How does one begin to describe a film like Marwencol? The best place, I suppose, is what attracted me to the film. In recent months I’ve found myself swirling deeper and deeper into the 1/6th scale realm and by chance I saw a post mentioning a new movie that was about a man who had built a whole 1/6th town. Marwencol, on the surface at least, is a film about a man so heavily immersed in building a 1/6th scale imaginary world with action figures, that he basically lives out a fantasy life through them. It’s like “Second Life”, but with toys.
The story that is presented in the trailer is that Mark Hogancamp, a former member of the US Navy, was brutally attacked one night in a bar by a gang of five guys. Mark was nearly beaten to death and suffered brain damage. He was in a coma for several days and it took him months to “recover”. When he emerged, he had forgotten a lot of his past and eventually, turned to building a 1/6th scale world set in WWII, to help his recovery. It became his therapy.
Watching the film we find that this is essentially true. Marwencol, as it turns out however, has a lot more to it than just toys. Hogancamp uses a variety of 1/6th scale figures and has built an entire town in his backyard. He has a collection that pretty much anyone would be envious of. Mark is no elitist either. While he has plenty of nice Sideshow and Dragon figures, he will just as easily mix in a good Barbie or two if they fit his storylines.
Perhaps that’s the best part about Marwencol, both the fictional town and the documentary. Marwencol is layered with lots of in-depth stories. Mark Hogancamp knows who every character in the town is and he’s got plenty of stories for each. He imagines feuds, rivalries and creates tons of small scale accessories to make sure his characters have far more depth than most adults would even dream of. While Mark doesn’t get on his hands and knees and shout “pew-pew” when he sets up his scenes, he very much is playing. He takes thousands of photos and it seems although he may not have the characters speak aloud, he certainly hears the voices in his head.
A lot of the early portion of the film seems to hinge on the idea that Mark’s brain damage caused him to come out of his coma this way. That he woke up one day and became an odd man. The truth is, Mark Hogancamp was always an odd man. He’s the kind of guy that you bump into in the grocery store and as you politely make small talk in the checkout line, he tells you entirely too much about his life story. Before the attack, Hogancamp was a man seemingly on edge, an alcoholic and a guy struggling to be a square peg fitting into a world of round holes. Coming out of his coma, Mark is no longer a alcoholic, but he’s definitely still a square peg.
This movie isn’t about the 1/6th scale at all. It’s not about toys or a toy collector. We never really learn about Mark’s customizing or where he buys his figures. There’s no details about what he likes about the scale or his favorite brand of toy. It’s not even about his strange trip once he emerges from the coma, although there is a fair amount of that as well. Parts of Marwencol are disturbing and I suspect some people will get a little uneasy as the film goes on.
Marwencol is an examination of a peculiar man. At times, Mark is downright creepy. He obsesses over a neighbor woman, who not only is married, but eventually has to sort of tell him to back off. As Hogancamp takes his daily walks (with a 1/6th jeep pulling alongside him) he stops and leers eerily at the neighbor woman’s house. If this was a drama and not a documentary, the next scene would be Mark sneaking in to murder her. Instead, it’s back to Marwencol where Mark takes out his sexual frustration and anger in storylines where he battles Nazis and hosts catfights.
On one hand, Marwencol is about an incredible fantasy world that a disabled man has created to help bring him stability. On the other, it’s a movie about a repressed crossdresser’s nearly maniacal obsession with dolls and their shoes. If Mark was a little bit more one way or the other, he could be dangerous. So can I really say Marwencol is a movie about how a strange man’s incredible fantasy world has saved his life?
I’m not certain. Instead I see Marwencol more as a documentary about an offbeat fellow, who serves to remind us that our society is not made for everyone. Mark never fit in and he never will. Mark is a real guy. A strange guy, a nice guy, but a real guy. We live in a world where a guy like Mark Hogancamp will always be looked at as strange. Mark is well aware of this and as much as he’d love to be able to share our world with us, he knows he can’t. Instead, he’s created Marwencol. His world. We’re just lucky that he’s nice enough to share a bit of his world, with us.
If you’re interested in Marwencol, it’s available right now as instant streaming on Netflix. There is also a website set up at Marwencol.com where you can find out more info and order the DVD. It’s worth checking out on Netflix, even if Mark doesn’t interest you. His photography and 1/6th world are incredible to behold.