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‘Welcome to Marwen’ and the Emptiness of Robert Zemeckis’ Feel-Good Films

Plus some other random thoughts about the ‘Forrest Gump’ filmmaker’s latest movie

Robert Zemeckis is a filmmaker who likes to transport us away to other worlds. He’s hardly alone in this ambition, but he’s certainly the most successful American director whose only ambition seems to be that. Think of other high-profile popcorn filmmakers. Steven Spielberg has spent his career dazzling multiplex crowds, but he’s also found room to craft sobering dramas like Schindler’s List. Christopher Nolan goes from Batman movies to innovative, risk-taking dramas such as Inception and Dunkirk, often flexing his considerable intelligence while catering to the masses. Sure, a meathead like Michael Bay gives blockbusters a bad name, but he’s not treated with the same reverence as a Zemeckis, who won an Oscar for Forrest Gump and tends to make classier event pictures. And yet, there isn’t much beneath the surface of Zemeckis’ movies. They’re very entertaining, but that’s all. And, honestly, shouldn’t that be enough?

His latest, Welcome to Marwen, argues that the 66-year-old filmmaker still wants to take viewers to magical realms they’ve never before experienced. But more than that, he wants to leave us with a message of hope. His movies don’t exactly babysit the audience, but they certainly do a lot of the work for us. They present problems but then reassure us that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Not all of Zemeckis’ films are in the fantasy genre, but a majority of them operate in unreal or idealized environments. It’s better when he doesn’t let the messiness of real life intervene. But in Welcome to Marwen, which is based on a true story, it does. As a result, his new film demonstrates what can be so limiting about his feel-good worldview.

Zemeckis has always loved popular entertainment. Of his childhood, he once said, “[T]he truth was that in my family there was no art. I mean, there was no music, there were no books, there was no theater… The only thing I had that was inspirational, was television… it was like my window on the world.” It’s easy to cast dispersions on a filmmaker for a quote like that — knocking him for being “just a TV guy” who’s not sophisticated enough to appreciate real art — but I think it’s fair to say that Zemeckis’ movies have often aimed to please at the expense of challenging his audience. Still, when his entertainments are delivered in a package as purely enjoyable as Back to the Future, who cares if he’s a bit shallow?

Unfortunately, 1994’s Forrest Gump represented a shift toward a more serious Zemeckis, telling the epic story of the Baby Boomer generation through the perspective of one not-very-bright young man (Tom Hanks). Forrest Gump tackled weightier themes — mortality, loss, love, war, fate — but the showman in Zemeckis balanced the film’s more mournful undertones with a resoundingly optimistic message. And audiences adored it: Forrest Gump was the year’s top-grossing film. When he accepted his award for Best Director at the Academy Awards, he called Forrest Gump “a film that, at its heart, offers a human, life-affirming, hopeful story.” Life is a weird, funny thing, the movie argued, but in the end, it’s not so bad.

That’s been the prevailing message of his post-Gump work, which has seen him repeatedly addressing serious subject matter with a whimsical, glass-half-full spirit. (Long gone was the delightful nastiness of his forgotten, wonderfully satiric 1992 comedy Death Becomes Her, which he made right before Gump.) Contact and Cast Away were films about individuals who face their greatest fears while stepping out into extraordinary realms and end up better for the experience. Later, after about a decade of focusing on motion-capture animated family films (The Polar Express, etc.), Zemeckis gave us Flight and The Walk, more stories of people put into difficult circumstances who find hopeful (albeit bittersweet) resolutions.

Welcome to Marwen continues this theme, introducing us to Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist who suffers brain damage during a savage beating by five men outside a bar. After waking from a coma, Mark discovers he remembers nothing of his old life — or even how to draw — but he works through what happened by putting together an elaborate tableau of a miniature Belgian village during World War II, populating it with dolls. (Intriguingly, the doll that represents him is a heroic American pilot, quite the opposite of the ineffectual Mark we meet in the real world.)

Like plenty of Zemeckis’ post-Gump work, Welcome to Marwen is, on its surface, a very sad story. Still reeling from his assault, Mark is a shell of his former self, metaphorically hiding in this village he calls Marwen. Adding to the film’s somber tone, Mark misinterprets the friendly attention of a neighbor (Leslie Mann) as an indication of deep romantic love. Plus, he’s too traumatized to go anywhere — least of all the courthouse to speak at the trial of his assailants — without his dolls. He needs meds and constant attention. No happy ending seems in store for him.

