Human beings can be more amazing than anything dreamed up by a science fiction writer. This will be a different kind of review: I’m going to review a book that came somewhat recently and a movie that’s not coming out until December of this year about something that in my opinion kind of blurs the line between reality and genre.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts, let me tell you how this started. Last year, we got word that Steve Carell was filming a movie at the tiny strip mall just up the street from where we live. Now, Vancouver’s often called “Hollywood North,” so being around filming isn’t uncommon, but I still try to get down to see filming when it’s near me, because I’m fascinated by movies and how they’re made. So Lynne and I walked over to our little strip mall to watch Steve Carell act.
Unfortunately, the scene he was filming was brief (even though he did about ten takes), and nobody at the scene (I talked to several PAs—Program Assistants—and all they could tell me was that the film was called Marwen.) Basically, Steve sat on a bench and leafed through a folder containing photo prints. The dry cleaners in the mall had been rebranded as Frank’s Fotos, and as Steve leafed through his prints, a woman (I believe it was Diane Kruger) went in or out of the photo place. I didn’t have a telephoto lens, so my photos looked like Figure 2. (If you’re a cosplayer, and/or watch FaceOff, you’re probably familiar with the head makeup person on this shoot; it was Oscar-winning makeup maven Ve Neill, who’s a judge on FaceOff. Just a side note for your enjoyment, possibly.) Figure 3 shows a closeup (not my photo) of Steve, with his toy jeep and models.
It wasn’t until this week that I finally got to find out what the movie was about: Carell was playing a real person named Mark Hogancamp (Figure 1). And what’s so special about Hogancamp? Here’s where reality gets weirder than most SF/F scenarios, because the book, the movie, and a documentary (available on DVD from marwencol.com) are all about Hogancamp, whom you’ve probably never heard of. Bear with me for a bit of biography.
Mark was born in 1962, and had a somewhat ordinary life: served in the U.S. Navy, got married, got divorced, started cross-dressing (nothing weird by ordinary standards; only liked wearing women’s shoes and nylons, I believe); got into a really, really heavy drinking lifestyle—okay, outright alcoholism—and started spiraling downward towards oblivion. Lost jobs, got a low-level job in a restaurant in Kingston, New York; lost his driver’s license, etc. His life became a routine: go to work, come home, dress up, get drunk, pass out. Sounds like a modern cliché, doesn’t it? Well, in April of 2000, things changed.
Some friends asked Mark to go out drinking with them, but by the time he’d decided to join them, they’d already left the bar, so he decided to stay and have a few drinks on his own. He got in a conversation with a few types described as “Neo-Nazis” (you know the clichéd type) and, somehow, mentioned that he was a cross-dresser. Well, these macho fellows weren’t gonna let some sissy get one up on them, so the five of them waylaid him when he went out to have a cigarette. Mark was down on the ground in a few seconds, and these bully-boys really laid into him—so badly that he later had to have facial reconstructive surgery to save his eye. They left him lying unconscious in the street, but a woman driving by realized it was a person—not a bag of garbage—lying in the road, and he was taken care of, taken to a hospital.
And here’s where we move into Amazing territory: when Mark awoke, he had no recollection of who he was, where he was, or what had happened. (Part of his memory came back later.) He had to relearn to walk, to use his arms, to write and draw (he had been an amateur artist). The hospital kicked him out after 180 days (his Medicaid ran out); his physical therapy money ran out, and he had to go live with a friend. And he started his own therapy: physical, mental, and emotional, with a fictional Belgian town he invented out of whole cloth, called Marwencol (Figure 4). (He’s never been to Belgium; the name is a concatenation of his name and the names of two women who were important to him: MARk, WENdy, and COLleen.) He populated this town, which lives perpetually in a bubble of past time—World War II—with 1/6 scale “action figures” and Barbie dolls, most of which represent either Mark and his friends (male and female alike). Since it’s World War II, there are American, French and German soldiers and civilians—and also a few Waffen SS “evildoers,” who represent the Neo-Nazis who beat Mark up so severely.(The book’s cover in Figure 4, Welcome to Marwencol, by Mark and Chris Shellen, shows Mark’s alter ego in Marwencol, Lieut. “Hogie,” who flies a P-51, I believe.)
“Yeah, yeah,” I hear you mutter, “the guy’s nuts and plays with dolls. What’s so amazing about that?” Well, here’s the thing: the guy’s not nuts, and he’s not playing with dolls any more than you are with your collection of whatever action figures you have at home (mine’s a McFarlane Conan of Aquilonia figure, in case you ask). To Mark, these are actual people living actual lives.
Not sure how Hogie got from China, where he was flying—probably with Chennault’s Flying Tigers—a P-51, but he crashlanded in Belgium, and that’s how he found Marwencol. Mark takes photographs of Hogie and his compatriots, and has won awards for his photos. You can see some of them on his website (see above), and even buy a print for about $20, but for actual stunning shots of these tiny people living their lives in World War II, you should pick up the book Welcome to Marwencol.
As I said at the beginning, Carell is going to play Mark in a movie called Welcome to Marwen (see Figure 6). As you can see, Hogie in the movie looks just like Carell, though Hogie in Marwencol looks more like Mark. But why they should rename the town “Marwen” escapes me. It doesn’t even sound Belgian, whereas “Marwencol” does to me (I’d say it sounds vaguely Flemish). And instead of posed photos, they’re planning to use mocap animation to animate all of Mark’s little people, with dolls that look exactly like Carell, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monae, and others. I guess that’s what kind of makes this a genre film; the various actors and actresses had to wear those little dots for motion capture, which I understand didn’t exactly thrill all of them ( read somewhere that at least one actress wanted to do actual stunts).
Another reason this is genre-related is the women of Marwencol (or Marwen): one of them is Hogie’s wife, and another is a blue-haired “witch” (I kid you not; she’s an actual witch—not a Wiccan) named… wait for it…
Dejah Thoris! (She doesn’t appear in Figure 7, but she and the other women of Marwencol saved Hogie’s life when he was being tortured by the SS.) There’s also a parallel universe ruled by the Knight of Marwencol (not shown here), who is the only person (besides giant Mark himself) who can permanently kill the SS; ordinary German soldiers don’t stay dead (that’s a long story).
And here’s the killer: Mark Hogancamp, as I said, was an alcoholic who would drink a fifth of liquor every day and pass out, before his beating. Post-beating, he has never touched a drop of liquor and has no desire to do so. (According to what I have read and seen on the internet, he still smokes, however.) How’s that for an amazing lifestyle change? And on Tuesdays (meatball day) he still works in a local restaurant; the rest of the time, it seems, he maintains the town of Marwencol, photographing its inhabitants as they go about their daily routines. Besides the documentary mentioned before, you can find previews for Marwen and other documentaries about Mark on the internet if you’re at all interested.
Comments? Compliments? Brickbats? You can comment here or on Facebook; I will probably see it and reply. I welcome all comments, positive or not (you don’t have to agree with me to comment). My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next week!