13 June 2010



A decade ago in Kingston, New York, Mark Hogencamp was brutally beaten up by five young men in a parking lot. He survived, but with severe physical and even worse brain damage. After a few years of hospitalization that left him mostly healed but still under a lot of psychological distress, his insurance ran out, forcing him to live on his own. Hogencamp’s pre-attack diaries reveal he was a talented sketch artist, but his now-shaky hand prevents him from being able to draw. As a form of self-therapy, he begins to construct dioramas around his trailer home and yard, using the older, larger G. I. Joe and Barbie dolls as models. With time, he constructs his own elaborate town, a Belgian village during World War II whose name gives this documentary its title. If it all sounds incredibly kitschy, it’s not—Hogencamp is completely serious about his creations. He gives the dolls the names of people from his life—the guys who beat him up are rendered as Nazi soldiers, and he utilizes them in oft-gruesome scenarios to work through his trauma. He also takes artful, arresting photographs of the scenes he’s created, and they’re good enough to eventually lead to his own New York City gallery show. Throughout, Hogencamp appears before us as sweet, sad and more than a little fragile, but details about his past gradually surface that considerably deepen and complicate how we see him (particularly the shocking reason why he was beaten up, revealed midway through and too important to give away here). Jeff Malmberg’s film beautifully, profoundly illustrates the process of art-as-therapy, but it’s just as much a riveting account of a fascinating subject.


Easily standing apart from their stern, humorless gray-clad comrades, the young titular characters in this wonderfully weird Russian musical (set in 1955) are the counterculture. They take their cues from the jazz-loving, swing-dancing, zoot-suited Americans of a decade before, but strewn through a kaleidoscopic cross-cultural blender, outfitted in wild, garish, clashing colors, speaking in a beat-derived lingo and meeting up to dance and drink the night away at their own chic Valhalla in downtown Moscow. Mels (Anton Shagin) enters the film as a gawky secret policeman but soon falls under the Hipsters’ allure, much to his fellow workers’ chagrin. Director Valery Todorovsky practically overstuffs the film with elaborate, briskly paced, wildly imaginative musical numbers. Some hit the mark more than others (early on, a slapstick paean to communal living sets a deliriously high standard to match), but HIPSTERS tempers its exaggeration and flash by fully acknowledging the consequences inherent in choosing one lifestyle over another. Still, it’s one of the least dour Russian films you’re ever likely to see, with an infectious, uplifting energy that extends all the way to the finale’s timeless celebration of camaraderie among outsiders.


An adequate documentary about an extraordinary subject, this decade-in-the-making labor of love profiles Stephin Merritt, cult musician and head of The Magnetic Fields (and many other side projects). As a songwriter, Merritt seems out-of-time, his lyrics and melodies recalling the arch, witty (and occasionally breathtaking) wordplay of Cole Porter and Noel Coward. As a musician, Merritt’s positively postmodern, veering from cello-laden chamber pop to toy-store electronic settings to an entire album called Distortion that excessively lives up to its title. However, instead of merely fawning over Merritt’s considerable talent, the film wisely spends more time examining his resolutely deadpan, often difficult personality and relationship with long-term collaborator and friend Claudia Gonson. As they bring out both the best and worst in each other, we get a comprehensive sense of how art and life feed off each other and the also the quandary of being well-known in a particular community but not famous outside of it. But great subjects do not necessarily make for great films, and while it contains no serious missteps, aesthetically, STRANGE POWERS feels a little flat, especially compared to a similar cult-artist profile like SCOTT WALKER: 30TH CENTURY MAN.

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