*. Marwencol was one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the past decade, winning raves from critics, appearances on a pile of year-end lists, a plethora of awards (there are ten listed on the front of the DVD box), and even the ultimate accolade of a (less well-received) dramatic adaptation: Welcome to Marwen (2018), starring Steve Carell.
*. Given all this, and the genuine feel-good nature of the story, it seems churlish to register any doubts and reservations. But I will anyway.
*. The first thing I’d insist on is the difference between a great documentary subject and a great documentary. This is a pretty basic distinction but one that few people seem interested in or capable of making anymore. Put simply: one test of a great documentary is to make a difficult or boring subject accessible and interesting, or a seemingly simple one complex. That’s not what happens here.
*. Mark Hogencamp, the man whose life and work is documented in Marwencol, is a fascinating character with a compelling story. Beaten nearly to death outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York, he recovered by way of creating a world of 1/6 scale dolls and toys populating an imaginary Belgian town of Marwencol during the Second World War. I don’t think it would be possible to make a documentary out of this story and for it not to be interesting. Throw in a twist like Hogancamp’s crossdressing, and give it all a happy ending with a successful Greenwich Village show, and you’ve got a movie that can’t miss.
*. But is it a great movie? I don’t think so. Is it particularly well filmed? Does it do anything inventive with the documentary form? No. It basically plays like an extended 60 Minutes profile. The DVD contains a pile of deleted scenes and when I was watching them I tried to figure out why they were left out. I didn’t see how the movie would have been any worse if they’d been included, or if they’d been substituted for some of the material that made the final cut. Most deleted scenes are left out for what are pretty obvious reasons. Here I just didn’t have a sense that they were any better or worse, significant or less important, than the parts that made it in.
*. The structure is also formulaic for this kind of a movie. As soon as we’re told the story of Hogancamp’s horrific beating I wanted to know what was being left out. Five guys don’t usually just jump another guy outside a bar and beat him to a pulp. I assumed Hogancamp was gay and it was a hate crime. But the movie has to wait until it’s halfway over before springing the “surprise” of Hogancamp’s being a crossdresser on us. I thought this was just being coy, and in an obvious, manipulative way.
*. A lot of complicated ideas could have been explored further. Art as obsession. Art as therapy. Art as the sublimation of sex. Art as world-building. Now by “explore” I don’t mean they had to explicitly address any of these topics, but I thought they could have used Hogancamp’s story to examine and develop them in insightful ways. But this is a movie that really doesn’t have anything it wants to say. It basically lets Hogancamp tell us his story, but he’s a very private person and doesn’t seem especially introspective or articulate anyway.
*. In short, it’s a movie I’d recommend to anyone but not because I think it’s a particularly good movie. It’s a documentary about an interesting personality that doesn’t dig very deep. I don’t know how much of that was by necessity and how much by design. To take one example, I was wondering throughout just how much of a catalyst the attack was for Hogancamp. Did he play with dolls and toys much before the beating? Did he build tiny towns? What about his marriage? Hogancamp says he doesn’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, but doesn’t somebody know something? All we know is he was an alcoholic and isn’t now, which tells us nothing.
*. So if you want to just enjoy the art, which I think is marvelous, you can buy the coffee-table book. I think it might be more revealing.