Screens

"Marwencol": A journey worth taking

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(NR) 4 stars

Marwencol is a bizarre and wildly beautiful documentary by Jeff Malmberg about the mad tightrope walk that splits expression and obsession. At its center is Mark Hogancamp, an eccentric and sweet-natured nobody with a saga to tell.

In 2000, Hogancamp was beaten into a coma by five men outside of an upstate New York bar. Nine days later, he awoke without memories or motor functions.After a month long stint in the hospital, his Medicaid ran out, and Hogancamp was sent home to a life he couldn't remember.

He searched for any tiny splinters of self that could help him grasp who he used to be. Slowly, he discovered that he had been married once.He was an ex-Navy man. Also, a ruinous drunk.In the yellowed pages of his journals he found illustrations that depicted his struggles with alcoholism. When he asked his friends if he had been a bad guy, they told him the only person he ever hurt was himself.

With his savings dried up and the burden of serious mental disability upon him, Hogancamp created his own therapy to help restore some of what he'd lost. He began building a miniature town in his backyard, populating it with action figures and tiny props to simulate a fictional WWII-era village. Over many months, he wrote narratives for the characters he created — the doughboys, the Brits, the Nazis, the barmaids, the witches, and the brawlers — and photographed scenes from their fictitious adventures.

He called their town "Marwencol."

The hero of the town's mythology is "Hoagie" — a fictional US soldier and Hogancamp's alter ego.With this second self at the center of his own private universe, it's here that Hogancamp begins to lose focus on what separates Marwencol from the real world.

If this all seems odd, it is — until you see Hogancamp's photographs of Marwencol.Painstakingly detailed, nostalgic, and rich, the stills have a vintage Hollywood grandeur that recalls Casablanca or The Great Escape. While it seems impossible that this vibrant world is made up of plastic dolls and hobby shop trinkets, it's Hogancamp's emotional dedication to his craft that brings the executions, the search-and-rescue missions, and the romantic reunions to life.

Soon, a local photographer realizes that Hogancamp is a true artist and helps get his work into an NYC gallery. But is he being accepted because of his art, or being exploited for his freakish quirks? The film takes the scenic route to the answers of these hard-to-reach questions, but it keeps us fascinated with ongoing discoveries.

We learn a lot about Hogancamp along the way, but we're given no easy conclusions. Ultimately, we must decide for ourselves who he is and why he longs to dwell outside the blurry boundaries of reality. While some of his memories maybe gone forever, Marwencol — as a film, as a fictional town and as Hogancamp's vicarious life — is too grand and too fleshed and too lonely to be forgotten any time soon.

Thursday, Dec. 9, at the IMA (see location info below)

7 p.m.

$5 for IMA members, $9 non-members

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