Who was the Hollywood screenwriter, producer, or bigwig who saw Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol (2010)—a bruising, heart-breaking film about trauma —and thought yes, this will make a perfect dramedic fantasy crowd-pleaser. It boggles the mind and the reasoning bits of the brain. For those who missed Malmberg’s documentary, it examines the art and recovery journey of Mark Hogancamp, a World War II illustrator who, on April 8, 2000 was brutally assaulted by five men in upstate New York after mentioning he was a cross-dresser. The savage attack gave him catastrophic brain damage, a nine-day coma, and complete amnesia of his pre-incident past when he woke up. After his insurance money for therapy ran out, he retreated back to the world of art but since the attack had crippled his fine motor skills, he could no longer draw. So he turned to photography instead, constructing a 1/6-scale World War II-era Belgian town entitled “Marwencol” in his front yard populated with dolls representing the people in his life. Marwencol served as the setting for photoshoots with his dolls where he exorcised his trauma, staging battles between Nazis representing his attackers and American GIs and Belgian resistance fighters (usually blonde Barbie dolls) representing himself and his real-life support community of friends and neighbors. Eventually the art world caught wind of Hogancamp’s extraordinary work, publishing a collection of his photography in Esopus magazine and eventually giving him an installation in Greenwich Village.
Now, eight years after the documentary, Marwencol has been given the Hollywood treatment, being handed off to none other than Robert Zemeckis, director of such hits as the Back to the Future franchise. Though frequently derided as terminally treacly, Zemeckis makes an odd sort of sense for the project, having considerable experience with traumatized characters: both Cast Away (2000) and Flight (2012) see characters recovering from near-death experiences. His Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump (1994) could even be seen as a logical precursor, following a protagonist who, much like Hogancamp, is alternatively ostracized and celebrated for his psychological otherness. Zemeckis’ casting choice of Steve Carell as Hogancamp was particularly promising, as Carell emerged from his tenure on The Daily Show as one of the most gifted dramatic actors of his generation, embodying a wounded, muted pathos rarely seen in Hollywood leads. Additionally, Zemeckis limited the scope of the film primarily to a minor event in Malmberg’s documentary where a post-attack Hogancamp unexpectedly proposed to a beautiful next-door neighbor after mistaking her compassionate attention for romantic affection. This decision to begin the movie in medias res of Hogancamp’s recovery frees the film from the traditional structure of top-heavy, award bait Hollywood biopics—we only glimpse his previous life in photographs and only see the assault in hallucinatory flashbacks. Though it ends happily with him appearing at the sentencing of his assailants and attending his Greenwich installation, these feel like perfunctory bits of unfinished business. The crux of the film is Hogancamp’s confrontation of his trauma in the wake of his disastrous proposal.
Yet despite the seemingly perfect combination of director, lead actor, and plot focus, Welcome to Marwen is a disaster, in fact one of the most embarrassing of 2018. It bowdlerized both Hogancamp and his story, transforming their inherent tragedy into high camp by externalizing his trauma through fantasy sequences where his dolls literally come alive as life-sized plasticine CGI golems. The film opens with one of these sequences where a computerized Carell crash-lands an Allied fighter into occupied Belgium where he’s rescued from Nazis by his personal harem of Marwen ladies, a collection of super-sexualized dolls representing both the women in his life and exaggerated racial stereotypes. For example, two of these Marwen women include Anna (Gwendoline Christie) an ushanka-sporting Soviet soldier and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), a beret-wearing French resistance fighter. (While the former is based on Hogancamp’s caretaker, the latter is based on his favorite porn star, a revelation that makes Zemeckis’ wife’s casting for the part one of the more subtly uncomfortable aspects of the film.) The doll violence—and there is much of it—is highly sanitized: whenever a Nazi gets shot they freeze in place and shatter like porcelain figures; whenever one of the Marwen women gets shot they collapse and quickly expire, barely bleeding out more than mouse’s thimble of blood. Compare this to the real-life Hogancamp’s photography where he constructs massive tableaux of gory, sadomasochistic violence with murdered civilians, dead Nazis (complete with forensically accurate bullet wounds), and corpses strung upside down from clotheslines like Mussolini. Whereas Hogancamp’s fantasies were horrific and disturbing, figments of a mind desperately trying to come to terms with inconceivable trauma, Zemeckis’ are silly and fun.
The central issue with Welcome to Marwen, if its issues could be compressed down to a single point, is that it transforms Hogancamp’s recovery into inspiration claptrap, a mishmash of Poverty Row adventure serials and pop-psychology. (As a disabled person diagnosed with PTSD, I can say that Janelle Monáe’s character Julie, Hogancamp’s nurse, was out of her damned mind when she spouted nonsense like “learn to love your pain; it’s your rocket fuel.” We go to therapy, ma’am, so we don’t have to live with pain.) We’re meant to leave the theater feeling inspired and gladdened that all’s well that ends well. But much like Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), another film about a disabled genius, it alters or outright rewrites the uncomfortable realities of its subject’s life to make them more palatable to Middle America. Particularly galling is the way Zemeckis downplays the nature and extent of Hogancamp’s crossdressing. In the documentary, Hogancamp is very forthcoming with details about his private life, his delirious joy in collecting women’s shoes and putting lacy under-garments on his personal surrogate doll in Marwencol. When he travels to Greenwich, he’s vocally disappointed that “98% of people aren’t walking around with big fans.” In fact, the documentary suggests that Hogancamp’s true moment of triumph wasn’t his attending the exhibit, but his working up the courage to walk around the gallery in high heels. Meanwhile Carell’s Hogancamp downplays his crossdressing, presenting it as a shameful, eccentric hobby that’s entirely missing from the Marwencol doll fantasies. The film even suggests that he wasn’t beaten for being a cross-dresser, merely for admitting that he occasionally wears high heels. I spoke with a transgender friend of mine and asked him if this qualified as straight-washing. He said probably not, but that crossdressing can be an avenue for people of conflicted sexuality to explore ideas of non-cisgender identity. Erasing Hogancamp’s sincere catharsis in cross-dressing and non-cisgender modes of expression cheats the movie-going public of a topic in desperate need to discussion. And for what? A miscalculated piece of Hollywood schlock.