Saturday, April 23, 2011

Marwencol. (2010) Jeff Malmberg

Story and Imagination as forces for healing and redemption are greatly displayed in this perfectly paced doc about a 38 year-old man and his Barbies.

After being attacked and dragged outside a bar where he was beaten and kicked until laying on the ground unconscious, Mark Hogancamp spent 40 days in a hospital, the first nine in a coma after which he relearned how to eat, write and how to walk. He literally had his brains bashed in in that bar fight, losing all of his memory after the attack. He woke up not remembering a thing about his past - about his life, about his talents in drawing, his alcoholism or his ex-wife. Going back through his journals to discover himself he found a horror story of a life gone awry; realizing what he had become but what he still couldn't recall felt like something from a Stephen King novel.

The drawings in the journals are just as horrifying as the words he reads. Pictures of Mark clinging desperately to two large letters reading "AA," and other drawings of himself being tortured by his drink. There is no doubt he was lost, enslaved. He was desperate, and according to his drawings and words, he knew it.

Unable to physically draw due to the nature of his post-attack brain function, and unable to mentally draw on any memories in his past, Mark, ever the artist, turns his back yard into a set for miniatures where WWII heroes and SS soldiers, Nazis and Barbies form a town in his brain called Marwencol. It is here that Mark's imagination replaces his memory, filling in the gaps of his memory banks for a therapeutic session of storybook photography. Many of the dolls are based on real-life people in Mark's life, in fact the name of the town stands for Mark, Wendy and Colleen, the latter two being the first girls he had a crush on in returning to his "second half of life."

The photos he comes up with are amazing.

Mark takes these miniatures and creates grandiose stories, stories of survival, war and love - drama queen stories where the girl drops her man for Steve McQueen, stories of bloodshed and tears and riots and revolts. He's front and center in most of the tales, his own miniature alter-ego bumping up daily with the town's folk. The women he's liked in real life are present too. He hugs and kisses the dolls sometimes. It's a little bit creepy.

The general underlying theme of the story is that Marwencol is a town striving for peace, that Mark and the soldiers and Barbies live there together and they'll fight off any Nazis that plot to take over. Marwencol is always under the gun. The forces are always out there, ever looming over the town for their chance to seize it at any moment. It's up to Mark and his friends and the 27 Barbies to make sure Marwencol is safe for today and tomorrow.

The town's battles are an obvious stand-in for the trauma Mark has experienced in real life. Likewise the drama between some of the Barbies and their boyfriends seems to function as a gateway to Mark's loneliness and isolation. The film is quite rewarding as Mark opens up; we get to see his thought process as he builds sets and photos it all. Thousands of photos are stored away, photos that will later be dragged out when Mark is invited to a gallery in New York. Perhaps with these artists he'll finally find a place to fit in.

Director Malmberg does a brilliant job in simply staying out of the way. We see the story develop from Mark's initial beating to the hospital stay to the design of the sets and the photographing of Marwencol, all the way to the gallery in New York where Mark's town and its stories hit the public. There are a couple of surprises along the way, including the reason for the beating. And it's a shocker. It's one of those things you might need a moment to think about, and when you really consider all you've seen it makes sense, but then, hmm, it doesn't.

Like Stevie or Prodigal Sons, or maybe a not so violent but still artistically relevant Tarnation, Marwencol is a documentary that studies one person, his unique and beautiful mind, his actions and a path that is only his. It's insightful to see into the mind of someone else, to take a break from yourself and relish another. In Marwencol, it's like studying about that guy on the street you've seen every day for years. It's an interesting trip into the mind of a man wrestling with fallout and transcending his creation.

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