04 December 2010

Immersion Theory

Two of my great pleasures this week, along with Simpsons mania at Splitsider and the continuing presidential insistence that wearing a shiny bomber jacket around military dudes will make them look real tough, have been the documentary Marwencol and Werner Herzog's Conquest of the Useless.

Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol seems like a short, sweet documentary about an outsider artist but its meta (or meta meta) implications linger well after the 80 minute running time. After being beaten into a nine-day-long coma, Mark Hogancamp loses his memory and, without much professional psychiatric care, begins to reconstruct his life with G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls.  They represent himself and his acquaintances and inhabit a handmade, fictional WW II-era hamlet named Marwencol.

His stories have shocking, telenovela-style plot twists (e.g. exes are disappeared by blue-haired Belgian witches) with a Michael Bay-level of violence (red is clearly the most used color of craft paint). Mark's idiosyncracies (besides the fact that he's created a 1/6th scale alternate reality behind his trailer) reveal themselves as the film goes on. As the owner of 200+ pairs of ladies shoes, he's able to use the term "Manolo Blahnik slingback" knowledgeably while trying on a pair.

A feature in Esopus Magazine eventually lands Mark a gallery opening in New York City (where he laments wussing out and wearing "fucking man shoes!"). But I'm still considering which part of his work that I like the most. The stories are great and I hope he's writing them all down. The figures and buildings themselves are gorgeous, not to mention the customized miniature fashion he mains down to distressing individual threads of doll-sized military police armbands. And the photographs (which a critic points out are refreshing for their lack of irony) are what sell in the galleries and what, I hope, keep the man in food and action figure money for years to come. 

That a book about the making of Fitzcarraldo would be interesting is not surprising; that it's both an in-depth look at exactly how unlikely it was that the film would ever be made and a startlingly detailed travelogue puts Conquest of the Useless high on my list of compulsively readable books. One can pick a great quote by opening the book at random, but here's an example:

Our monkey escaped from his cage and is stealing things from the set table when no one is there. He has taken possession of almost all the forks. This morning he stole the milk bottle used by Gloria's little daughter, and Gloria saw him out in the bushes sucking on the nipple until the bottle was empty. She is convinced the monkey will rape the baby, and she wants him shot before he does so. Around his waist the monkey still has the piece of electrical cable with which he had been tethered, and when he climbs he holds the cable high in the air with his tail, with which he can grasp things like a hand; that way it cannot interfere with his movements.

In this passage we see the one of the myriad, vaguely terrifying challenges that the production faces but also Herzog's winking affection for creative adaptation in the wild. As the director of Fitzcarraldo he must work through many such constraints, handling his actors with the same dexterity he does his prose. 

Herzog begins his journals with a focus on slices of jungle life but he really revs up when putting down the original star of Fitzcarraldo, Jason Robards Jr (he's introduced a coward whose real problem stems from his "inner emptiness"). He complains about everything, even the "porcelain toilets" that Herzog was so careful to provide in their remote Peruvian camp.

I'm enjoying the hell out of Conquest of the Useless, and Klaus Kinski hasn't even arrived yet...

In these works, Hogancamp and Herzog live their art every day, even if they are occasionally interrupted by the need to make meatballs or slash snakes with machetes. I sense that Herzog would have gladly made his own documentary on Marwencol (I picture him listening to recordings of the assault on Hogancamp and telling Mark he must never listen to them).

I want the same immersion in my day-to-day but the challenge is finding meaningful art in three hole punching and filing.

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