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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 2.17.11

It Takes a Village

The art of playing with dolls

by Jason Blair

MARWENCOL: Directed by Jeff Malmberg. Music, Ash Black Bufflo. Starring Jeff Hogancamp. The Cinema Guild, 2010. Unrated. 83 minutes.

In the opening frames of Marwencol, a man with a camera crouches in the grass. Elbowing forward, he trains his lens on his subjects, which turn out to be " G.I. Joe action figures? In a film about finding your balance, it's a fitting moment of instability, raising the question of whether our lensman is an artist, history buff or just some dude whose brain turned to gumbo long ago. All three, as it turns out: Beaten and left for dead years before outside a bar in Kingston, New York, Jeff Hogancamp emerged from a coma nine days later without his memory, identity and his lifelong addiction to alcohol. To recover himself, perhaps even to survive, Hogancamp created an alter ego in the figure of a 1/6 scale military doll, then set about constructing an alternate universe in the form of a miniature World War II-era Belgian village. Complete with church, military vehicles and a dollhouse bar, today the village of Marwencol is bursting with Barbie dolls to keep Hogancamp's hero company, a kind of private, mildly perverse variation on the Adam's rib story.

Into Hogancamp's backyard fantasy Marwencol carefully treads. Peeling away the story like a surgeon undressing a wound, director Jeff Malmberg traces the damaged manner in which Hogancamp BRING's his military scenes to life. As the village of Marwencol unfolds in miniature, so do the elements of Hogancamp's life before his attack, each narrative " true and imagined " informing the other until the nature of what's real is called into question. Containing elements of both Inglourious Basterds and Rain Man, Marwencol is the film Quentin Tarantino would make if he directed a stop-action film featuring dolls. Yet Hogancamp is an auteur without irony, a man who walks his miniature Jeep on a leash to keep it looking worn and authentic " a fitting anecdote for a story about finding your way when your wayfaring abilities have been taken from you.

Hogancamp's actual relationships, which inform his storylines in Marwencol, are painfully superficial and immature. His dolls provide everything he can't experience in real life. The starkest example is his infatuation with his married neighbor Colleen " the col, incidentally, in Marwencol. When Hogancamp's fantasies about Colleen go too far in his village, he proudly reports them to Colleen who, reacting with understandable unease, finds her doll purged from the village in the strangest of ways. Hogancamp, caught between his need for therapeutic play and his need for real-life friends, calls himself an "elephant left in charge of the peanuts." Leave it to Hogancamp to say it best; he usually does.

The story peaks with the arrival of the S.S. in the toy village just as Hogancamp begins attracting attention for his photography. If Marwencol the village is play therapy, Hogancamp's still photos are art of the most exquisite sort, capturing a level of emotion often absent from standard documentary photography. Will Hogancamp survive his first exhibit at a gallery? What will become of his backyard village? Marewencol is a film about identity, survival and coping with severe trauma " and ultimately, most satisfyingly, about the nature of art.

Marwencol withholds a crucial aspect of Hogancamp's life until very late in the film, a risky gambit that may appear evasive to some. The revelation, in fact, mirrors Hogancamp's own struggle to confront the very aspects in himself that led to his beating. The documentary is a knot of unanswered questions. What happened to his wife? How can Hogancamp possibly afford to make military doll art all day, when his hospital stay was cut short due to insufficient funds? We come to realize that such details don't count for much. Hogancamp's life in miniature is every bit as tragic and sad, as triumphant and audacious, as anything in real life.

Marwencol opens Friday, Feb. 18, at the Bijou.