First-time director Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol” explores trauma and creativity in this stunning portrait of one man’s homemade therapy.
In April of 2000, one time alcoholic and part-time cross dresser Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five teenagers outside a local bar in Kingston New York. Brutally beaten, he sustained permanent brain damage, a loss of memory and was so traumatized that he had to relearn most of his basic functions. Released from the hospital without benefits, fearful Hogancamp devised his own form of art-therapy. For him, recovering his Imagination meant recovering his most important faculty.
Building a 1/6th scale model of Marwencol, an imaginary Belgian town during the German occupation, Mark peoples his alternate universe with characters from his own life, each a modified Barbie doll or action figure.
His mother tends bar (she’s a Pussy Galore doll) Mark muses at the oddness of that piece of casting. Although New York art types comment on Mark’s lack of Irony, it’s clear that he has developed his own sense of humor regarding the casting of his characters.
Mark’s alter ego downed Air force Captain Hogancamp, opens a bar (HoganCamps Catfight Club) in this town of beautiful women. Hoping to provide R & R for lost G.I.’s, British and German soldiers, the Captain hires the local beauties to stage catfights.
Marwencol is a boyish utopia. Lured by stories of Marwencol’s beautiful women (“the most beautiful in Belgium”) German soldiers arrive in town. They accept the town rules, eating and drinking with the Brits and G.I’s. And no guns. Everyone abides by Marwencol’s rules except the evil SS.
Mark’s action-packed story rewrites his trauma while glorifying the people in his inner life. When the SS attacks the town, the Captain leads the townies into hiding. One brave woman is killed for refusing to reveal the hidden bar. Mark’s alter ego is captured and crucified during Nazi SS interrogation but all the town’s women folk rescue him. (This is Mark’s beating with a new-happy ending).”So the call went out to all the town’s Barbies,” crows Mark, “This is no town that you can push over or take over. This is what happened to people who mess with us.
In his pre-attack journal, we see Mark’s drawings of scantily dressed babes, as voluptuous as the cartoon women who popped off the pages of 50’s Mad Magazine. Women warriors seem to be part of Mark’s psyche. No surprise for a man who has a closet full of woman’s pumps that have been given to him as gifts. (Amnesia wiped his cross-dressing identity from Mark’s memory, until a friend explained.)
Mark’s world building is obsessive. He knows what’s in every briefcase. Captain Hogancamp carries money, a detonator and a certificate of ownership for his bar.
The highly detailed model town is a laboratory for Mark to exorcise his attackers and other demons that keep him away from normal interaction with the outside world. Marencol is also the way Mark interacts with his neighbors. Everyone in Kingston seems flattered to become glamorous characters in Mark’s World War Two saga. “I tell my friends, you can be anybody you want. You can do anything you want. You can have as many girls as you want. In my town I only have 27 Barbies. We have to keep enough for the other dudes.”
His pre-attack girl friend is there. One co-worker is memorialized as bar wench “Mediterranean Lisa.” Seemingly absorbed in the doll-town, Lisa requested a tall, dark and handsome boyfriend. Mark set her up with good-looking Yazi, the Native American doll. When Lisa spotted the Steve McQueen doll, she asked Mark to swap. “I am now dating Steve McQueen. I am very happy about that.”
Mark falls in love with a doll based on Colleen, his married, next-door neighbor (who’s pretty involved in playing dolls with Mark despite her husband’s warnings.) Mark dotes on the blond Colleen doll. Working on her hairstyle, he explains, “She looks hot. I’m giving her Manolo sling-backs, because she deserves them.” They break up, and Captain Hogencamp marries his favorite doll Anna, who looks like his dream woman.
Sadly, Mark remembers his artfully staged and photographed doll-wedding better than his actual marriage.
There’s green haired, time-traveling Belgian witch Deja Thors, who’s jealous of Colleen and Anna but comes to the Captain’s rescue all the same. Mark shows off Deja Thor’s time machine, which he built out of an old VCR and a cell-phone keypad.
Filmmaker Malmberg spends so much time recording Mark that his subject opens up like a voluble child. He’s quite aware, and can explain the connections and compensations he makes moving from fantasy to his ‘real life’. “I act out my rage in photographs. I still really miss somebody to talk to.” While revealing Mark’s artistry, Malmberg provides us with a remarkable portrait of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mark uses photographs to document each part of the story, posing and art directing the shots in his own, self-taught, outsider way. Malmberg follows Mark around documenting Mark’s own documentation. The stills are remarkable. More so when you realize how Jerrybuilt the whole operation is. Realistic and emotional, each moment is artfully lit and captured by Mark’s savant-lens.
Some friends wonder if Mark’s storytelling is dangerous to his mental health. One wonders what would have happened with medical treatment, if this is, indeed, a journey towards freedom through creativity.
A stickler for realism, Mark wheels his scaled down army vehicles out on the road, to weather the tires. Day after day, he drags his jeeps down the highway. Dressed in Army mufti, he watches the white line at his feet, while drivers wonder about the strange man and his jeep. Whenever Mark is apprehensive, walking the two miles to the store, he arms the dolls in the jeep.” I look down at the jeep and I know they will protect me. She’s got 2 45’s. I’ve got two six-shooters and one 45 shoulder holster… there’s a lot of fire power…I make sure I put the correct weapon in there before I take my walks, so just in case.”
One day, passing photographer David Nagle saw Mark in his WW2 regalia and stopped to talk with him. Mark introduced David to all the characters in the miniature jeep. Amazed that Nagle stopped to talk with him, Mark sent him an envelope of snaps. Stunned by the realism in Mark’s pictures, Nagle asked him about how he archived the negatives and was horrified to learn they were thrown away. Mark never thought about his photographs as anything but a tool to continue the story in his head. All that would change. Nagle arranged for a one-man show.
Discovered by the art world, Mark is lured to New York for a gallery exhibition of blow-ups of his photos. It’s Mark’s first visit to New York and his first trip anywhere after the attack. Mark’s fears arise. He compares the art world’s invasion of Marwencol to an SS plot to take Captain Hogancamp prisoner, as we see in a photo recreation.
As Mark packs up his town, he explains “I built Marwencol for me, for my therapy, and now it’s everybody’s. Everybody wants to play with it, be part of it. It’s the one last thing I don’t want taken from me.” Staring at the blow-ups, he muses, “This brings me right back to when I started the town, how close and dear it was to me, and how much I wanted people to know and be part of my town. That’s why I started putting people I know in it, because I feel so alone here. I can manipulate them to make them do what I want, to be surrounded by my friends. “
Mark realized he has to make a decent appearance for the “big spendy guys” who may buy his art, and the women who may want to meet the artist, yet he dreams of wearing high heels to the show to be “true to himself and the second life I was given. People see art in what I film… It’s still my therapy, no matter how much art people see.”