Independent Film Festival Boston: MARWENCOL

Tuesday April 27, 2010 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA.

MARWENCOL, Directed and Edited by Jeff Malmberg, featuring Mark Hogancamp.

Frank Capra worked under the motto “One man, one movie.” Supporting characters and secondary plot lines aside, Capra believed that the best movies followed the odyssey of one person’s life. Director Jeff Malmberg spent roughly three years and a lot of his own money following Mark Hogancamp around the town of Marwencol. Marwencol is a Belgian town, but you will not find on any map of Belgium, because Marwencol exists entirely in the mind and backyard of Mark Hogancamp.

Mark Hogancamp was a married Navy veteran living in upstate New York whose hobbies once included hanging out in his favorite bar and drawing comicbook-style illustration that would do SGT. ROCK proud. Everything Hogancamp remembered was erased in one night when he was beaten into a coma by five drunks as he left the local bar. After awakening from his coma, Hogancamp was unable to steady his hands well enough to draw to his prior level of detail. Rather than drawing war stories, he found that he could build elaborately detailed set pieces, and photograph a private war fought by G.I. Joes and other dolls and action figures. When Hogancamp submitted one of his photos to a contest, he won more than first prize and a little pocket money, he won the attention of Jeff Malmberg and the New York art scene.

Though Hogancamp was reluctant to share his inadvertent art therapy in a film, Malmberg’s persistence has paid off. MARWENCOL is one of the most moving stories about fate I have seen — tempting fate, resigning oneself to fate, and challenging fate. Hogancamp’s journey takes twists and turns that would be absurd if this was fiction. This is a true puzzle of one man sifting through the extraordinary fragments of his broken life, and piecing together both a workable existence and an artistic point of view few would ever imagine. Malmberg exhibits unusual patience and restraint in the film’s discovery of each of Hogancamp’s epiphanies.

Malmberg allows us to sit beside Hogancamp while he pours through his “drunk journal” notebooks trying to figure out who he had been before the assault. We meet Hogancamp’s neighbors and coworkers, who to varying degrees of pride or concern, have inspired their own characters within Marwencol. As we learn who Hogancamp had been, we witness him deciding who he wants to be, using his controlled town to experiment with his identity. None of this is forced or polished; we are included in each step and set back in both Hogancamp’s personal and creative lives. Malmberg could have teased certain elements to build false suspense, but by allowing the story to unfold at Hogancamp’s pace, he shows great respect both for Mark Hogancamp and for the artistic process. Malmberg affords the characters in Marwencol the same dimensions as the flesh and blood people who surround Hogancamp. He does not photograph them from above like an adult briefly admiring a child’s toys before moving on. He joins Hogancamp in the dirt, both of them showing us that each character in Marwencol represents an idea as vivid and honest as any artist could express.

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