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Marwencol (2010): An Elephant Left in Charge of the Peanuts

Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010)

photo credit:

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

In the main, I loved Marwencol. It’s a riveting documentary that focuses on something very rare in today’s ultra-politically-correct culture: here’s a guy who suffered a massive head trauma—almost died, in fact—and the film isn’t holding him up as a martyr because of it. The film is focusing on the fact that he took the changes in his brain chemistry that resulted from the head trauma and made a damned fine career out of them. He suffered horribly, he came out the other side stronger for it, and he has become a popular, influential underground artist. And at no point during the first half of this film did I think to ask myself: why did he suffer this head trauma? We are given a simple explanation, and away we go.

photo credit: HTML Giant

“We had some problems with the wedding party, but couldn’t find replacements, so we went with what we had…”

And here is where I think Jeff Malmberg fails, to some extent, in telling this story: all the sudden he blindsides us with another piece of Mark Hogancamp’s character—the one that caused him to suffer said head trauma. (I’m trying to relate all this without being spoily, since it is painfully obvious that Malmberg wants this to be the major spoiler for this film—and isn’t that part of the problem, the very idea of using the term “spoiler” when you’re talking about a documentary?) We’ve spent so much time in this film talking—very successfully—about Marwencol and its maker, and then all the sudden bam, out of the blue, Malmberg turns a documentary into a combination of failed mystery film (failed because there is no foreshadowing at all) and social justice crusade. And I rush to add I am saying this as someone who is perfectly in agreement with the particular crusade that Malmberg (and, now that he has gained some influence in the world, Hogancamp as well) is on. I am totally down with the world needing to be accepting of (and I apologize for terming it this way, but again I am trying not to be spoily) the type of person Mark Hogancamp is. However, in the case of Marwencol, I think Malmberg did both Mark Hogancamp and the film a disservice by not being up front with this information. And it goes without saying it makes reviewing the movie a chore (which is why, in part, I’m writing this review in August of 2013, and my spreadsheet tells me I watched the movie on April 19, 2012. Oh, man, I’m farther behind than I thought—my spreadsheet has headers in chronological order, and Marwencol is eighth on the list. Guess I know what I’m doing this weekend…)

photo credit: KPBS

Hogancamp’s attention to detail is part of what makes his art work. Well, that and copious amounts of nicotine.

If you have somehow missed the buzz surrounding this movie, and maybe it’s just the circles I move in but it seemed to me like Marwencol was getting just as much press as March of the Penguins or Winged Migration, Mawencol is the story, as I have mentioned, of Mark Hogancamp, a man who was assaulted outside a bar one night, suffered massive head trauma, and as a result was left jobless, broke, and basically unemployable. Obviously at a loose end, he conceived an alternate World War II Germany. Some people might have turned it into a novel. Hogancamp decided to work in miniatures, and transformed the back yard of his house into a 1:12-scale war zone. Eventually, he started taking pictures, and they started coming to people’s attention. The rest—well, instead of me saying “the rest is alternate history”, I’ll just tell you to google Mark Hogancamp and peruse articles in Psychology Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and dozens of others, and check out exhibitions he’s done at galleries (the opening of the exhibit at White Columns is covered in the final quarter of Marwencol).

I’m certainly not going to tell you not to see it—it is, despite its shortcomings, a fascinating psychological study and an approachable, affable documentary about one of contemporary art’s more intriguing figures—but I think it could have been better than it is. Still, check this one out, sooner rather than later, but be prepared for some cognitive disjunct where none was necessary. *** ½


About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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