Aspen Filmfest: A village of the mind in ‘Marwencol’
ASPEN – When Jeff Malmberg asked Kevin Walsh to travel from Los Angeles to upstate New York to help make a 10-minute documentary, Walsh agreed because he knew Malmberg. The two had gone to film school years earlier at the University of Southern California, and had worked together on the 1999 action comedy “Shafted!” Also, Walsh had seen “Red White Black & Blue,” an award-winning World War II documentary Malmberg had made with another of their film-school friends, Tom Putnam.But when Malmberg asked Walsh to help turn the 10-minute project into an 83-minute film, Walsh said OK because he had met Mark Hogancamp, the subject of the documentary. An artist, a survivor of a vicious beating and severe head trauma, a chain-smoking alcoholic, and the possessor of a unique imagination, Hogancamp, according to Walsh, deserved feature-length treatment.Walsh says that if Malmberg had originally proposed something more than a short, “I would have wondered, Is there really a feature-film’s worth of material? But that was before I met Mark. There’s a richness there that doesn’t come across in a thumbnail log line” (Hollywood-ese for a one-line description of a project, Walsh explained).Audiences are confirming Walsh’s view that Hogancamp’s story is worth a long, detailed look. “Marwencol,” the film directed by Malmberg and co-produced by Walsh, Putnam and others, made its debut at Austin, Tex.’s South By Southwest Film Conference, where it earned the Best Documentary award. The film is having a busy existence leading up to its early-October release, with screenings at festivals from Seattle to Boston to Maryland. Virtually everywhere it has won acclaim, picking up Best Film honors at the comics-oriented Comic-Con in San Diego, the Grand Jury Award at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and Best Documentary at the Fantasia Festival, a Montreal event devoted to genre films.”Marwencol” will have two screenings at Aspen Filmfest, with Walsh in attendance for Q&A.Prior to 2000, Mark Hogancamp was a moderately interesting character. A resident of Kingston, N.Y., a small town on the Hudson River, he was married and worked in the kitchen of a local restaurant; more notable was his talent as an illustrator and cartoonist and his alcoholism (as well as another personality quirk that Walsh requested not be revealed here). In 2000, Hogancamp was beaten by a group of five men. He lost his memory and motor and language skills. He emerged, in essence, as a new person. He was no longer addicted to drinking, but had plenty of other problems to deal with, including how to regain his trust in humanity and how to become comfortable with what now looked like a threatening and chaotic world.He coped by creating his own world: Marwencol, a miniature World War II-era Belgian village. Hogancamp’s creation was uncanny -not only in its physical expanse and detail, but how its creator imbued the town with characters, plot lines and emotion. The fictional town is crawling with menacing Nazis; villagers, mostly in the form of heroic Barbie dolls; and Hogancamp’s alter-ego, Capt. “Hogie” Hogancamp. In Marwencol, there are weddings and gun fights, plots by the resistance and catfights in the local bar.”Marwencol” treats this assemblage not as an oddity, but as the product of a mind that is simultaneously doing two profound things: making art, and engaging in a process of psychic healing. When Hogancamp and his project are introduced, they are a curiosity. By film’s end, Hogancamp is having an exhibition of his Marwencol photographs and installations, at a Greenwich Village gallery, and is being taken seriously in the art world. But the film doesn’t take a step-by-step approach; rather, it reveals Hogancamp at a deliberate pace – an episode from his past, an interview with a neighbor, a segment set in the fictional village, a glimpse of Hogancamp’s present-day idiosyncrasies – that gradually adds layers of depth to the portrait.”That’s by design,” Walsh said of the film’s avoidance of a straight-forward narrative. “Jeff, the director, is an editor by trade, and structures are his bread and butter. What I think he ultimately arrived at was to structure the movie in the same way he got to know Mark. And the audience goes on that same journey. It’s less a narrative than the idea that you’re meeting this guy.”The film’s kinetic feel stems also from the nature of the project. Malmberg first heard of Hogancamp around 2005, when he read of the Marwencol village in Esopus, a New York-based arts magazine. Malmberg spent ample time with his subject as Hogancamp was preparing for his gallery show, a cause of considerable anxiety but also self-examination for Hogancamp. So the film became a documentation of something that was in process, not something already formed.Another dimension of the film is the question, never addressed in a technical way, of just how delusional Hogancamp is. At times, he knows full well that Marwencol is imaginary; in other scenes, he appears to identify fully with the characters he has created.”Mark’s level of investment in Marwencol developed in different ways as the film was being made,” said Walsh, who is also a writer, and a story analyst for DreamWorks Animation. “There were times we’d ask, Is Mark losing touch? Now there’s a Belgian witch with a time machine, and we’d say, Wasn’t this a World War II thing? But he’s not a delusional person; he knows the difference between reality and fiction. But sometimes you want to lose yourself, go into that comfort zone. Sometimes he goes into that place, where he wants to lose himself in Marwencol. But he’s not lost in Marwencol.”By film’s end, as Hogancamp’s work is being celebrated in the New York art scene, we start to see him not so much as the victim of an attack, but a bit as just another artist – a tortured soul, more troubled than most, trying to make sense of his surroundings. An art-world insider, Esopus editor Tod Lippy, offers an on-camera take on the photographs, noting the lack of irony in the images, that Marwencol comes very directly from Hogancamp’s mind.”He gets this sense of life in those dolls,” Walsh said. “It’s like a magic trick he pulls off. I watch him manipulate these dolls – then I see the photo and say, How did that happen? It’s that sense of belief he has in Marwencol that he can capture, and then show us. It evokes emotion.”If “Marwencol,” the film, has its own magic, Walsh says it is comes from the subject himself.”It works because of Mark,” he said. “He’s an interesting enough person, with enough facets and layers, that you don’t have to dress it up with filmmaking tricks. Some directors put their style and stamp on it. But Jeff Malmberg saw that Mark was the show.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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