Magnificent Obsessions Series No. 9: Marwencol + Vernon, Florida

Although Vernon, Florida and Marwencol share obsessive subjects, their creator’s pursuit of the topic parallels their fixation. Throughout this series, obsessives mark themselves by following what could be a chance encounter as far down the rabbit hole as they can. Jeff Malmberg, after seeing his subject Mark Hogancamp’s dioramas in ESOPUS magazine, decided to film a documentary short about the man and his miniature world. Four years and numerous continent-crossing trips later, the final feature was complete. The yarn about Vernon, Florida runs that Errol Morris had heard rumours about a group of in the Florida panhandle who were deliberately maiming themselves in order to retire on the insurance money. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants did not take kindly to Morris’ attempt to document this practice. The proposed feature, ‘Nub City’, never happened, but Morris discovered a more quietly peculiar collection of individuals about whom he could continue to make his film.

Both Malmberg and Morris both know how to do their job most effectively by getting out of their subjects’ way, or at least providing a finished product that gives a sense that they have. Marwencol is even credited as a film ‘About Mark Hogancamp’ rather than ‘A film by Jeff Malmberg’. Despite this, it is hard to shake off the notion of the directors’ sensitivity towards their subjects. Their openness is all the more surprising because they are both are in retreat: in Hogancamp’s case it is self-imposed; in the case of Vernon, it is closer to criminal hideout. Morris’ initiation into the ‘den of thieves’ is clear though: the glee of the anecdotes has a demimonde camaraderie and prideful one-up-manship to it, with his editing adding to the stories deadpan appeal.

Malmberg’s approach removes Mark’s creations from the threat of classification as ‘outsider’ art. While adding new names to the canon, there’s a danger that outsider artists will become not only diminished (and somehow patronised) in the institution, but perhaps more dangerously, legitimised. It’s a credit to the sympathy Malmberg has with his subject that the film only becomes entangled in these kinds of distinctions in its final third. As critic Elvis Mitchell points out, there is a parallel between the first time director’s anecdotal and unglamorous approach to his material and Hogancamp’s process: Marwencol is ‘about a man who goes through a life-changing event and becomes an artist as a result.’[1] This goes for Mark and Jeff.

While the film does not especially probe Mark about the analogues of his fantasy, the candour with which he presents his world (at times unsettling in its unvarnished appeal for love, lust, certainty and fulfilment) require no interviewer’s gloss. Although it can be queasy to see Hogancamp retreat to the ‘simpler’ time of World War II guts and glory, with all of its lurid bombshells, we accept them as products of the unconcealed escapism of a man with a legitimate need to retreat.

Throughout this series, obsession has most often been cast in a negative light, yet here it becomes the source of transformation. Many films sprang to mind within the framework of the professional obsession that could offer a more balanced view of fixation (artists, musicians, scientists, sportsmen – any high flyer whose story creates narrative pull between achievement and the more terrestrial world of human connection). Mark’s obsession, essentially a retreat from the uncontrolled outside world, never enters into the isolating mode we have seen in almost all of the other films in this series. Unlike Camera Buff’s hero’s alienating fixation on his art, its purpose is that it eventually leads him back into the world at large – not just of the final art show (where he struggles), but also of the film itself.

But it is not a simple case of Hogancamp returning to our world. The message of the film necessitates that we take his world seriously. Erased of his character, Mark’s quest sheds light on all artistic impulses: to provide a utopian aesthetic environment, but also create a balanced (if slippery) connection to ‘real’ life.


[1] In a charming moment on the DVD, Mark receives an improptu phonecall from his mother directly after watching the film for the first time. ‘He told it exactly as I would have told it, if I knew how,’ he says with relief and excitement.

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