Exactly the sort of mysterious and almost holy experience you hope to get from documentaries and rarely do, Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol is something like a homegrown slice of Herzog oddness, complete with true-crime backfill and juicy meta-fictive upshot. It begins with context: In 2000, Mark Hogancamp, an Upstate New York resident, was beaten outside a bar by four men so badly that he incurred a brain injury and woke up to a life he barely remembered. Slowly, he discovered that he'd once been married (we never find out what happened to his foreign bride), that he'd been an accomplished artist (the drawings we see are wild and Crumb-like), and that he'd been a raging, ruinous alcoholic. Seriously disabled mentally, he has existed since the beating by mopping floors and making diner meatballs in his destitute little trailer town.
Having run out of insurance for therapy, Hogancamp reverted to a childhood impulse and began building a miniature town in his yard, occupied by action figures and simulating a World War II Belgian village filled with GIs, Nazis, Brits, vamps, brutes, barmaids, and simulacra of his friends, relatives, and neighbors — which is where both his life and Malmberg's film sprout some very unlikely mushrooms: Enraptured by his idealized world and the extravagant, ever-changing narrative that goes with it (eventually, a time machine cooked up from an old VCR is introduced), Hogancamp invested his play-project with a massive amount of detail and thought, and then began photographing it. Soon, a local photographer realizes that he is an artist, a primitive born out of trauma.
Malmberg holds this and other revelations for as long as he can, but he hits you immediately with Hogancamp's perspective, never showing the titular mini-village in its depressing entirety but instead crawling through it with a short focal length and treating it like a movie set. Which is in many ways what it is — the artist's beautiful, arresting photos are so saturated with natural contrasts and filled with spontaneous feeling that they suggest stills from a movie that doesn't exist. (But what if it could? The dolls' frozen expressions somehow work to convey emotion, Todd Haynes' Superstar-style.) As the soldier dolls gesticulate tragically in the sun, one could be forgiven for thinking of Malick's The Thin Red Line. When Hogancamp pulls his toy army jeep packed with decked-out figurines down the highway shoulder to naturally roughen up the new wheels, Malmberg hits the pavement with a dolly shot, lending the moment a surprising cinematic torque.
Hogancamp's project is undoubtedly a textbook example of outsider art, and enthralls for that genre's particular reasons — aesthetic innocence, genuine otherness. But even without knowledge of the artist's life, the photos step beyond neo-kitsch into a realm where child-like transference merges with a dramatic grandeur to create both a feeling of vintage Hollywood artifice and authentic pathos. Malmberg is sensitive to the art's significance, and often elaborates on Hogancamp's ideas in his own visuals, even indulging in a spurt of stop-motion animation. 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, complete with tiny jeep and figures one-sixth of the first town's one-sixth scale. What happens next? You can't help wondering whether Malmberg and Co. may have violated outsider art's version of Star Trek's "prime directive" — is Hogancamp self-consciously producing art now? Has he, or should he, retreat back into his handmade world? And when's his next show?