Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 film Marwencol should be far more available than it is. The DVD is strangely hard to come by, at least in the UK, while digital copies can be rented or purchased from iTunes, but not from Amazon – which is just weird. Marwencol, incidentally Rotten Tomatoes’ best-reviewed documentary of 2010, is considered one of the form’s best releases this decade, if not this century. It won a slew of awards from festivals and major critics’ associations, including SXSW and the Indie Spirits. It made numerous top-ten lists, and has been named by New York, PBS, Slate and Entertainment Weekly as a major title in modern doc-making.
In a classic, almost Skellington-esque, example of misappropriating that which you love, Robert Zemeckis has created a $50m drama out of the story. Welcome to Marwen stars Steve Carell and has staggered into UK cinemas this week on the back of a disastrous US opening and a robust critical mauling. To be sure, there is much about the Marwencol story that could – or should – make for a gripping and inspiring fictionalised retelling. Yet Malmberg and his subject, Mark Hogancamp, already crafted the perfect version. Marwencol has the thrills and high stakes of any Zemeckis blockbuster, and it cost less than $40,000 to make.
The basic bones are simple: in April 2000, Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten and left for dead outside a bar near his home in Kingston, New York. As a form of both physical and mental therapy, as well as a kind of retreat, he started building, in his backyard, a 1/6-scale WWII-era Belgian town of his own creation, named Marwencol. Mark populates Marwencol with action figures and dolls, to represent a large cast of characters and to reflect people in his life, such as his friends, family and even his attackers (who had been identified and imprisoned by this point). He takes photos of Marwencol to show moments in an ongoing story he creates with the characters – part, again, of dealing with his PTSD and loss of memory. Eventually, Mark’s work is discovered by a professional photographer, sold to an art magazine, and exhibited in galleries. You can buy his book right here.
It’s a perfect story, essentially. There’s a grand universality to it, both despite and because of its backyard, small-town intimacy. It’s strongly emotional, follows a clear narrative, and has a legitimately uplifting ending. At least that’s if you – the director, say, of Forrest Gump – choose to make it uplifting. Malmberg, dare I say it, has something more truthful on his mind.
The fact is, Marwencol does have the inspirational uplift; but it is also open-ended, ambiguous and uncertain. Much of this is down to Hogancamp himself, who is not only endearing and sympathetic, but also – with his artist’s soul – remains constantly self-reflective, effectively communicating to us what his demons have been, and continue to be. He is a former alcoholic – not in recovery, but literally divested of his habit by the sheer neurological trauma. He can no longer remember what drinking, or being drunk, was like. It is no longer a part of his psychological makeup. He can’t remember his marriage, which collapsed before the attack. And until he walked into his apartment to find a closetful of women’s shoes, he couldn’t remember one of his own fundamental personality traits.
Halfway through the film, Malmberg introduces us to Mark’s life in crossdressing – a tricky editorial move, because its relative suddenness almost implies that this is to be seen as some salacious revelation. But I think it’s intended as emblematic of Mark’s journey; not just literally rediscovering things about his life, but more broadly his efforts at rehabilitation transitioning into the logical next step: rebuilding, fully becoming himself.
Marwencol is naturalistic and observational, which endows it with a great sensitivity. Mark is constantly talking to us about what he’s doing, and what he’s done. He rambles and mumbles, but is always engaging. We are given bare bones to understand great personal demons, and to just about understand that the Mark we see is not the Mark that always was. But because the film is so straightforward and so earnest, and – crucially – treats Mark’s flights of fancy and staged marionette stories as seriously as he does, much of the potential creepiness of his actions is transformed into a wide-eyed clarity, a non-judgemental presentation of one man’s immense psychological complexity.
It juxtaposes its docu-verite style – on cheap digital video – with Mark’s rich photos of Nazi beatings and after-hours hangouts. It mashes together the childlike innocence of Mark pulling his characters along the road in a toy jeep – studiously watching his feet, as he lacks in natural balance – and the traumatic despair he subjects those same figures to when he stumbles on a new personal issue to work through. Marwencol is a reflection of that all-American Walter Mitty-style fantasia of personal wish fulfilment, the superheroics that one man’s alter ego can do; it also possesses a darker, Surrealist element, acknowledging the weird little monsters in our psyches, and the way we express them. It is as much a sweet portrait of one man’s extraordinary achievement as it is a melancholic reflection on ideas of escape and innocence.
Zemeckis has been bending perfectly well-told stories to his own overwrought frame recently, with greatly diminishing returns. Only Flight, with its original screenplay, has stood out in a late filmography that consists of an unnecessary, mediocre remake of A Christmas Carol; a limp and CGI-heavy attempt at an answer to Casablanca; and of course The Walk, which, like Marwen, is a near-totally redundant (and CGI-heavy!) retelling of a great documentary.
The idea with these remakes is usually to spread a good story to an even wider audience: see Welcome to Marwen, seek out Marwencol. This intention is benevolent enough. But unlike, say, remaking Intouchables with Hollywood stars, this is a living man’s actual life. Zemeckis seems to be telling us the best, most exciting, most box office-worthy version of Mark Hogancamp’s life is the one where he’s been replaced; first with Steve Carell, then with a bunch of CGI. And what of Malmberg, who brought Hogancamp to cinema in the first place? An interesting tidbit came out this week about some advice given to John Krasinski by Paul Thomas Anderson: “we’ve all got to support each other.” Anderson’s talking about dissing one’s peers’ work, but I see something equally unsupportive in giving that work a do-over – particularly with such a pronounced power imbalance as that between Zemeckis and, well, just about any documentary or independent filmmaker.
It would be harder to say all this if Welcome to Marwen was any good, artistically speaking. But it’s not, and it’s not proved profitable either. And that’s perhaps the worst part: Zemeckis couldn’t even follow through on his decision to take one perfectly successful work of cinema and repackage it to make it fit his own idea of a successful work of cinema. (Much of this interview is quite telling.) Hopefully it works out anyway: bad publicity is still publicity, after all, and the original story, artwork and documentary are receiving well-deserved wider coverage. Zemeckis may not have understood that Marwencol never needed a remake; but at least he realised it needed a spotlight.