But because it’s Zemeckis, Welcome to Marwen will give him one, anyway — well, at least a semblance of one. (I won’t spoil what happens.) It’s not that Mark doesn’t deserve to be happy — or that bleak films are automatically more artistic than hopeful ones. But whether it’s Alan Silvestri’s cloyingly “uplifting” score or Zemeckis’ cutesy referencing of Back to the Future — in Marwen, Mark’s doll builds a DeLorean-like time machine — Welcome to Marwen never wants you to get too concerned about Mark’s debilitating condition. Bad things happens in this film, but they’re presented in such a featherbed way that we’re reassured that, don’t worry, Mark is going to get better.

Not to mention, Zemeckis has conditioned us not to be scared. Things tend to work out just fine in his films. After all, Forrest is alive and well to narrate his own story in Forrest Gump. So, too, is Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the main character in 2015’s The Walk, about the tightrope walker who daringly walked between the towers of the World Trade Center. In fairness, there is often a glimmer of melancholy in Zemeckis’ films: Forrest loses his beloved Jenny. The World Trade Center has fallen. The lovers in Allied don’t end up happily ever after. Denzel Washington lands in jail in Flight. Tom Hanks is at a literal crossroads at the finale of Cast Away. But as a filmmaker, he fights to keep genuine darkness at bay — instead, there’s a comforting “way to go, slugger” quality to his endings. He’s proud of his characters for changing, and proud of us for enduring being slightly troubled by their ordeals.

Not everyone feels that Zemeckis’ films are so simplistic. Veteran movie critic Dave Kehr has been a longtime champion, calling him “one of the last classical auteurs” who can merge technical know-how and personal themes with mainstream entertainment. Where people like me see superficiality, Kehr perceives an unpretentious director who prefers not to be so blatant in his themes: “Like most Hollywood directors, Zemeckis isn’t comfortable discussing his work in highfalutin critical terms.” And he’s a fan of Welcome to Marwen, which he views as “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.”

Kehr’s reading is fascinating, suggesting that Zemeckis views Mark as a cautionary tale — but also as a surrogate, just as Mark’s doll is a stand-in for Mark. Like his main character, the filmmaker has tried to escape the real world by crafting magical lands in which everything always works out. There’s poignancy to that idea. On some level, just about every Hollywood director is trying to provide us with escape and comfort — we like stories that take us out of our glum, mundane experiences for a couple hours. But what’s so striking about Zemeckis’ movies, whether good or bad, is the emptiness at their center. He wants us to feel good by watching his films. But we don’t feel much of anything else while we do.

Here are three other takeaways from Welcome to Marwen.

#1. You should see the documentary instead.

I didn’t mention that Welcome to Marwen isn’t just based on a true story — it’s also inspired by a documentary about that true story. In 2010, editor Jeff Malmberg made his directorial debut with Marwencol, which brought us into Hogancamp’s world.

Marwencol won Independent Spirit Awards and was one of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries. Even now, what comes across so strongly in the film is Malmberg’s ability to capture both the sadness and strangeness of his subject’s life. Marwencol never treats Hogancamp as a freak show, but the documentary has some of the same supreme surrealism you might expect from a Werner Herzog or Errol Morris film. Interestingly enough, that oddness only amplifies our sympathy for Hogancamp: We’re moved by what this trauma inspired him to create.

Another important element of Marwencol is that Malmberg (who recently co-edited Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) doesn’t try to “enhance” Hogancamp’s art by bringing it to life. Simply showing us Hogancamp’s still photography, which depicts dramatic scenes from the World War II scenarios he’s created, is potent enough. Indeed, it’s the lack of movement that makes this miniature world so haunting. The dolls’ plastic, expressionless faces communicate so much pain — they’re like a snapshot into Hogancamp’s fractured psyche.

Ironically, Malmberg initially considered adding a stylistic touch to his shots of these tableaux, but then decided against it. “It just didn’t really have any resonance and I think the reason is because it wasn’t coming from Mark’s point of view,” he said at the time of the film’s release. Malmberg later added, “I think that we’re so used to being told a story in a certain kind of way now, in a big budget way … I think people take it into their heart more when you’re not pulling tricks.”

Of course, that’s exactly what Zemeckis does do in Welcome to Marwen, animating the World War II scenes through motion-capture. On one level, the choice makes sense, creating a richer sense of what Hogancamp imagines. But on the other, it robs Hogancamp’s silent scenes of their power. When we played with dolls or action figures as kids, it was exciting to let our creativity run free. Welcome to Marwen literalizes Hogancamp’s vision in a rather flat way. Weirdly enough, his fictional scenes are more alive on their own terms — and in Malmberg’s documentary.

#2. Here’s something I think ‘Welcome to Marwen’ did well.

When it was announced in 2017 that Zemeckis was going to be making a feature from Marwencol, there was good reason to be unhappy. (For one thing, didn’t the documentary sufficiently cover this terrain?) But among the complaints was the assumption that Hollywood would whitewash elements of Hogancamp’s personal life, which would probably be judged to be too “abnormal” for mainstream audiences.

