Plastic Palace People
By Nick Pinkerton
Welcome to Marwen
Dir. Robert Zemeckis, U.S., Universal Studios
Legend has it that, upon surveying the RKO backlot placed at his disposal back in 1940, Orson Welles proclaimed it “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” You can find something of Welles’s euphoria at his new world-building opportunities in Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen, which takes its title from the name of a 1/6th scale model Belgian village built by an upstate New York miniaturist, but there’s something else at work here as well: the sadness inherent in being a grown man who cannot wrench himself away from his precious train set, and the comforts that it provides.
One wouldn’t take away any of this from Welcome to Marwen’s poster, which brands the film simply as “Based on an Inspirational True Story.” Faced with promoting such a difficult-to-pitch property as Zemeckis’s odd duck of a film, Universal Studios decided to cut its losses, keeping the movie hidden from press until its unceremonious arrival in theaters was imminent, so that now it becomes a story only on the basis of its spectacular box-office failure, a foregone conclusion. As with Warner Bros. smuggling The Mule into cinemas, we find awards season narratives progressing according to a prepared script, with notions of importance determined in advance by publicists bolstering the reputations of the few preordained contenders, and the shambles of a culture journalism industry more than happy to play along.
The true story in Welcome to Marwen is that of Kingston, New York-based artist Mark Hogancamp, previously the subject of a 2010 documentary by Jeff Malmberg, Marwencol. Following his long recuperation from a savage attack by five assailants that left him in a lengthy coma, and the painstaking process of relearning speech and the simplest of motor skills, Hogancamp began to retreat into fantasies of heroism and virility in order to cope with the lingering trauma of the near-death stomping. The backdrop for these flights of fancy are the sets constituting Marwen, which Hogancamp builds outside and inside of his home, using them as photographic settings for vignettes of World War II-era action and intrigue featuring an ensemble of customized 12” action figures, including his alter ego, Hogie, a U.S. pilot whose P-40 Warhawk has been shot down over enemy territory; an all-female supporting cast of characters inspired by women in Hogancamp’s life; and the eternal villains, those eternally bothersome Nazis.
Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson’s treatment creates a firm link between Hogancamp’s literally scarring experience—both Hogancamp and Hogie bear a livid, fishhook-shaped mark—and the selection of Nazis as the heavies in his ongoing photographic drama: one of the perpetrators of the attack has a swastika tattooed onto his bicep. This is an invention of the film, as are several other details, particularly those involving Hogancamp’s professional and romantic life before and after his thrashing, though the film does retain Hogancamp’s real-life passion for women’s shoes, his casual confession of transvestitism having allegedly been one of the factors that spurred on his attackers.
Zemeckis’s Hogancamp is played by Steve Carell as a local eccentric who tramps around town dragging Hogie and the women of Marwen along with him in a Jeep pulled along by something that looks like a repurposed mop handle, an escort that he clings to like a security blanket. Seen as he often is alone and in extreme long shots, he projects the silhouette of a lonely, stoop-shouldered little boy dragging a Radio Flyer home from a canceled play date. Carell exercises his curious gift of a vocal timbre that’s both hoarse and high-pitched, though he alters his delivery to something significantly more commanding when voicing Hogie in the film’s recurring CG sequences, which visualize in moving images the misadventures in Marwen. Like Hogancamp, Hogie has an affinity for women’s shoes, switching into pumps after his boots burn off in a crash landing, but he is otherwise a model of self-possessed sangfroid and martial derring-do, not above dropping cool punnery as the smoke of battle clears—a milkmaid killed in crossfire, for example, is dismissed as “cow-lateral damage.”
One of the great pleasures of Welcome to Marwen is watching how Zemeckis intermeshes Hogie’s exploits in Marwen, Hogancamp’s rather more humdrum life in Kingston, and flashbacks to what he remembers of his short past, beginning with the night when he was beaten within an inch of his life. The different worlds regularly break in on one another, as when a moment of duress in Hogancamp’s life suddenly brings a hallucinatory fusillade of tracer bullets tearing through his living room; when the sentencing for Hogancamp’s assailants erupts into a firefight; or when a lingering look at a photograph opens a portal into the past, as one does into a session with an amputee veteran-cum-physical therapist played by Janelle Monáe, also voicing her Marwen alter ego.
