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Art-house films: ‘Marwencol,’ ‘Zeitgeist’

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Opening this week on the local specialty film circuit:

‘Marwencol’ ★★★

Add “Marwencol” to that exceptional subgenre that reveal how films work. Directing his first documentary, Jeff Malmberg depicts Mark Hogancamp from Kingston, N.Y., and the make-believe place called Marwencol he creates with G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, as his film explores the inner workings of a brain-damaged outsider artist.

Hogancamp himself is like a filmmaker: He casts and cos­tumes residents of a Nazi-occupied Belgian village in World War II, and builds sets and finds props for his characters. Then he stages and photographs episodes with plotlines that mirror his own life. In 2000 at a local bar, Hogancamp revealed a side of himself that incited five young men to beat him into a coma. After the incident, most of his motor skills came back. His drawing talent and drinking problem did not.

Malmberg insightfully details Hogancamp’s emotional mise-en-scene. His assailants are represented by S.S. soldiers. “I thought they took away my imagination along with everything else,” re­flects Hogancamp, who says he had “every memory kicked out of my head.” That includes those of his own wedding and wife. Aided by dolls representing the women of Marwencol, some of whom are named after real women in Kingston, Hogancamp’s dolls exact revenge on his tormentors.

Drawing on footage gathered over four years, Malmberg carefully delays revealing another aspect of his subject’s fantasy life. For a standard ending, the filmmaker defaults to a documentary trope. He shows Hogancamp freting about a trip to a Greenwich Village gallery that exhibits his photographs. Will he overcome his fears and expose his dented psyche to the artworld?

Fortunately, “Marwencol” keeps its distance from other cliches: the true-crime victim, triumph over disability and the gifted unknown getting his big break. Hogancamp outfits his dolls with a little camera. Sometimes he re-creates his own posture when he lies down to shoot from the dolls’ 1/6th-scale POV. Similar framing makes the angles of Malmberg’s video and Hogancamp’s photos interchangeable. The closing shot of the camera-toting doll is a self-portrait of both artists. “Marwencol” and Marwencol are mirror images of the filmic imagination.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 83 minutes. Opening today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

‘Zeitgeist: Moving Forward’ ★★1/2

Money is the root of evil, according to the Book of Timothy in the New Testament; burning it will heal the planet, argues the intriguing documentary “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward.” This is the third in a series of “Zeitgeist” films for director-producer-writer-cinematographer-composer-editor and narrator Peter Joseph, who goes only by his first and middle names. In this installment, he attacks the international monetary system and promotes a sustainable utopia.

Peter Joseph opened his earlier “Zeitgeist: The Movie” (2007) and “Zeitgeist: Addendum” (2008) with lines from Tibetan and Indian philosophers, respectively. Austrian communist Ernest Fischer, author of The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, supplies the epigraph for “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward”: “Art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.”

After circuituous discussions of human genetics, violence, addiction, currency, inflation and oil, the lengthy film gets around to changing the world using “the scientific method applied to human concerns.”

Social engineer and industrial designer Jacque Fresco plugs his Venus Project, in which he envisions a “cybernated society” of circular cities where “computers could replace the outmoded system of electing politicians.” Satellite-steered, collectively owned cars will eliminate traffic fatalities, he forecasts.

Peter Joseph’s most imaginative leap comes at the end when he dramatizes a scenario for peaceful revolt: citizens of Earth see the light and toss all their cash into fires outside banks. Although the first two “Zeitgeist” films spawned a grass-roots movement (the Illinois chapter is hosting the Chicago screenings) this tactic is not prescribed for offscreen activists.

At times, Peter Jospeh skirts with esoterica. Never as kooky as “visionaries” Lyndon LaRouche and L. Ron Hubbard, he nonetheless partakes in science worship, sci-fi mind-slavery metaphors, and a global banking obsessions. His films draw upon such disparate books as The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, The Coming Oil Crisis and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

Economists, including the late University of Chicago seer Milton Friedman, are the big bad guys here. Their theories are based on the lie of “infinite resources.” The provocative “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” advocates instead a “resource-based” society, rescaled under the “dictatorship” of nature.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 166 minutes. Screening at 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; at 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Jan. 21; 1 and 5 p.m. Jan. 22-23, and 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at MultiKulti, 1000 N. Milwaukee. $6 donation.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based free-lance writer and critic.

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