Saturday, January 12, 2019

Robert Zemeckis, part XXI: I like wearing women's shoes, somehow it connects me to the essence of dames


Robert Zemeckis' most interesting effort in eighteen years is also his easiest to dislike and misunderstand, which is why the director's first grab toward real greatness in just as long has become branded his worst film, and has, accordingly, failed miserably.  Thing is, I'd usually blame you, but in this instance, I don't think there's anyone else to blame but Bob himself.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Caroline Thompson and Robert Zemeckis

Spoiler alert: mild

What I know about Welcome to Marwen is that I love it, and I'm fascinated by it.  What I don't know is whether it's actually, factually good, for it's arguable (and I've had this argument already, twice) that it really isn't.  To describe it, it's easier to say what it definitely isn't: it's not the inspirational biopic it was marketed as, at least not in any remotely functional sense; it's not terribly dedicated to the true story of its subject, Mark Hogancamp, to the point I don't think it's even "about" him in any abiding way, rather than simply using his story as a jumping off point for what it actually wants to discuss; it's not very impressed by Hogancamp's doll-based artistic obsessions, at least not in the same way that all the magazine articles and the 2010 documentary which Marwen sort-of remakes are, and it's even less impressed by the people who claimed they were impressed; it's not wholly an excuse for its director, Robert Zemeckis, to indulge his own artistic obsession with mo-cap animation, either, though this is still closer to what Marwen's "about" than the real-life Hogancamp; and it's not, at all, normal.

In fact, it may be the weirdest film of 2018: not merely strange, but estranging.  It's certainly the weirdest to have been released in the hope of pleasing crowds and making money; it's weirder than most if not all of the movies that were sold as weird.  Big gonzo tentpoles like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Aquaman, or even intensely-personal indies like Mandy, Suspiria, Sorry to Bother You, and First Reformed—these are all weird in deliberate, knowing ways, all calculated to appeal to some established audience, larger or smaller as the case may be (animation nerds, sensuous SF/F dorks, 1980s splatter horror fans, 2010s art horror fans, crypto-commies and pretentious dweebs, respectively), but nonetheless audiences which each of those films' makers and distributors knew existed.

Marwen doesn't feel like it was made for any audience.  It's not surprising that the marketplace has established it wasn't.  I'm not trying to get anybody to see it, not that you likely could at this point: I managed to catch it on the last showing (of not very many) at my theater.  Yes, I like it, but it's simply not a likeable film: anyone who expected a heartstring-pulling emotional calvary will find only a cringy, unsympathetic hero whose goals we're not supposed to be rooting for; anyone who expected a Zemeckian spectacle of toy Nazis being blown up like it was The LEGO Basterds Movie will find that it has no intention of being an action-packed thrill-ride; anyone who expected a Steve Carell comedy will have to make do with intentionally Godawful jokes like "cow-lateral damage" that serve to underline the safe, self-amusing pseudo-squareness of Hogancamp's narratives, for otherwise the laughs in the movie are of an exceptionally squirmy variety, driven by a Carell performance that rests somewhere between his other great evocations of cognitive difference, the purely cartoonish Brick "I love lamp" Tamland from Anchorman and the flatly terrifying John "My friends call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle" du Pont from Foxcatcher, except Hogancamp is identifiably, uncomfortably human in ways neither of those characters were ever supposed to be, which emphasizes the yawning gaps in his personality even more.  Incidentally, you know what we have here is a movie made for nobody when I say that Foxcatcher had more populist appeal.

So Marwen takes on, sort of, Hogancamp's true story, and that true story starts like this: in the April of 2000, Hogancamp was at a bar, drinking to excess as was his wont at the time, whereupon the conversation turned to his predilection for wearing women's heels; immediately thereafter, he got jumped in the street and queer-bashed (though he's not gay, as the film makes, perhaps, overplain) nearly to death.  After a coma, he awoke with near-total amnesia and serious motor disabilities, from which he never completely recovered, plus a mammoth case of PTSD.  He turned inward, and his major solace was a fantasy space he constructed, a sprawling model he called "Marwencol," after the first syllables of his own name and those of two friends, representing a Belgian town under occupation during WWII. Here, Hogancamp's action figure alter-ego "Hogie" finds himself battling, more successfully, the same kind of people who took away his life and much of his biological functioning.

