Monday, April 25, 2011

Art Month on Independent Lens: Marwencol

There is a small piece of Belgium hidden away in upstate New York. Partly as therapy and partly as a retreat from reality, Mark Hogancamp created a model WWII-era village with an extensive mythology that has been hailed as a singularly significant work of outsider art. Hogancamp and his alternate world are profiled in Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol (trailer here), which screens tomorrow night as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens.

One fateful night, the hard-drinking Hogancamp was beaten senseless by five thugs. Suffering profound brain damage, his mental slate was essentially wiped clean. Yet, elements of his previous life influence the characters of Marwencol, the fictional village newly liberated by the American Army, led by Hogancamp’s GI Joe alter-ego. Marwencol is a welcoming place with a large population of German deserters. However, the Hogancamp doll must constantly defend the village from the SS as he juggles the affections of several Barbies modeled after his real life crushes.

At its most distinctive, outsider art is both compelling and unsettling in equal measure due to its compulsive attention to detail and absolute earnestness. Clearly, this is the case with Hogancamp. It is a richly inventive “installation” (for lack of a better term), which could easily be adapted as feature in its own right. Yet, it is also quite sad to watch the damaged Hogancamp talking to his characters. Though he can still obviously distinguish between fantasy and reality, it seems as if he is attempting to breach that dividing wall through his concerted efforts.

The Marwencol figures and settings are extremely photogenic, particularly when accompanied by vintage big band swing music. However, the digital video shot by Malmberg and his producers Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, and Kevin Walsh looks rather flat and unremarkable, resembling a feature story on a local newscast than a theatrical doc.

In one of the great ironies of Marwencol, the gentle Hogancamp explains he was essentially an alcoholic jerk before the attack. He also had a few more things to learn about himself, which the film reveals as a big third act surprise. However, once it is out in the open, Malmberg almost entirely changes the focus of the film as a result.

The images of Hogancamp’s alternate reality are quite striking, but frankly television is the appropriate venue for Malmberg’s Marwencol. As luck would have it, here it is, airing tomorrow (4/26) on most PBS outlets, courtesy of Independent Lens.