Saturday, April 16, 2011

Review: Marwencol

At its heart, Marwencol is a movie about the ways we cope. Everyone has measures they reflexively latch upon when the real world is too much to handle. Drugs and alcohol are popular. Food and exercise are attractive distractions. For some, making art is the only way they can find enough solace and control to function in their normal lives. Mark Hogancamp, the subject of the fantastic and moving Marwencol, had nowhere left to turn but in.

Mark was savagely beaten outside a bar in 2000. He spent nine days in a coma and surgeons had to rebuild his face. His brain injury was so severe he had to learn to speak, walk and write again. After 40 days of progress, Mark could no longer afford treatment was forced to leave the hospital, still a very much disabled man. After a brief stint in physical therapy, it too became impossible for him to pay for. Half a man and very much alone, Mark turned to dolls to continue his therapy.

By all accounts, the Mark before the beating was not a model citizen. Self-described as a drunk who rarely made it into work, Marwencol introduces the possibility that the beating and his reconstruction actually saved his life. When I say dolls, the mind inevitably turns to Barbie. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that he has several Barbies. But he also has an larger number of more sophisticated dolls with impeccable facial features and hand-made outfits. Mark has placed these characters into a fictional WWII-era Belgian town called Marwencol, where Americans and the SS live together, going about their daily lives in relative peace, punctuated with outbursts of violence. Most of the characters are based on, and look startlingly like people he knows in real life. An old neighbor, friends and family, his boss, himself. They all find their way into his town, and become narrative devices for his stories.

It would be one thing if Mark simply played with dolls and used them as a means to improve his dexterity and motor-skills (he also built every intricate building in the town, an unbelievable feat on its own), but Mark painstakingly arranges these dolls into jaw-droppingly realistic scenes and photographs them. In one series, Mark's likeness is abducted and beaten by the SS. The photographs are as gripping and chilling as real war photographs and often just as difficult to stomach. The dolls are flexible enough to accommodate extremely precise movements, allowing Mark to set them up to perfectly capture what he wants to portray. The results are often extraordinary.

The Mark today has no interest in alcohol. He drinks coffee and wishes he had a girlfriend. He takes photos, sends them out to be developed, and retakes them all over again if he doesn't like something. His life revolves around and for the most part exists in Marwencol, where he is in control and has a beautiful girlfriend and a throng of adoring women at his side. Marwencol has allowed him to finish what physical therapy and his doctor could not. Sure he could have gotten a dog, or read a self-help book, but Marwencol offers him an opportunity that nothing else does: a chance to escape his damaged life and become whole again, on a 1/6 scale.

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