From this point, though, we're talking more about Mark-the-movie-character (Carell), rather than Hogancamp-the-actual-person, and some years later Mark's still fighting his forever war, and still ensconced in a world (named, as yet, just "Marwen," and rendered in photorealistic CGI that still doesn't pretend to be anything but "dolls given life") where he's the only man besides roving gangs of Nazis, and in which he's become the leader of an unlikely pan-Allied population of female resistance fighters that he's based on women he knows, or, sometimes, just knows of: Anna, his Russian homecare nurse (Gwendoline Christie); Julie, his rehab worker (Janelle Monae); Caralala, a co-worker at his (very) part-time job (Eiza Gonzalez); Suzette, Mark's "favorite actress," that is, from his favorite work of pornography (Leslie Zemeckis, Bob's wife, which I elect to find delightfully weird); and Roberta, the proprietress of the hobby shop he gets his raw materials from (Merrit Wever).  Wendy, the "wen" in "Marwen," is long gone; so's his wife, who apparently left even before his attack.  Indeed, the only one of these people who genuinely counts as "a friend" is Roberta.  This changes when Mark gets a new neighbor, the (fictional) Nicol (Leslie Mann), who takes an interest in his tragedy, which Mark inevitably and awkwardly misinterprets, while other stresses also take their toll: the impending first gallery show for his folk art, which Roberta has helped set up, almost against his will; the impending sentencing hearing where he'll have to face his attackers for the first time since that night; and his increasing addiction to the blue pills (hm) he's been taking way, way too many of, personified (though Mark, a singularly unreflective creator, is unable to recognize this) in the form of Marwen's single inhabitant without a real-life analogue, Dejah Thoris, a very wicked witch who wants Mark all to herself.

Zemeckis would not be the first director I'd think of for a story like this.  The dark exploration of crippling obsession would suggest an Aronofsky; the living dollhouse of a dysfunctionally-whimsical protagonist whose victimization has effectively reset him to childhood, an Anderson; the sad guy who more easily connects with women, and who receives their recognition in turn as a fellow target of men's violence, a Burton (and, indeed, who else do we find but Edward Scissorhands' writer Caroline Thompson sharing the screenplay credit with Zemeckis? though at times Marwen feels as much like Burton's dirty mirror to Scissorhands, Batman Returns); the ritualized war-movie killing of Nazis, not to mention all the foot stuff, that's a Tarantino; the psychosexual drama that revolves around the tokens of women, and tokenized women, that Mark can remake and control, that sounds like a Hitchcock by way of De Palma.  But then, every director is entitled to make their own Vertigo in their own way.  A common and not-ungrounded complaint is that Marwen either doesn't know how off-putting Mark is, or expects you to sympathize regardless; when my spouse made arguments to this effect, I replied "sounds like you want a Spielberg," whom she doesn't even have any special fondness for.

Marwen does not want to be a genial Spielbergian tearjerker, or even its more sophisticated Zemeckian equivalent; though its plot may be boilerplate, its actual construction isn't.  It's almost a satire of the inspirational genre, though I think it's more that it wants to be empathetic and critical simultaneously; still, Zemeckis' traditional composer (and sometimes-Spielberg-collaborator) Alan Silvestri certainly wasn't told it would be a more pointed character study, and he provided an exorbitantly mournful score (Silvestri's best in a while, technically) to back the emotional crests and (mostly) troughs that I'm sure Silvestri realized would otherwise not have seemed even as  uncomplicated as they do, which still isn't very uncomplicated even with his music telling us how to feel.

