Marwencol: Making Art With G.I. Joes

A fascinating documentary about self-taught artist Mark Hogancamp, Marwencol occupies only the "after" side of his artistic breakthrough. Before, as he and others briefly describe, he was in the Navy, married, and a raging drunk. Then a 2000 bar fight left him brain-damaged and unable to walk or speak properly. As therapy, he says, he began photographing World War II dioramas he built outside his Kingston, New York, trailer home. He regained motor skills and retreated into the Belgian fantasy village of Marwencol, where German and U.S. troops—essentially G.I. Joe dolls at one-sixth scale—live in peaceful Brigadoon with their Barbie companions. Hogancamp's photos went into shoeboxes until his work was discovered—about which time director Jeff Malmberg began to follow him. The film then leads up to his first gallery show in Manhattan, four years ago. Hogancamp claims the beating cured him of his desire for drink, yet he still seems sad and lonely, all by himself with his dolls. (He tows them in a toy Jeep alongside the road to add muddy realism to his tableaux.) Marwencol is entirely sympathetic to its subject, but instead of probing more deeply into what Hogancamp was before (a hobbyist, carpenter, and showroom designer, in fact), the movie insists on the transformative power of art. (It also dwells on one of Hogancamp's small personal quirks.) But no one is born twice. As with the photos, you're left wondering what's outside the frame.

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