Today we take the seamless integration of animation and live-action material for granted, though Zemeckis was an innovator in exploring the dialogue between the two, most notably in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Welcome to Marwen, like Zemeckis’s longtime friend, mentor, and sometime producer Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One of earlier this year, is a kind of summation, a compendium of themes accumulated throughout his career and the occasional self-referential borrowing, as in the image of a model time machine that, when it speeds off to surf through the eons, leaves behind a pair of flaming tracks, à la Back to the Future (1985). Like The Walk (2015), it is a portrait of an obsessive personality, also taken from an acclaimed documentary (in that case, 2008’s Man on Wire). The World War II imagery connects to Zemeckis’s fascination—not uncommon among Boomers—with the war of his parents’ generation, also reflected in both Spielberg’s Zemeckis-coscripted 1941 (1979) and Zemeckis’s superb 2016 Allied (the appearance of an Allied moving van early in the film is not, I think, a coincidence). Hogancamp was a self-confessed heavy drinker before his attack, his recovery complicated by a worrisome overreliance on prescription meds, and this is in line with Zemeckis’s abiding interest in stories of addiction, including the sobering-up crucible Flight (2012) and Robert Zemeckis on Smoking, Drinking and Drugging in the 20th Century: In Pursuit of Happiness, a 1999 TV movie for Showtime examining the addictive impulse as portrayed in films, including his own. The movie’s interrogation of the psychological function of the heroic ideal, reflected in Hogancamp’s creation of a self-esteem-rebuilding alter ego, makes it a fitting companion to the most consummately crafted and challenging film produced from Zemeckis’s periodic forays into the uncanny valley, 2007’s Beowulf. There is even a touch of Forrest Gump (1994) here, for central to Welcome to Marwen is a mentally impaired man’s fixation on an ultimately unattainable woman, egged on by his persistent misunderstanding of her accommodating kindness.
The object of desire in this case is Hogancamp’s new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), who quickly takes an interest in the broken man across the street, smiling tolerantly as he spins his tales of Marwen, including the introduction of her redhead fashion doll doppelgänger. All of this might be received as more than a little creepy, but Nicol takes it in stride, much as the other women in Kingston who’ve been integrated into Hogancamp’s world seem ever-ready to indulge him in his hobby: his co-worker, Carlala (Eiza González); his Russian caretaker, Anna (Gwendoline Christie); and an employee of the model shop where he picks up the raw materials to build Marwen, Roberta (Merritt Wever), who shows a glimmer of what appears to be romantic interest in him, a fact which his tunnel vision fixation on Nicol leaves him entirely oblivious to. If, as critic, curator, and Zemeckis enthusiast Dave Kehr has suggested via social media, Welcome to Marwen is the director’s gloss on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), then Roberta must be the movie’s version of Barbara Bel Geddes’s Midge. (And the climactic gun battle, I hasten to add, does feature a rather prominent bell tower.)
Is all the female attention that Hogancamp enjoys an instance of excessive small-town politesse, or a male fantasy of being babied and doted over in a second childhood? And if it is a fantasy, whose is it—Hogancamp’s or Zemeckis’s? So freely does the director toggle between Hogancamp’s imagined and real life and so wholly does Welcome to Marwen seem at times to align with Hogancamp’s subjectivity that it invites questions about the reliability of what we’re being shown at any given time. The distance between Hogancamp’s incongruous imaginative and real lives is evident when they come to a jarring collision when Hogancamp confesses his love and proposes to Nicol with a Purple Heart—in a movie full of whirling motion, this scene stands stock still save for a gradual pulling back of the frame, and the stillness is palpably felt, for the moment is agonizingly drawn out, and you long for relief.
An injured veteran of life, Hogancamp is able to activate the sympathy of the women around him by virtue of the fact that he suffered horribly from masculine violence, and through his evident meek harmlessness, but Zemeckis himself is not so completely indulgent, for while we have ample opportunity to admire Hogancamp’s work, we likewise have occasion to contemplate the essentially solipsistic nature of his artistic project. The Nazis in Marwen, almost exclusively male, are avatars of macho menace, stand-ins for Hogancamp’s attackers, while the women, based on figures who variously aided him in his recovery, exhibiting protective and nurturing characteristics, “the saviors of the world” as they’re later called, play the Allied forces.
