By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 27, 2010)
From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.
-John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
When I was 10 years old, I was obsessed with G.I. Joes. My best friend George and I would spend hours staging little dramas with the dolls for our amusement. It’s probably a good thing that we did this for our own amusement, because a casual observer might conclude that these two kids were kind of weird.
We very rarely dressed our G.I. Joes “correctly”. We never fantasized “war” scenarios; rather we used the dolls to create our own individual super-hero avatars, by mixing and matching uniforms and accoutrements from the four branches of military service to create gestalt entities. I was Mar-navy Man, George was Air-Army Man. We were so into our characters that, in addition to acting out, we created our own series of meticulously hand-made comic books, so we could document our adventures. OK, I guess I was a weird kid.
This little childhood anecdote doesn’t come up in everyday conversation; nor have I ever felt compelled to share it with readers (and as a pick-up line, I think we can safely say that it is right out). However, as I watched Jeff Malmberg’s extraordinary documentary, Marwencol, (which plays like a mash-up of Memento, Lars and the Real Girl, and Pecker) those memories came flooding back, and I found myself empathizing with the film’s subject, Mark Hogancamp, in emotionally resonant ways I could never have predicted.
Hogancamp’s unique journey was one borne of tragedy. In 2000, he was at death’s door, following a brutal beating by five men outside a bar in Kingston, N.Y. His situation was touch and go for the first week or so (the first 9 of his 40 days in the hospital were spent in a coma), but he eventually recovered enough from his physical injuries to become somewhat self-sufficient again. Unfortunately, however, the brain damage he sustained was permanent; as a result, he had virtually no memories of his life prior to the incident.
Photos and home movies indicate that he was happily married at one time, to a woman who he, in essence, only “knows” from her pictures (I can’t even fathom how strange of a head space that would put someone in). People “tell” him that he was fond of the bottle; interestingly he now has no craving for alcohol whatsoever.
On this aspect of his former life, he does have some tangible documentation-in his own handwriting. He shows the filmmaker piles of notebooks, which he refers to as his “drunk journals”. These diaries fascinate him, yet fail to trigger any cognizance of personal identity. Also, there are reams of fantasy artwork that he had produced before the attack;it’s all quite good, actually, in a Neal Adams/Frank Frazetta kind of vein. However, none of these clues can prepare the viewer for a tour of a little “town” called Marwencol.
Now, the Mark Hogancamp, that is to say, the corporeal being we perceive as “Mark Hogancamp” may exist and “live” in Kingston, N.Y., but as far as Mark himself is concerned, he actually lives in “Marwencol”. And Marwencol actually does “exist”. That being said, you’re not going to find Marwencol on Google Earth, because the entire town is located within the confines of Mark’s back yard. It’s a stunningly realistic 1/6 scale WW 2-era town, populated by G.I. Joes and Barbies, meticulously constructed over a period of years.
This is not a hobby; it is on-going therapy (a luxury that he could not afford). Every doll has a back story; many are alter-egos of his friends and neighbors (including himself). Although the period detail is captured to a tee, Mark takes liberties with his storylines. For example, there are “good” and “bad” German soldiers (the “town Germans” get along fine with the American G.I.s, and the “SS” are the “bad” Germans). Even Mark’s assailants have alter-egos (SS, of course) who have faced the firing squad once or twice.
The story gets curiouser and curiouser, especially once a local professional photographer sort of stumbles onto Mark’s unique flair with a camera (he had been photo-documenting “daily life” in Marwencol for some time) and he is “discovered” by the New York art world (leaving Mark cautiously flattered, and more than a bit puzzled). There are even more surprises in store, as the many layers of this remarkable individual are very deliberately peeled away by the filmmaker (judge not a book by its cover, my friends).
This aspect of the story strongly recalls Jessica Yu’s 2004 documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, about artist Henry Darger, an elderly recluse who in point of fact had no clue that he was an “artist” up to his dying day. Like Hogancamp, he had a “second life” spent completely immersed in his own fantasy world; the main difference being that his “Marwencol” (if you will) was a mythic, Tolkien-like construct, dutifully annotated and rendered in art and prose, and discovered by others only after his death, when over 300 paintings and a lavishly illustrated 15,000 page novel were found in his cramped apartment. However (Monday morning psychological quarterbacking aside) what drove Darger (a nondescript janitor by day) into his rich alternate reality, remains a mystery.
Although the film has a discomfiting, want-to-look-away-but-you-can’t Grey Gardens vibe at the outset, it’s more than yet another “portrait of a quirky eccentric”. It’s a journey into the very essence of what defines human identity and the consciousness of “self”. It also demonstrates that the idea of reinventing oneself is not just an elective luxury, exclusive to the creative class. For some persevering souls, it is a means of survival.