Marwencol (USA, 2010, Jeff Malmberg)
Ben Begins (and ends):
Hogancamp's camp is full of Hogan's Heroes. Sure, I say this to make the pun, but not just to make the pun. Indeed, had the pun been my top priority, I would not have capitalized the word "Heroes" to indicate a proper noun. A lower case spelling would signal that the heroes were merely those of Mark Hogencamp, the significance of which is entirely personal for him, privately idiosyncratic. Quite the opposite, the characters who animate his doll house truly are Hogan's Heroes, which I now italicize to make it that much more plain that I am alluding to the TV show.
Point being, the artist is tapping into what is unquestionably the default historical narrative of the modern American patriotic psyche. WWII is THE Good War, THE Just Cause of all just causes, used to justify all subsequent war-making, however obliquely - or not. The cultural centrality and ideological resilience of this narrative is perhaps best demonstrated by the remarkably diverse versions of it, especially comedic. From Ernst Lubitsch to Mel Brooks to Quentin Tarantino, with the lesser likes of Hogan's Heroes thrown in too, clearly; ironic ridicule is as effective as any other approach when it comes to having the Nazis symbolize Pure Evil.
The artistically fascinating aspect of Hogancamp's doll house is that his particular appropriation of this societal devil incarnate or Platonic ideal of national sin is communicated through a media that is screaming out kitch, but the episodes of Hogan's Heroes he storyboards and photographs are dead serious. A working-class folk artist, it is reasonable to speculate that Hogancamp's educational exposure to sophisticated treatments of the WWII narrative has been minimal. Be this as it may, his use of GI Joe action figures and Barbie dolls reflects his very modest economic means when it comes to procuring the necessary material supplies for his artistic expression. That he is able to overcome the popular perception of these objects as automatically signifying nothing more than toys for kids - without a trace of irony - is of itself testament to the power of sincerity in art.
The degree to which this sincerity of itself is enough to establish the merit of Hogancamp's art could be a matter of debate. This is to suggest that it seems unlikely anyone could grasp it's profundity without having background information about the man's biography. It might be possible to uphold as a corollary of the art-for-art's-sake rule that any circumstances surrounding the art's creation should be disregarded. In the case of Hogancamp specifically, however, this corollary should itself be disregarded because in the first place it is beyond debate that he is not creating art for art's sake.
It is a hackneyed metaphor to hold that an artist's work is for him a form of personal therapy but on this occasion it is literally true. The real story of Hogancamp's life is absolutely essential to know in order to properly appreciate his art. Hell, it's absolutely essential to know to respect him as a person, an outstandingly courageous, inspiring human being. In his way, Mark Hogencamp is the heroic equal of Aron Ralston, who has recently and deservedly been celebrated in the film 127 Hours.
I liked that film alright, but in my estimation, Marwencol is far superior. What most impresses me about it as a documentary is the way it paces its deliverance of the facts. The film immediately intrigued me and made me sympathetic to its subject. Yet it refrained from asking and answering certain questions at the outset, instead waiting until the best possible moment to reveal crucial information. We are told at the beginning about the brutal attack Hogancamp experienced, the brain damage he suffered and how the doll house came about as a self-help program to restore mental faculties, manual dexterity and... next thing you know - we're entering the fantasy world itself and becoming enchanted by it.
Even so, it soon becomes a curiousity. OK, we get the theraputic purpose of the form of the project, but what about its content? What's with the particulars of Hogancamp's fantasy land? The documentary speaks to this just in time. It is made clear that Hogancamp requires not merely an escapist retreat in which to feel secure but also a make-believe world where he can dramatize his revenge. He must have for himself a zone wherein it is absolutely impossible to be sceptical about the bad guys being bad. They must be Pure Evil. That's right, Nazis. Hence, Hogencamp's unconscious but easily understandable need for a WWII scenario.
In order for the audience to be morally comfortable enough to allow this, though, we need to return to the scene of the crime. It is vital that we overcome whatever reservations we may have about Hogancamp casting his assailants as Nazis. Otherwise, any distain we might feel for the fetishistically perverse impulses of the artist will obstruct our connection with him as an artist and possibly even as a victim in need of his therapy. In short, it has to be explained to us why Hogancamp was savagely beaten to near death outside the bar that night.
Hence, the film eventually reveals his alcoholism and his transvestism, in that order, and the result is a documentary that is ultimately a very moving statement about sexual identity, repressive violence and art that is for a fuck of alot more than it's own sake! On every conceivable level, Mark Hogencamp is right to cast his bad guys as Nazis. While only a bit of sensitivity is required to realize that homosexuality and transvestism are not the same thing, such sensitivity would not have been displayed by those busy gasing gays in the ovens along with Jews, Gypsies, Communists...
Close to the end of Marwenecol, after receiving enough encouragement, when the artist finally wears a pair of his women's shoes to his gallery show - I cried. Even more than what this indicated about his own healing process, I was emotionally overtain by the moment as a political act. As for his own healing process, the film-maker saves the best for last. In a meta-statement that would make the director of Sherlock Jr. proud, we are shown the dolls of the dolls. We see Hogancamp manipulating the now big doll of himself, manipulating the new little doll of himself, being filmed in a documentary about the referent of the referent that is the actual man. You'd think that artifice upon artifice would constitute a further retreat from reality. But dialectically, the exact opposite is happening. Not as some ironic twist either. By allowing his emerging post-trauma experience into his pretend kingdom, the man is reconstituting his self-consciousness, reclaiming the dignity of his whole mind, recovering his soul. This is incontrovertibly confirmed we we see him bringing in to the picture his post-post-trauma experience.
It's easy to by cynical about individuals who have triumphed over adversity. I've seen footage of Aron Ralston mountain climbing with his prosthetic device and he makes it look like an advantage over an organic limb. Plus the business he generates as a motivational speaker ain't too shabby. Along this line it could be said that the five guys who almost killed Mark Hogencamp did him a favour. Beating he took, best thing ever happened to him. Got him over the booze and out of the closet. Made him a minor celebrity on the way to being a pretty rich man.
Personally, I do not believe in Pure Evil. But nor do I believe in God and the ultimate Goodness of His Plan for all us, including the torturous path of the fate assigned to particular persons. So I'm having none of any kind of grossly deterministic consequentialism, the cynical sort included. If I had been trapped in Aron Ralston's spot, I would have died there. And if I had been in Mark Hogencamp's shoes outside the bar that night, I would not be standing here today in his shoes again, ladies footware this time around. I say it once more, these men are authentic heroes. No wonder all of his real life friends from around town are honored to be incorporated into Hogencamp's camp. I would feel just as flattered to be one of Hogen's heroes, as any heroism assigned to me could only be fictional.
Such a thorough review, and so thoroughly reflects my thoughts on the film that I have little to add beyond this very minor quibble. Sometimes the filmmakers engage in a bit of narrative sleight of hand, withholding information from the audience in order to have their "tada!" moments, suddenly springing key developments upon the audience in a rather unnecessarily manipulative way.
Still, as I said, I minor quibble given the overall quality of this film. I love Hogancamp, and I love this movie.
The trailer for Marwencol:
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