“At least we were the good guys in that war,” says Hogancamp, by way of explaining the enduring attraction of his chosen period, while he draws on its iconography of good and bad guys to negotiate a rather more complicated reality. Dropping his alter ego into the Manichean world of Marwen, Hogancamp, a sexually ambiguous figure by virtue of his cross-dressing and identification with the feminine, gives Hogie a uniquely flexible identity, the lone man on the side of the women. By doing so, he also effectively makes himself the rooster in the henhouse—“the only man in town of 27 Barbies,” as the real Hogancamp has it in Marwencol. Zemeckis elides the actual Hogancamp’s obsession with cat-fighting scenes, and though Carell’s Hogancamp does have a knack for working ripped blouses into his scenarios, the Marwen mythology here is essentially chaste—his Hogie is prevented from finding love with any of his town’s women by a 3,000-year-old blue-haired witch called Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), the only character with no clear real-life analogue. Nevertheless, there’s a sexual undercurrent, and an acquisitional impulse, running not too far beneath the surface of Hogancamp’s storytelling. In one scene he mentions to a female friend that the basis for Marwen woman Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) is his “favorite actress,” breezing past the fact that she’s an adult film performer who stars in the Backdoor Bodacious Babes series, and in his total obliviousness to how this might be taken as inappropriate, he for a moment recalls a Travis Bickle who has gone over to making folk art.
Is this an “Inspirational True Story”? A celebration of the power of escapism? No more so than was Ready Player One—and, as in Spielberg’s film, any celebration here is dampened by a heavy pall of sorrow and regret. As Marwen routinely breaks into Hogancamp’s world, a less-than-heroic actuality is continually breaking into the drama of Marwen, with one climactic moment and swelling of Alan Silvestri’s score after another interrupted by a click of the shutter and a crashing comedown to reality. After one such click we watch Hogancamp catching sight of his drooping face in a prop mirror, and as he does we are about as far as possible from a triumph of the imagination or any of the usual bromides—what’s here is a terribly hurt man whose only protection from further pain is a creative practice that isolates him even as it insulates him, leaving him incapable of recognizing even the people ostensibly dearest to him as more than raw material for his work. “That’s why I put stilettos on you,” he explains at one point to one of his muses. “You mean the doll?” she replies.
Welcome to Marwen pays lip service to the sort of affirmative “What is normal, anyway?” nostrums peddled by Carell’s Sundance-coronated breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine (2006), which helped him along the way to a high-profile career marked by a singularly bad taste in roles and prosthetics, but it raises questions about the interrelation—and enmity—of art and life that no faint gesture towards a possible happy ending can settle. Hogancamp is Carell’s best part in years and, as a man lost in a world of his own given to obscure pronouncements, close in spirit to his greatest role, impassably dense weatherman Brick Tamland of the Anchorman films. It’s a sly, ingratiating performance, only gradually revealing the full extent of Hogancamp’s impairment and isolation, and this after we’ve become enmeshed in his world.
A substitute for Hogancamp’s former alcohol addiction, beaten out of him on that fateful night, his redoubt of Marwen has a narcotic allure of its own—a connection made explicit in a scene in which his invention Deja Thoris is shown plying him with painkillers, looking like nothing so much as that venerable personification of absinthe, the green fairy. Art is an opiate—both the backyard, art brut work in which Hogancamp loses himself, and the narcotic pop music that decorates the film’s soundtrack. Zemeckis, who debuted with the 1978 Beatlemania farce I Wanna Hold Your Hand, has always had a weakness for lacing his movies with oldies station moldies, and Welcome to Marwen is no exception, though there is something appropriate and touching here in, say, his use of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” which tunefully encapsulates Hogancamp’s delusional predicament, and throughout he limits his needle-drop selections to the sorts of things you might reasonably find on the jukebox of a dive in a Hudson River Valley town. (In this he follows the lead of Marwencol’s Malmberg, whose own film uses evocatively hypnotic, somnorific numbers like Frank Sinatra’s “Dream.”)
Welcome to Marwen is a strange movie—not an instance of the rictus-grin “batshit” wackiness being peddled by a multiplex behemoth like Aquaman, but genuinely strange, discomfiting as an unwelcome personal confessional might be. (Proof of the difference is how easy Marwen is to mock, where an Aquaman, with its built-in reassurances of an essential unseriousness, deflects parody.) In its free play with perspective—note the way that the Marwen barroom set, at first glance, seems to fill Hogancamp’s home, only to subsequently be revealed as yet another miniature—it shows more visual ingenuity and intelligence than the vast majority of mainstream movies made this year. And perspective, in this filmgoer’s estimation, has done wonders for Zemeckis. For myself and my obscurantist burgeoning cinephile friends coming of age in the 1990s he seemed entirely disposable, a schmaltz-peddling techie; from the vantage of today’s near-total collapse of visual articulacy, he has come to appear invaluable, one of a handful of filmmakers still working at the elite level who thinks in cinema, and can translate that to the screen—and so the set pieces in Allied wiped the floor with almost anything else to appear that year. All of which makes the scornful treatment of Welcome to Marwen more than a little dispiriting—perhaps Universal Studios can afford to be contemptuous of such a piece of work, but I’m not so certain that film culture can.