Oddly, another thing Marwen reminds me of is John Carpenter's The Ward, another late-late-late career work by an out-of-touch master about trauma and imaginary friends (that, additionally, only I like).  There, as here, the animating question appeared to be, "how carefully can we make it?"  Marwen is made exceptionally carefully, which is possibly why its foundational mistakes echo throughout the whole film.  In his dramas, Zemeckis has always favored a strong first-person perspective, but has not till now embraced their subjectivity as an unstoppable stream-of-consciousness (until now, he has not made a drama about mental illness, as such); and this is evidently where his keenest interest in the Marwencol story lies.

Alongside his long-time assistant editor (promoted to head of the department with Allied), Jeremiah O'Driscoll, Zemeckis finds Mark's fantasies and flickers of memory trespassing frequently upon his waking life.  They handle his uncontrollable psychological shifts with the kind of fluid unreality that would tend to slip through Mark's fingers even if he were trying to catch  hold of them, from the opening gesture in Marwen itself that slowly, subtly makes it plain that the surrounding foliage is blades of grass and plastic trees seen from a doll's-eye view before rising back into the real world, to photographs that spring to life, to a moment where arcing blasts of tracer fire start screaming through Mark's living room.  Mostly, Mark is identified with Hogie; but sometimes, he's only watching Hogie; and sometimes Hogie manifests a fully independent (even menacing) existence of his own.  Zemeckis and O'Driscoll never miss a beat when bridging Mark's two worlds—or smashing them dangerously together.

Meanwhile, Marwen is often lit (and sometimes composed) like the feel-good light dramedy it very much isn't.  But one of the littler (albeit most satisfying) pleasures of Marwen is that, unlike 95%+ of all movies, it never falls afoul of my own personal pet peeve about the focal plane, where directors and DPs almost always mechanically, automatically rack focus in any given shot toward a dialogue source, whether the dialogue source is the most interesting thing in their shot or not.  Zemeckis and his new cinematographer C. Kim Miles (promoted from TV) never assume that just because someone's making noise it means they're the subject of a shot.  Usually, the subject of Marwen's shots is Mark, or his plastic psychological fragments, varying in effect from a brazen use of forced perspective that transforms the tiny Dejah Thoris doll on its perch into a life-sized creature bigger than Mark, to the crucial moment when objective reality finally hits Mark with the momentum of a freight train, and he freezes like a broken clockwork, the shot (and the viewer) nearly freezing along with him in a study of motionlessness, the only movement at all being the tiny quivers of Carell's body and an almost-imperceptible retreat of the camera from the ugly tableau it's captured.

This collision with reality is a profound violation.  Maybe the problem with Marwen is that it commits too fully for comfort, or maybe even parsability, to Mark's point-of-view.  It bears clues that it's dealing in some manner of unreliability, but subtle ones, maybe ones I'm even wrong about: who the hell can say where Zemeckian zaniness ends and Zemeckian exercises in narrative perspective begin?  (It's as likely that he thinks Anna and Caralala's ethnic cartoon accents are funny.)  But I don't believe for a second the balance of this movie isn't intentional.  Misjudged, maybe: like the deliberate refusal to provide Mann the reaction shots she needs to fully sell Nicol's otherwise-barely-concealed discomfiture, or the fact we barely glimpse the piece of (high Zemeckian) storytelling-by-props on her mantle that serves as the key to unlocking why she indulges her neighbor.  (And I suppose it is at least slightly misjudged: because without giving Mann that space, the character and her performance come off instead as dim and reckless.)  But it's definitely on purpose, anyway.  Marwen is best understood as a psychological horror film about a range of interlocking problems.  It doesn't despise men wearing heels categorically, but I'm not certain it thinks Mark's specific fetish is harmless: when he explains it—and he explains it a lot, to people who didn't ask about it—he sounds like a serial killer.  Even after spending hours, as Hogie, rehearsing this explanation.

