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Exactly the sort of mysterious and almost holy experience you hope to get from documentaries and rarely do, Jeff Malmbergs Marwencol is something like a homegrown slice of Herzog oddness, complete with true-crime backfill and juicy metafictive upshot. It begins with context: In 2000, Mark Hogancamp, an Upstate New York resident, was beaten outside a bar by four men so badly that he incurred a brain injury and woke up to a life he barely remembered. Slowly, he discovered that hed once been married (we never find out what happened to his foreign bride), that hed been an accomplished artist (the drawings we see are wild and Crumb-like), and that hed been a raging, ruinous alcoholic. Now seriously disabled mentally, he has existed since the beating by mopping floors and making diner meatballs in his destitute little trailer town.
Having run out of insurance for therapy, Hogancamp reverted to a childhood impulse and began building a miniature town in his yard, occupied by action figures and simulating a World War II Belgian village filled with GIs, Nazis, Brits, vamps, brutes, barmaids, and simulacra of his friends, relatives, and neighborsfrom which both his life and Malmbergs film sprout some very unlikely mushrooms: Enraptured by his idealized world and the extravagant, ever-changing narrative that goes with it (eventually, a time machine cooked up from an old VCR is introduced), Hogancamp invested his play-project with a massive amount of detail and thought, and then began photographing the tableaux. Soon, a local photographer realizes that he is an artist, a primitive born out of trauma.
Malmberg holds this and other revelations for as long as he can, but he hits you immediately with Hogancamps perspective, never showing the titular mini-village in its depressing entirety, but instead crawling through it with a short focal length and treating it like a movie set. Which is in many ways what it isthe artists beautiful, arresting photos are so saturated with natural contrasts and filled with spontaneous feeling that they suggest stills from a movie that doesnt exist. (But what if it could? The dolls frozen expressions somehow work to convey emotion, Todd Hayness Superstarstyle.) As the soldier dolls gesticulate tragically in the sun, one could be forgiven for thinking of Malicks The Thin Red Line. When Hogancamp pulls his toy army jeep packed with decked-out figurines down the highway shoulder to naturally roughen up the new wheels, Malmberg hits the pavement with a dolly shot, lending the moment a surprising cinematic torque.
Hogancamps project is undoubtedly a textbook example of outsider art, and enthralls for that genres particular reasonsaesthetic innocence, genuine otherness. But even without knowledge of the artists life, the photos step beyond neo-kitsch into a realm where child-like transference merges with a dramatic grandeur to create both a feeling of vintage Hollywood artifice and authentic pathos. Malmberg is sensitive to the arts significance, and often elaborates on Hogancamps ideas in his own visuals, even indulging in a spurt of stop-motion animation. But hes also sensitive to the man, a naive, socially inept misfit eventually terrified by his own press coverage and a rather spectacular show in a Village gallery.
Life and fantasy are scrambled for Hogancamp. Inevitably, his alter-ego doll is disabled by a Nazi beating, and the now-feted but still deeply ill artist creates a mini-Marwencol within Marwencol, complete with tiny jeep and figures one-sixth of the first towns one-sixth scale.
What happens next? You cant help but wonder if Malmberg and Co. may have violated outsider arts version of Star Treks prime directiveis Hogancamp self-consciously producing art now? Has heor should heretreated back into his handmade world? And whens his next show?
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