“Welcome to Marwen” is something else, but what is it?
“The calamity of movie history is not the follies that get made but the follies that don’t get made,” Pauline Kael wrote in 1976 in her New Yorker review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s mad yet magisterial epic “1900.”
“This film is about Bernardo Bertolucci’s need for myth, and his self-denial,” Kael continued. “For those who are infatuated with what they loathe, the battle with themselves never stops. ‘1900′ has all of Bertolucci’s themes and motifs; one could call it the Portable Bertolucci, though it isn’t portable. It’s like a course to be enrolled in, with a guaranteed horror every hour. ‘1900’ is a gigantic system of defenses—human fallibility immortalized. The film is appalling, yet it has the grandeur of a classic visionary folly. Next to it, all the other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick.”
Similar thoughts swirled in my mind as I marveled throughout the last-minute screening a few days before Christmas 2018 of Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen.” Was this a genuine mid-to-late career film of depth and eccentric nuance and heartfelt emotion or a motion-capture conceit turned grand folly?
MARWEN is a movie about using your art to create romantic fantasies that distance you from the actual people in your life. It’s a remarkable self-critique that likens digital image-making to a drug user’s illusions of power. Follow the Madeleine green…
— Dave Kehr (@dave_kehr) December 19, 2018
Audiences had their answer: on its opening Friday, the Steve Carrell-starring drama grossed $909,000 at 1,911 theaters, for a per-screen average of $475; for that weekend, its per-screen rose to a slight $1,234. (Another qualification for the rarefied strata of true films maudit.)
Utterly gobsmacked by WELCOME TO MARWEN, a movie that understands the compassionate imagination like no other studio film for a good long while. Zemeckis, a 66-year-old living person, is somehow haunting us – with each and every unfairly maligned masterpiece – from the year 2200.
— Stephen Cone (@stephendcone) April 14, 2019
Jeff Malmberg’s formidable documentary “Marwencol” told the same story in less extravagant, but moving fashion. In the spring of 2000, five men outside of a bar in upstate New York attacked Hogancamp. Waking from a nine-day coma, Hogancamp had lost his adult memories, and had to learn to live again. Much effort went into the world-building of a backyard fantasia of a World War II Belgian town, captured in exacting 1:6-scale miniatures and a population of warrior dolls modeled after the real-life townspeople. (The tagline on Hogancamp’s own artist website is admirably succinct: “When his world was stolen, Mark Hogancamp made a world of his own.”)
Zemeckis, unlike Malmberg, uses the real-life story for a template about how an artist is driven to create, how to manifest an inner world, no matter how irregular it may be. His Mark Hogancamp transforms the people in his town, and they come to life in wartime adventures that play out in eccentric, even fetishistic scenarios. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s late “Vertigo” times eight—his female co-workers and neighbors become, in these explosions from his imagination, a bunch of brassy dames and buxom cutthroats. Every woman he knows, he transfigures into a “glamorista” doll.
Also by rendering its sentimental and fantastical gestures as coping mechanisms it adds a darkly reflexive layer to Zemeckis’ oeuvre which is already full of stories about people who distance themselves from reality in order to survive/feel alive.
— Adam Cook (@AdamCook) December 29, 2018
Zemeckis’ wildly on-the-nose song cues throughout “Marwen” are but one signal that the movie lives in Mark’s mind: the dated, superficially misogynist attitudes come from the wracked mind of the character, and not from the filmmakers, which include co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”). Elements that burst out as buffoonish are steadfast in the service of a portrait of the agony of creation when you know only obsession and fixation. (There is also a literal reenactment of the bell tower scene from “Vertigo.”)
So sad. It’s a terrific film, profoundly reflective about filmmaking (and specifically digital filmmaking) and its many, not always salutary uses, Zemeckis’s VERTIGO in many respects.
— Dave Kehr (@dave_kehr) December 7, 2018
“By rendering its sentimental and fantastical gestures as coping mechanisms,” Toronto critic Adam Cook observed on Twitter, “it adds a darkly reflexive layer to Zemeckis’ oeuvre which is already full of stories about people who distance themselves from reality in order to survive/feel alive… It feels like a late-career summation and interrogation with strikingly ambiguous findings.”
Zemeckis inserts flourishes of self-reference, including a rescue that contains the “Back to the Future” time machine in flight; it’s auteurism that is assured, serene but also berserk. The weekend “Marwen” opened, a director I know texted me, approvingly, “It’s very YOLO GFY GTFO.”
The moment in MARWEN when Zemeckis deconstructs BACK TO THE FUTURE as a pill-popper’s drug rush is amazing by itself; a mea culpa for the last 30 years of Hollywood cinema.
— Dave Kehr (@dave_kehr) December 12, 2018
I tried writing about it a couple of times, and didn’t think I could do better than other writers, especially Dave Kehr, had done on Twitter. It’s on video now, and a second look convinces that it is one of Zemeckis’ sweetest, and most bittersweet, and much fine writing will be inspired in months and years to come, so that future viewers and film observers can wrassle with this odd but impassioned experience.
Director’s credit: A solitary man applauded as if after a rousing musical. The rest of the room, silent until then, broke out in daffy laughter. https://t.co/QNfSQwgHi2
— Ray Pride (@RayPride) December 19, 2018
With Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Stefanie von Pfetten, Leslie Zemeckis. 106m. (Ray Pride)
“Welcome To Marwen” is on video and on demand.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.