9/10 Second Lives
Playing with dolls has never been so fascinating.
Marwencol is a documentary about an alcoholic Navy Vet named Mark Hogencamp who went to a bar one fateful night and ended up getting savagely attacked by a group of asshole thugs who beat him into a coma and damaged his brain so badly that he couldn’t even remember who he was when he woke up. As Hogencamp pieces his life together by reading through journals from his past, he finds himself a changed man with zero temptation towards alcohol and a far more positive disposition towards others. But with barely the capacity to work a steady job and a wealth of time to come to terms with what happened to him, he decides to channel his feelings in the form of a fictional WWII village in his backyard filled with dolls representing the people in his life, historical figures like Gen. George S. Patton and Steve McQueen, and even himself. What begins as a catharsis of sorts eventually blossoms into a full-fledged society that in time gets him noticed by an art aficionados and forces him to venture into the unknown of the outside world while embracing the person he’s become.
Sorry for the lengthy synopsis, but isn’t that just the funkiest thing you’ve ever heard? Don’t be surprised if this movie isn’t ringing any bells, ’cause chances are you’ve never heard of Hogencamp and I’ve been recommending this doc like crazy over the past month or so and not a soul has heard of him or it either. But thanks to a very cool fellow who recently suggested it to me and double thanks to yet another fateful night of arguing about what to watch on Netflix Instant with my good buddy Fred, Marwencol was where we settled and I was totally freakin’ hooked.
But as totally smitten as I am with this movie, I either get one of two reactions whenever I tell folks what it’s about: sheer fascination, or a raised eyebrow that’s usually followed by something like, “That sounds stupid.” And I get that, because watching a movie about a grown man and his dolls for 83 minutes doesn’t exactly sound like edge-of-your-seat stuff. Although by the same token, that was so much of the appeal for me.
It’s just this bizarro, backwoods subject for a movie that by some freak stroke of luck made its way to the public and has so much more depth going for it than you’d think it would from the outset. I mean, you think about dolls, you think about little girls playing with Barbies. The last thing that comes to mind is art, but that’s exactly what this is from the dolls themselves and the town they live in to Hogencamp’s photographs that bring it all to life. It’s a completely untapped medium, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t believe how quickly I went from viewing these creations as playthings to viewing them as personas.
But the town of Marwencol is only half the story.
As far as Hogencamp is concerned, director Jeff Malmberg couldn’t have found himself a more endearing and likable guy to tell such a heartbreaking and captivating story. He’s terribly humble, constantly smiling, and incredibly upfront and honest about everything that’s happened to him, everything that’s going through his head, and he makes you want to learn more. He doesn’t treat the camera as a soap box and he doesn’t even consider his creations art, it’s just his life, one that he pieced together for himself and the tight-knit circle of people around him, and he’s flattered to have an audience. For me at least, it’s impossible to comprehend what it must have been like for Hogencamp to be victimized in the way he was and then have to make sense out of it all afterwards, and watching him deal with all that in the beautiful, unlikely way that he does is endlessly interesting from beginning to end.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is about stories like Hogencamp’s that glue me to the screen and make me appreciate documentaries that much more than I already do, but I think a lot of it has to do with how this probably wouldn’t have worked as fiction. Some movies like Lars and the Real Girl somehow manage to pull off subject matter like this without nosediving into the realm of flat-out ridiculous, but Malmberg really does an incredible job of treating Hogencamp with the utmost respect and presenting him as the true find that he is.
I know it might sound strange and I don’t know how much this review is gonna convince people otherwise, but Marwencol is one of those movies that reminded me why I love watching movies in the first place and how discovering new stuff you never would have found on your own accord is half the fun. As much as I love inf0-heavy docs that are built to infuriate or rock docs about my musical heroes, there’s something about a documentary like this that becomes a hidden gem by unearthing one from right under our noses. It’s the way it takes the everyday, the ordinary, and turns it into something exceptional and empowering in ways you just can’t script that makes this such a find worth celebrating. If you loved American Movie, if you loved The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, if you loved The Devil and Daniel Johnston, this is required viewing. but even if those are all collecting dust on your Netflix queues, you might just want to bump this one to the top.