I was fascinated by Marwencol, and appreciated the time they spent giving us closeups and storylines. And the gradual contextualization of events within the larger frame of Hogencamp's life was very well done. By the end, it also had those great little super-meta moments–like, with his avatar creating his own teeny-tiny Marwencol, or Hogencamp talking with his mom after having seen the movie of himself. All very satisfying and interlocking.

    And I was both touched and immensely relieved by the scene after the art show, when Hogencamp says something wistful like, I wish I had had the courage to wear those shoes, and someone he's with just up and says, "It's not too late." So he wears the shoes. I was jolted by such happiness for him, that he was able to do what he wanted to, and was around people who supported him and didn't find any of it a big deal.

  • Jaybird says:

    Sars, this may not be the place to ask this–and forgive me if it isn't–but have you watched "Crazy Love", the documentary about Burt and Linda Pugach? I would LOVE to get your take on that one. LOVE, I tell you.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    It's in the Netflix queue (please note that that could mean it's 3 years before I see it…but it IS in the queue).

  • Jaybird says:

    Girl, you ain't been gobsmacked 'til you've been gobsmacked by THAT thing. (My hillbilly is showing, sorry.)

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