Evidently Werner Herzog had never heard of Mark Hogancamp, or he would have snapped up the damaged iconoclast to add to his vast damaged-iconoclast oeuvre. Instead, it was neophyte documentarian Jeff Malmberg who discovered the Nowhere, Upstate New York resident who turned his yard into “Marwencol,” a 1/6-scale Belgian town circa WWII.
In this romanticized utopia of life during wartime, a motley crew of action figures endures a living narrative of drunken camraderie, catfights (staged for the men, as a sign says), soap-opera drama and the occasional Nazi bludgeoning—all of it documented in several shoeboxes’ worth of action-shot photographs that belie a great eye. What’s the deal with that? In 2000, Hogancamp, then a nasty drunk, got into a bar fight so vicious he lost his memory. Mentally damaged and unable to afford insurance, he channelled his pain into Marwencol.
The pint-sized town is a dense map of his psyche, revealing much. Most people in Hogancamp’s small town have an anthropomorphic analogue; should one of them piss him off, their action figure may suffer a bloody end. Hogancamp’s own doll has fallen in love with one of the town’s mere 27 women, which means so has Hogancamp. His own sexuality isn’t fully explored within his creation, but he gets comfortable enough to reveal he’s an aspiring cross-dresser with a yen for high heels. It’s cute when, after he’s summoned to New York City to do an exhibition, he expects an antiquated version of the Village where everyone’s in drag.
Sympathetic bordering on reverential, Malmberg is still unsure how to handle his subject’s ascent/descent into becoming the next “outsider art” fad. What will happen to this gentle soul, let alone Marwencol, when the whole world—or at least New York scenesters and art-house movie patrons—is watching? Malmberg leaves that question unanswered, but his film remains a scenic tour through one man’s fragile mind. The experience is near-incantatory: Before the New York trip opens the film up, we are trapped inside Hogancamp’s tiny world, where real life and the imagined blend hopelessly together and the thought of a middle-aged man playing with dolls seems not only sane but normal.