Last year, I finally caught up with the film Marwencol (2010), a fascinating documentary about Mark Hogancamp, a man who was brutally assaulted and nearly beaten to death in Kingston, New York. The beating left him in a coma, and, when he woke up, he couldn’t remember anything. Not only did he have to relearn basic motor skills, he had to learn about who he was from family, friends, and documentary sources. Not all of what he learned was good—he had a drinking problem, and wasn’t always pleasant to be around.
The focus of the film, however, and the reason someone made a movie about him, was his unusual, self-administered therapy as he tried to recover from this trauma. In his backyard, he began building a miniature (1:6 scale) WWII town he called, “Marwencol.” With dolls modeled on family, friends, and even his attackers, Hogancamp enacted and reenacted scenes imagined and remembered, capturing many of them in startling photographs that eventually caught the eye of the art world, and of filmmaker Jeff Malmberg. (Keep your eyes peeled for an impressive-looking book, Welcome to Marwencol, by Hogancamp and Chris Shellen, coming this fall.)
I found the film moving, memorable, and thought-provoking, not least for its resonances with Charlie Kaufman’s challenging masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York (2008). In that fictional drama, theater director Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman at his shambling best) addresses his own trauma by launching a performance-art project on a stunning scale—a 1:1 model city where he directs actors amid a sea of extras. There is some comedy here, especially when Cotard casts actors to play the most important people in his life, and their improvised storylines take on a life of their own, but it all gets darker and darker as the film goes on. Ultimately, Cotard’s efforts to play god with with actors, who have free will, goes much less successfully than Hogancamp’s work with his models. Hogancamp seems to have saved himself, but Cotard is doomed.
Smith looms over his idealized world like
Godzilla in a casual, short-sleeve shirt.
While I loved the synergy between Marwencol and Syndecdoche, imagine my surprise to learn that there was yet another film about a man making a miniature world. The short documentary Elgin Park (2015) shows the work of Michael Paul Smith, who has been making scale models (at 1:24) for a quarter century, and whose mid-century Utopia, Elgin Park, has captured millions of views on Flickr. With a new photo book released just last month (Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th Scale), it’s easy to see why grown men working on miniatures captivate photographers and filmmakers. When a giant hand reaches into a photo-realistic street scene, breaking the optical illusion, it’s delightful and surprising in a way that, I think, tickles the same part of our brains as when we were kids still reconciling our world of carpet and footstools with the Brobdingnagian scale of adults and their accoutrements. Or maybe it’s just a monster-movie thrill: Smith looms over his idealized world like Godzilla in a casual, short-sleeve shirt.
Elgin Park, the film, is a miniature itself, with a running time of less than 10 minutes. Director Danny Yourd uses his time well, moving swiftly from the remarkable realism of Smith’s miniatures to explore why he makes them. A self-described recluse, Smith at one point claims to be documenting the Twentieth Century, but more compelling are the personal details that follow his description of Elgin Park as a place with “no conflict.” Smith, who knew he was gay at an early age, was bullied for being different, something he’s still working through. He began building because, he says, “I needed a place that I felt comfortable in.”
Like Hogancamp and Cotard, Smith is enacting his own therapy. But where their alternate worlds are messy and full of conflict, Smith’s is mostly serene. He hints at the town’s darker side, but the shadows aren’t too deep, evoking an idealized 1950s similar to what he saw when growing up in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. And his fans seem to be mostly people who love the nostalgic images. Having always wanted to be liked for who he was, he has now become widely appreciated for the thing he created in order to come to terms with himself.
From the book, we learn that he doesn’t own a cell phone, a TV, or a car (other than his miniatures). His small (but not miniature) apartment seems almost like a hermetically sealed time capsule, itself a safe place to retreat from the messy real world while he builds one according to his own specifications. Amazingly, he builds almost everything except the model cars.
The book collects a wealth of fascinating images from his photostream, along with his original captions and selected visitor comments, revealing that he lives in a virtual community, at least, of others who share his delight in recreations of mid-century America. Collaborator Gail K. Ellison helps with some useful context about how and where Smith makes his miniatures (in the tiny kitchen of his three-bedroom, third-story suburban Boston apartment), but the sense of Smith as a person seems less fully explored in the book than the movie. Still, those wanting to linger over the pictures, on paper, while learning more about how they were made, will be entranced.
* * *
In some ways, this whole world-building thing seems like a painfully obvious metaphor for what writers do. What is writing a novel, if not creating a world in which you have complete control over the outcome of events? Some writers make idealized worlds in which everything is gravy, but more often, they use their imaginary, manufactured landscapes as a place to play out conflicts pulled from the depths of their own psyches. Hogancamp makes dolls that bear a strong resemblance to people in real life (that’s one way for a shy guy to let a woman know he’s got a crush on her), while most authors do the opposite, cloaking the people in their actual lives with enough fictional trappings that, with luck, they won’t recognize themselves. Although they probably do anyway.
Then there are a few novels that actually bring this full circle, depicting people as they create a life in miniature. In Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., a book I haven’t read but still intend to, the 56-year-old Waugh immerses himself in a world of his own creation, a baseball game with elaborate rules—and unexpected ramifications. (Back in 2005, Bill Ott wrote a great column about the book that will give you the idea.)
Watching Elgin Park, Marwencol, and Synecdoche, New York not only provides entertainment and food for thought, but has the curious effect of making you look at your own life, however briefly, with a new perspective. Like a giant towering above your own tiny town, struggling to fit your feet into the streets, you may find yourself wondering how you got there, and thinking about the role your own hand plays in events.
Elgin Park. By Michael Paul Smith and Gail K. Ellison. 2015. Animal Media Group, $50 (9780986148903).
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. 1968. By Robert Coover.
Welcome to Marwencol. By Mark E. Hogancamp and Chris Shellen. November 2015. Princeton Architectural, $29.95 (9781616894153).