Doll therapy
Jeff Malmberg
Mark Hogancamp
The Setup: 
Man creates elaborate fantasy world after emerging from a coma.

Sometimes when there's nothing major to see, me and my weekly movie buddy Howard go see some smaller thing we never would otherwise, and this often turns out to be rewarding, as with Fish Tank earlier this year. Such is the case with this small documentary, which sounded fascinating, but not quite enough to be something we were both dying to see. And in the end it wasn't totally essential, but was quietly moving and thoughtful and I'm glad I saw it.

Here's the deal. This guy Mark Hogancamp of rural Kingston, NY was beaten one night by five teenagers after leaving a bar. He was sent into a coma that lasted nine days. When he emerged, he apparently had forgotten everything--including himself and all his friends--and had to learn to read and write, etc., all over again. He was apparently an alcoholic before the beating, but shows no interest in liquor afterward. Soon after awakening from his coma, he started to create this miniature town, called Marwencol [a combination of three names] that is a Belgian town during World War II, and is populated by customized GI Joe and Barbie dolls, as well as other dolls. It started with a bar, Hogancamp's, run by Mark's alter-ego doll. It turns out almost all of his friends and family have alter egos in Mark's doll world. The town is a place where all people of opposing factions give up their differences, is run entirely by women, and the entertainment at the bar is women having catfights--although Mark is sure to remind us several times that these are just play catfights for entertainment, not real violence.

Mark is sort of a known figure in town, and had a big long crush on this woman who lived nearby--without realizing that she has a husband and kids. She, of course, had an alter-ego doll. When Mark informed her that their dolls were getting married, she reminded her of her own husband, and told him they have to keep real life and doll life separate. Mark seems still smitten with her, but soon after, another female doll with special powers "poofed" the married woman's doll out of existence.

Mark also poses his dolls and takes pictures of them. A neighbor sends some of the pictures to a local art magazine, and eventually a small gallry show in New York is organized. The magazine editor is able to distill what makes these pictures special in saying that most photos he sees of posed dolls have an irony or cleverness about them, but Mark's are just there, without irony, and thus [as we see for ourselves throughout the film] they somehow have the air of real slice-of-life pictures, taken during World War II. They sometimes illustrate stories Mark has made up that take place in his imaginary world--and seem to be collected by him in a sort of history--or sometimes seem to just illustrate moments of daily life in the town. Many of them are taken with such attention to gesture and lack of irony that it takes you a moment to realize that these are pictures of dolls, not snapshots of real people.

At one point Mark invents a story for his dolls in which his alter ego is captured and taken by the Nazis to an ajoining village, where five of them beat him mercilessly. It is an obvious analogue to his real attack. In his story, the women of the town band together to come and rescue him. A barely articulated but always-present question that seems to plague Mark's mind is why those five youths would have attacked him--or attacked anyone--so brutally in the first place.

Now there are a few elements that are certainly unforeseen and come out of the blue, and they're not total revelations, still, if you're going to see the movie you might want to save them for yourself.

Mark, who is this portly, genial rural guy, turns out to love wearing high heels! Surprise! He says he got back to his own home after his coma and found a shelf full of women's shoes, saying "Oh, I must have had a girlfriend," but his friend said "No, those are yours." Suddenly Mark's worship of women and his portrayal of them as smarter and much less violent is put into a new context. He even decides to change into them toward the end of his art opening, and at one point says "Now that I've got this second chance at life, I'm going to do what I always wanted to--like wear pantyhose, garters and heels."

We also find out the beating that sent him into a coma happened after he drunkenly confessed to the perpetrators that he liked to wear heels and women's clothes.

Mark is often seen walking along the side of the road dragging one of his miniature Army vehicles, full of dolls. He drags them for weeks on end in order to get the right wear and tear on the tires so that they look like real vehicles. At the very end of the documentary, we see that Mark's alter-ego doll is now dragging a small vehicle of its own, and is at work on creating a little doll world within Mark's larger doll world.

This movie is good in that, in addition to how interesting Mark's story is, it sustains a reflective emotional tone as you ponder what it would be like to have your entire life so vastly changed by a stupid attack like the one Mark endured, and what it means to be buffeted by such strong emotions that one has to distance them by creating a separate, smaller world where one can deal with them without actually living through them. So it inspires a lot of thought and remains engrossing and emotionally moving. And there are enough interesting twists and unexpected avenues to keep it going, so it's not just an 80-minute explication of this one phenomenon, but keeps turning and evolving.

At the same time, there's something just not entirely essential about it. You don't NEED to see it, the way you need to see a documentary like Crumb or The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Nevertheless, if you do see it, you'll get a mostly satisfying movie that will give you a lot to think about and meditate on, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Should you watch it: 

It's quite interesting and engrossing, yet at the same time steadfastly non-essential.