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.
Tags: documentaries Jeff Malmberg Mark Hogancamp movies