Thursday, November 11, 2010

Doll Town

I had some trouble signing on last night, but I'm here now to weigh in on Lone Star Film Festival's opening selection, Marwencol. It takes some gumption to open a film festival with a documentary without much exposure and with a relatively obscure subject matter. Yet there was still a pretty healthy crowd there, especially given that it was Wednesday evening with the Fort Worth premiere of Spring Awakening playing a couple of blocks away at Bass Hall. (So wish I could have made one of the show's performances.) The prime seats at the AMC Palace's big auditorium were about three-quarters full, and there was significant spillover onto the floor-level seats.

What that crowd saw was an utterly absorbing film about Mark Hogancamp, a mentally damaged artist living in upstate New York. Before 2000, he was a Navy sailor and a mean drunk with a talent for drawing and some serious demons running loose in his head. The evidence for this is a diary that he kept that includes some violent cartoons and a scrawled "last entry" clearly meant to be a suicide note. That changed ten years ago, when he made the mistake of telling some guys in a bar that he liked to dress up in women's clothes, and they beat him into a coma. (Hogancamp isn't gay, by the way.)

Having re-learned to do everything as a functioning human being, Hogancamp no longer drinks. Instead, he spends his time creating a 1/6 scale Belgian World War II village in his backyard. He populates the place with dressed-up G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, each of whom has a name and a distinct identity. Hogancamp takes incredible pains to get the historical detail right in the costumes, weapons, etc. The wheels on the model Jeep looked too new when he got them, so we see him distressing the wheels by dragging the toy car behind him as he walks down the road. He incorporates his friends and relatives into the village as well, and filmmaker Jeff Malmberg interviews those people while they're holding doll versions of themselves. The place is called Marwencol after Mark's name plus the names of two women friends, Wendy and Colleen.

Hogancamp finds a level of fame with his photographs of Marwencol, and the movie builds toward a gallery show of these in New York City, a trip that gives the artist considerable jitters as to whether he'll be able to handle the attention. He never intended Marwencol to be a piece of art; it was just his own form of therapy. Marwencol has complex ongoing storylines that reminded me of Henry Darger's work, and the fictional place's roiling sexual tension and violence is clearly a way for Hogancamp to work out his own personal feelings of anger and fear stemming from his beating. Ultimately, the film gives an inspiring look at a man who's had so much taken away from him and yet has found a way forward that gives his life greater purpose than it had before. And he even works up the courage to wear a pair of heels and seamed stockings at the gallery opening. Much like Marwencol itself, the movie feels like an unearthed treasure that you feel privileged to have come across. Nice opening, let's see what the rest of the festival holds. — Kristian Lin

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