Marwencol (2010, Jeff Malmberg)


This will be a short review. The point of it is: please watch this movie. It’s a documentary about a man named Mark who was brutally attacked, damaging his brain and wiping out all of his specific memories of his life. We don’t initially learn the details of the incident that derailed his existence but we do learn that prior to it, he’d been married and divorced and was just sort of drifting, an alcoholic who stirred a good deal of trouble for himself. Mark learns a lot of his from diaries he kept in his old life; he admits that some of what he reads quite shocks him. In an effort to cope with this unfamiliar world, he uses models to create a town called Marwencol in his backyard. Heavily informed by WWII movies and literature and Mark’s own struggle with both his detachment from other people and his hormonal and impulsive need to connect with others, this improbable therapy not only becomes Mark’s world — and for much of this brief and majestic film, quite believably ours — but it changes his life; his mechanism to escape is, without a doubt, a fine work of imaginative art.

Through the exposure of this art, Mark Hogencamp finds a little bit of discomfort and alienation, sure; he gets some awkward stares dragging figurines down the road in little toy cars. Completely unfiltered since hooligans bashed his head in, he’s a little too forward with some of the attractive women in his life, though they tend to be understanding of him, and he comes around to understanding their apprehension. This too he copes with by representing them in Marwencol, by forming the people around him into manageable personalities, lovingly manifesting their likenesses in his dolls, which have a stunningly rich and fully realized inner life. As Mark finds validation, he finds as well that parts of his true underlying self start to resurface — to unforgettable, almost unbearably moving results. Jeff Malmberg’s documentation of all this is minimal, at least in its determination to stay out of Mark’s way and let his life and work and one-of-a-kind personality breathe, and his empathy toward his affable, good-hearted subject is unmistakable.

But Malmberg takes a different approach when he dives into Mark’s vast creation, which he fashions into the highest and purest kind of cinema as he, without embellishing the charmingly, carefully arranged sequences and compositions Mark has devised, fully realizes this fantasy — he makes it real. The world of Marwencol itself, the town and the soap opera crafted from deep inside a man’s fractured soul, is magic in its troubling way, and Mark’s meticulous understanding of it will ring true for anyone who’s ever had a rich and detailed fantasy life, or anyone with more than mild OCD or difficulty communicating with others. Marwencol finally illustrates in stark fashion how much more cinematic real life often is than, well, the movies.

There is, however, tragedy at this film’s core, and tragedy that it — to its credit — cannot bring itself to state outright. As Mark’s recovery rolls onward, he gradually learns more about himself. The attack changed him forever, undeniably; it would’ve changed him even if it hadn’t damaged his brain. He retains his sharp wit and sense of humor and at least some of his communication skills — he comes across as a remarkably friendly and outgoing person in the film — but there is a duplicity to a latecoming revelation in the film that brings us a certain interest that’s close and dear to Mark’s heart. And so it was before — it was, indeed, what caused him to be beaten for no good reason except blank hatred, we discover toward the close of the film. In one sense this is the great message of the picture: the immensely woeful shooting down of an individual’s self-expression by angry, clueless hate. It’s beautiful to see how some of Mark’s new friends in the art world accept him when he shyly lets his true self out — even as he finds others completely alienating — but there’s no question that the difficulty of finding such validation in an unfeeling society looms large over Mark’s entire life story.

But this is also what makes Marwencol such an emotional film, in the final analysis; these cruel men could beat him to a pulp, could nearly kill him, could do their best to destroy everything that comprises him. But he wakes up, he creates a safe and happy, if wartorn, village for himself and his own specific conception of those around him… and when he wakes up he still has those same traits, quirks, kinks. They cannot be killed, even if there’s little else Mark can remember or discover about himself. Without ever condescending to its subject, Marwencol uncovers a human being’s inner life like no documentary I’ve ever seen before — and like very few movies, period.

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