Mark isn't dangerous, really, but he no longer has a robust theory of mind, and that's as horrifying as anything you're likely to find in any avowed horror movie (even if it also means that Marwen can't truly get us inside Mark's head, because hallucinations are easy, but solipsism is hard, and someone else's solipsism is impossible twice over; in other words, we can't leave our own awareness of others behind and thus Marwen is ultimately only watching a guy be creepily antisocial for what I suppose could seem like ages, even if a very patient viewer can still get a lot out of it).  In any event, it has wider applicability: Marwen takes very, very deliberate aim at how ceding all the power and goodness in the world to a more-or-less wholly-imagined (and male-centered, hugely-entitled) version of "femininity" is not the opposite of misogyny just because it's worshipful instead of resentful (though terrifying resentment is never too far away in a movie that sees the plastic stand-in for Mark's object of desire taking a bullet in the breast, because we haven't forgotten that Mark commands his Nazis as well as his high-heeled Amazonian maquis); and neither is it, you know, healthy.

Marwen, then, is deeply concerned with that threshold where the things that help us become things that hurt us instead: fantasy; medication; putting a beloved on a pedestal; accepting pity as genuine interest; indulging a friend's self-harm just because they've been harmed by others; spending a billion dollars and ten years trying to make your on-average-terrible motion capture cartoons the new ghoulish face of CG animation.  So, yeah, obviously it's about Big Bob, too, and if Mark projects himself onto Hogie, Zemeckis projects himself onto Mark.  (For what it's worth, it's by far Zemeckis' most successfully-conceived mo-cap cartoon: the uncanny stiffness is baked right into the scenario and is supposed to be mildly disturbing, and, in the film's least-intuitive turn, Marwen actually does get the eyes right, which have traditionally been the grossest thing about Zemeckis' mo-cap efforts; they have real spark and life inside the dolls' otherwise-unyielding hard plastic skulls.  That fits too, since they're more real to Mark than any flesh people he knows.)

The meta stuff is never as interesting as the foundational stuff, but it is interesting; I suppose when Hogie gets shot down in a P-40 Warhawk, it's less because that aircraft couldn't compete against the Luftwaffe in Europe, and a lot more because it was what Kelso flew in 1941.  And Marwen is the second movie of 2018 to use the iconic DeLorean as a symbol of oblivion; both times, it was at the hands of one of its creators.  Tell me that's not weird.  (Also, yes: it's just as senseless in Mark's fantasy as it sounds, but if we're going to critique every moment where Mark's fantasy is incoherent, we'd be here all night.)  The thing that baffled me the whole film, though, was Dejah Thoris; I've run into accusations that the film stigmatizes taking your medication.  Well, Marwen isn't really a film that can survive a hostile reading.  Anyway, she's only a literalization of what the film's actually after, and a strange and somewhat rewarding compound metaphor, too—addiction and obsession, obviously, and a thematically-laden shade of aquamarine, Green Fairy (classic representation of absinthe and drugged-out madness) and Blue Fairy (promising to make Mark a real fake boy), all at once.  And I don't suppose it's a total accident, though Hogancamp was the one who called her that in the first place, that she takes her name from John Carter's Martian princess, the first in a long line of science-fantasy heroines and masturbation totems, the bearer of great bountiful tits upon the cover of a pulp magazine with several mysterious, and unsettling, stains.  Hey, man, at least they took out Hogancamp's "catfights."

I insist Marwen is thoughtful; maybe too damn thoughtful for its own good, because every decision it makes only makes it less approachable and much less fun.  (It has a lot in common with Ready Player One besides the DeLorean, but not that.)  Yet it may be great.  It might be one of 2018's best films.  For many, it was one of its worst.  So maybe it's both.  I treasure it.

Score: 9/10

Part of an evolving Filmmaker's Retrospective Series: Robert Zemeckis


  1. Interesting. I didn't catch it in the main theaters in my area due to the mentioned very brief run. That being said, it is now hitting the "arthouse" type small theater close by. I was, and still am, tempted to see it.