For context, here’s a 2011 New York Times profile of Hogancamp:

When Mr. Hogancamp returned home after the beating, he discovered a closet full of women’s pumps and boots. “Do I have a girlfriend?” he asked a friend. “They’re yours,” the friend replied. “You collect them and you wear them.” Mr. Hogancamp then learned that the men who beat him did so after he told them he was a cross-dresser.

In the article, Hogancamp discusses how hard it’s been for him to go out into society since his attack — especially when picking out his wardrobe: “A skirt and heels are calming, he said, ‘but that’s what got me beaten to death.’”

Hollywood biopics are notorious for excising character traits like this — oh lordy, what would “real Americans” think of a male character who wears heels?!? — but it’s to Zemeckis’ credit that Welcome to Marwen’s Mark has that closet full of heels. And from the film’s opening, he’s wearing them. Mark doesn’t think of it as a fetish — in the movie, he says that it helps him connect to the “essence” of women.

I usually avoid a film’s press notes — which tend to be full of bland platitudes and overly cheery quotes from the participants, who all insist that this was the greatest project they’ve ever done — but I was curious to hear how Welcome to Marwen’s makers discussed Hogancamp’s cross-dressing. Here’s a pertinent excerpt:

Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five men outside a bar in April 2000 because Hogancamp had communicated to one of them during the evening that he liked to wear women’s shoes. Since his recovery, Hogancamp [has] been more open about this aspect of his gender expression, and it is an integrated aspect of who he is as a person and how he is represented in the film. Because Hogancamp himself has chosen not to label this part of his gender identity, the filmmakers chose not to, either. Hogancamp’s view, and the filmmakers’, is simply that Hogancamp is exactly who he is, and he does not want or need to be defined by others. That said, it was clear that the assault that almost took Hogancamp’s life was motivated by a hatred of anyone who does not express gender in a binary, hetero-normative way, and the filmmakers did not shy away from that fact.

The press notes square with Hogancamp’s own feelings on the subject. Speaking with The Advocate this month, the artist (who hadn’t yet seen the movie) said, “I am a male, and I always want to be a male. I am not homophobic, just a heterosexual cross-dresser, from the waist down. I do not want to change into a woman, nor do I feel as though I’m a ‘woman trapped in a man’s body.’ I merely re-create women with my own legs and feet in a mirror on the floor, to stay close to women, and for my pleasure.”

While there might have been initial concern since the Welcome to Marwen trailer never mentions his cross-dressing, the movie itself is refreshingly open and cool about Hogancamp’s penchant for high heels — which is a thing I shouldn’t have to compliment a movie about. Still, c’mon, we all know that Hollywood studio films (especially ones opening around Christmas) tend to be deeply conservative.

To be sure, Welcome to Marwen focuses on the heels and doesn’t emphasize that Hogancamp wears nylon stockings. Nonetheless, his cross-dressing is never viewed as a “disease” or an indication that there’s something “wrong” with him. If anything, his love of heels is shown as something that makes him special, an indication of his willingness to be himself. Zemeckis’ movie missteps in lots of ways, but I’m glad it didn’t in regard to Hogancamp’s personal truth.

#3. This movie is a waste of a perfectly good Janelle Monáe.

In Welcome to Marwen, as in Hogancamp’s real life, the dolls in his World War II world are modeled after people he knows. The film emphasizes the women he’s friends with (and often has crushes on), and one of them is Julie, a military veteran who serves as his physical therapist. Because Julie is played by Janelle Monáe, I had an expectation that she’d have a significant role in Welcome To Marwen, which turns out not to be the case. This is a waste: You don’t put Monáe in your movie and then give her nothing to do. Monáe had a hell of a year anyway, though.

By critical consensus, she put out 2018’s best album with Dirty Computer, an exciting mixture of funk, pop and hip-hop that celebrated her coming out as pansexual. Backed by a collection of vivid, science fiction-themed music videos, Dirty Computer saw Monáe fulfill the promise of her earlier, also excellent records.

Monáe has been interested in acting, and she’s been on a tear of late, landing a brief but meaningful role in Moonlight and being one of the leads in 2016’s inspirational NASA drama Hidden Figures. (All due respect to Octavia Spencer, but if anyone deserved being nominated for Best Supporting Actress, it should have been Monáe, who plays a bright woman fighting to get her engineering degree at an all-white school.)

She has a few scenes in Welcome to Marwen, but after stealing Hidden Figures, it’s a letdown. Monáe is simply too electric a performer for such a small part — it makes as much sense as keeping a race car in the garage. So if you love Monáe, don’t see Welcome to Marwen because of her. Her best movie of 2018 was the short film she produced as part of Dirty Computer’s release. There, she’s the star.