In his yard on the rural outskirts of Kingston, Mark Hogancamp has fashioned a miniature town, set in Belgium during World War II, called Marwencol. Constantly under threat from the Nazis, who are stalked by the sexy, pistol-wielding women of the town, Marwencol is a psychic space: the place where Hogancamp stages scenes of romance, betrayal, torture, camaraderie, revenge, death and resurrection enacted by dozens of one-sixth-scale action figures and Barbies. The dolls represent characters from his life – Captain Hogancamp, a ruggedly handsome American pilot with a scar under his eye, is his alter ego – and the scenes that they act out exemplify Hogancamp’s own fears, rage and longings following a terrible attack over a decade ago, which left him disabled.
Marwencol is more than a psychological catharsis, however. Hogancamp takes color photographs of his painstakingly choreographed set-ups on hands and knees, using a Pentax with a faulty light meter. The photos are imbued with a cinematic sense of action and drama: The meticulous details of the costumes and sets – down to the wire-framed glasses and cocked guns of the soldiers, the mud-spattered Jeeps and tiny cigarette packs and foamy beers on the table of the Catfight Club – as well as the verisimilitude of the poses and clothing, the naturalistic light and foreground and background depth-of-field effects succeed in transforming his sets into emotionally charged tableaux.
Even after achieving a measure of fame following the 2010 release of Marwencol, a documentary about his life and art, the imaginary town with its church and bar, muddy roads and rural waterfront continues to be the anchor of Hogancamp’s existence. Marwencol has been the mechanism by which Hogancamp has reconstructed his life after he nearly died from a brutal beating by a gang of teenagers at a local bar 12 years ago. Hogancamp, who was in a coma for nine days after the beating, had to relearn the basic functions of eating, speaking and walking. Gone was his memory of his former life, and when he discovered that he could no longer draw – something that he had loved to do – he began creating Marwencol.
As recounted in the film, Hogancamp was discovered by a local photographer who noticed him walking along the road pulling a wagon full of costumed action figures numerous times, and finally stopped and asked him what he was doing. That encounter led to an article in Esopus magazine, which in turn attracted the attention of subscriber Jeffrey Malmberg, who subsequently spent four years hanging out with Hogancamp in his trailer and making the film.
Now available on Netflix, the highly acclaimed film was named Best Documentary of the Year in 2010 by Rotten Tomatoes and the Boston Society of Film Critics, and was shown on PBS after winning numerous awards at various film festivals. It ends with the opening of a show of Hogancamp’s photos at a New York gallery: an event that Hogancamp nervously attends, donning nylons and heels (it was his cross-dressing proclivities that provoked his assailants, we learn). Through the course of the film other aspects of his former life are revealed, including his alcoholism, marriage, bouts of homelessness and Naval service. His romantic yearnings are also poignantly explored: “Marwencol” combines the first names of himself and two women on whom he had crushes.
Having been written up extensively in the press, Hogancamp is not currently giving interviews, and his photos are not yet for sale, despite several exhibitions (including one at the Dorsky Museum at SUNY-New Paltz) and a list of interested buyers. As the website www.marwencol.com explains, his friends are currently setting up a trust so that any future sales would not jeopardize his disability payments, his only source of income. To help out, numerous individuals have made donations, enabling Hogancamp to purchase model planes and expand his cast of characters. Donations are accepted through J & J Hobbies, the Kingston-based store on North Front Street, which is Hogancamp’s favorite supplier.
Fans of Marwencol can track new developments at www.marwencol.com, where Hogancamp posts a new photo every week. The March 19 entry is titled “Honeymoon” and depicts a photographer shooting Captain Hogancamp and his blonde, pigtailed wife Anna on a moss-covered rocky embankment near the “Marwencol Falls.” DVDs of the film can be purchased through the website.
Communicating by e-mail from Italy, where he and his wife Chris Shellen, a co-producer of Marwencol, are working on a second film, Malmberg modestly noted that the film didn’t so much change Hogancamp’s life as it did the artist himself. “I think the experience of the film allowed Mark to see how far he’s come in his life and to take pride in who he is,” Malmberg wrote. “The amount of inspiration he’s created all over the world is staggering. I see it all the time – in e-mails, in people’s faces after screenings – and it really makes you pause. He’s a very special person.”
Malmberg added that it was initially a challenge for Hogancamp to accept the label of “artist.” “Mark has come around to accepting the term and understanding what people mean by it: that he’s a really beautiful person and does something very rare.”
The DVD of Marwencol includes seven additional Marwencol story sequences, scenes deleted from the released film, Hogancamp’s reaction to the film and an introduction by film critic Elvis Mitchell; so, even if you’ve already seen the film in a theater, you might want to check it out. Meanwhile, I’ll be checking into www.marwencol.com again to catch the latest developments – and marvel at Hogancamp’s magic in conjuring up epic events and emotions in a war-torn European town through the tiny world that he created near the banks of the Rondout Creek.