Film and TV

Jeff Malmberg's Malwencol mystifies

Exactly the sort of mysterious and almost holy experience you hope to get from documentaries and rarely do, Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol begins with context: In 2000, Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New York resident, was beaten outside a bar so badly by four men that he incurred a brain injury and woke up to a life he barely remembered. Seriously disabled mentally, he has existed since by mopping floors and making diner meatballs in his destitute little trailer town. Having run out of insurance for therapy, the artist reverted to a childhood impulse and began building a miniature town in his yard, simulating a World War II Belgian village filled with action figures of GIs, Nazis, vamps, brutes, barmaids and simulacra of his friends, relatives and neighbors. Enraptured by his idealized world, Marwencol, Hogancamp began photographing it and was soon discovered as an artist, a primitive born out of trauma. Malmberg is sensitive to the art's significance, but he's also sensitive to the man, a naive, socially inept misfit eventually terrified by his own press coverage and a rather spectacular show in a Village gallery. Life and fantasy are scrambled for Hogancamp. Inevitably, his alter-ego doll is disabled by a Nazi beating, and the now-feted but still deeply ill artist creates a mini-Marwencol within Marwencol. What happens next? You can't help but wonder if Malmberg may have violated outsider art's version of Star Trek's "prime directive" — is Hogancamp self-consciously producing art now? And when's his next show?

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Michael Atkinson is a regular film contributor at the Village Voice. His work also appears in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.