Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol takes its name from the fictional Belgian town built by the documentary’s subject, Mark Hogancamp, in his Kingston, New York backyard. But Malmberg’s video imagery, captured by point-and-shoot camerawork, and livened up with big band music from time to time, can’t hold a candle to outsider artist Hogancamp’s work. Luckily for Malmberg, he’s found a highly articulate character whose life story is so captivating it matters little who’s behind the lens.
Hogancamp is a former, hard-drinking Navy man who made his living as a carpenter and showroom designer until April 2000, when he was beat into a coma by five men outside his hometown bar. The attack left him with brain damage so severe he spent nearly a year in occupational therapy relearning basic motor skills—until he ran out of money to pay for it. Undeterred, he invented his own form of physical and psychological therapy, creating a miniature (one-sixth scale) city populated by Barbie and G.I. Joe-type dolls. In Hogancamp’s WWII-era world of Marwencol, General Patton and his comrades mingle and mess with SS soldiers, who in turn have encounters with retrofitted dolls that stand in for Hogancamp and his family and friends.
If it wasn’t for a neighbor (a professional photographer who decided to chat up Hogancamp upon encountering him as he dragged a toy jeep filled with figurines along a country road), this modern-day cross between Henry Darger and Hans Bellmer might have been lost to history. Instead, Hogancamp revealed to his new friend his treasure trove of astonishing photos that documented daily life in Marwencol, from bloody battles to a blissful wedding, and the staged catfights at The Ruined Stocking, a local bar. Like Darger, Hogancamp’s attention to detail is mind-blowing, his belief in his alternate universe unwavering. Hogancamp shows off tiny guns containing even tinier bullets, and his Colleen doll—a representation of his married crush—noting that she’s wearing “Manolo Blahnik sling-backs.” When he pops off the head of his Anna doll (the dream girl he’s yet to meet), he automatically whispers “sorry.”
In his plainspoken monotone, Hogancamp gives us a guided tour through Marwencol, and by extension his own mind, segueing back and forth between two realities that to him are one. A story about an incident with the real-life Colleen is told in the same manner as a shootout with brutal Nazis. And yet even while Hogancamp explains that he makes sure his dolls are fully armed whenever he takes them out in the jeep just in case he needs protection, this unconventional character doesn’t come across as a madman. Hogancamp is fully cognizant of the choices he makes, and he’s painfully aware that living in the manageable safe haven of Marwencol is also an escape from the chaotic outside world.
Though in an outside world populated by people who spend untold hours playing Second Life through avatars, how “outsider” is Hogancamp (who even mentions he’s trying to figure out his “second life”)? How shocking would Darger the man seem today? Doesn’t every artist dread—as Hogancamp does when a gallery approaches him about exhibiting in NYC—letting the personal belong to the masses? Discussing a Marwencol storyline while holding up the Barbie alter ego Hogancamp created for her, one of his friends proudly declares, “I am now dating Steve McQueen—and I’m very happy about that.” Indeed, we all could do much worse.