Vainglory and the Oscars 1— “Welcome to Marwen”

A calculated Oscar gamble fails because it lacks a hero.

Actually - not at all inspirational nor much inspired.

Big-screen-quality films are expensive, in terms of money and time. Studios don’t spend millions and directors don’t spend a year or more of their lives without a purpose.

All films, even bad ones have purpose.

They may be made to teach or preach, or solely to return a profit, hopefully by entertaining us. When a film does nothing, doesn’t educate or change society on its way to losing money we’re right to ask — why did they make this, why would anyone make this?

The closer we are to Christmas the more likely the answer is — the Oscars.

Releasing a film in December accomplishes two goals — it qualifies the film for Oscar consideration and ensures the film generates its greatest impact just before Academy members start voting. Last year directors Scott Cooper and James Franco released the torturous “Hostiles” and incredibly oddball “The Disaster Artist” just in time for consideration.

In spite of their directors’ and producers’ calculated hopes (In “Hostiles” evil white men persecute native Americans, and “Disaster Artist” is a Hollywood insider tale.) and starry casts, the films weren’t aimed at audiences; they were aimed at Oscar voters.

Their calculations failed at the box office and the Oscars. The perennially unlearned lesson is — even Oscar voters have standards.

This year it’s Julian Schnabel and Robert Zemeckis rolling the Oscar dice with the tortuous “At Eternity’s Gate” and oddball, but difficult to watch “Welcome to Marwen”. (“Vainglory and the Oscars 2” will review Schnabel’s Oscar hopeful.)

Schnabel’s fairly new to the Oscar game, but Zemeckis has been at it for awhile. His “Back to the Future” screenplay won him an Oscar and a storied career that included “Forest Gump”.

His career’s been less storied lately. For the past decade Zemeckis has been producing (and sometimes directing) documentaries and shorts. His last big screen directorial splash was 2009’s “A Christmas Carol”.

Zemeckis seems to have fallen out of step. Society’s in search of superheroes. Audiences want superhero films, which require superhero budgets which, for obvious reasons, are only entrusted to superhero directors.

How does an out of step director with a successful past get a seat at that table? The same way new ones do— win an Oscar. How to win an Oscar on a limited budget? Make an art film with an Oscar-deserving, but Oscar-less actor.

Actors and directors lead symbiotic lives. Actors need directors, and at least for now, directors need actors to feed their career flames, and for both the best way to fan the flames when their films aren’t making money is to win Oscars.

Zemeckis needed an Oscar-worthy actor.

Enter Steve Carell. The perennial Golden Globe winner for “The Office” has moved on to heavier fare. The public barely noticed Carell as an abusive stepfather in 2013’s “The Way Way Back” or his turn as a wealthy murderer in 2014's “Foxcatcher”, but the Academy did. The Academy’s voters nominated him for a murderous Best Actor.

Alas, when the voting smoke cleared Carell remained Oscarless.

The stage was set. Zemeckis had an Oscar-hopeful actor, and Carell had an Oscar-hopeful director. All they needed was an Oscar-worthy story. They chose Mark Hogankamp’s.

The facts are simple: Five young (some teenage) thugs caught Hogankamp outside a bar in Kingston, New York, beat him senseless and left him all-but dead in the street. The bartender found him and likely saved his life. Nine days later, when Hogankamp awakened from his coma, he’d lost some of his motor skills and all of his memories, not just of the beating — he remembered nothing of his life before the beating.

The system worked. Hogankamp’s assailants were arrested, tried, and convicted. There were no chases, no gunfights, no crime bosses, no corrupt cops or judges, no brave witnesses or dynamic courtroom scenes, and — no heroes.

Just as Hogankamp’s pointless tragedy stunned the people of Kingston then, it stuns us now, but that’s how the story is best described — as a tragedy, a pointless tragedy. It stirs our emotions, but the emotion it stirs is pathos.

More spectator at his beating than participant, Hogankamp didn’t fight back.

We’d like to, but can’t honestly bring ourselves to see him as a hero, so we end up seeing him as a victim, a sad victim. Prior to the attack he’d illustrated comic books. Afterward he couldn’t. He could’t draw or remember, and dealt with his tragedy by withdrawing from the world around him, and as time went by he became less sad, and more pathetic.

Why would Zemeckis choose Hogankamp’s story and why would Carell agree to play a man so traumatized he refused to re-enter the real world?

Oscar calculations.

2017's “Moonlight” stole Best Picture from the much more ambitious and accomplished “La La Land”. (In fact, the presenters handed the statue to “La La Land’s” producers, who moments later were as stunned as the rest of us when they learned “La La Land” had in fact lost, and “Moonlight” had won.)

“Moonlight” shows the straight world inflicting trauma on a young gay man.

In 2018 ‘The Shape of Water” snatched Best Picture from “Call Me by Your Name”, the tale of a young English boy’s first homosexual affair. “The Shape of Water” told the tale of a mute woman who fell in love and swam away with a magical (and magically sexual) aquatic creature.

What?

You read that correctly — “a mute woman who fell in love and swam away with a magical (and magically sexual) aquatic creature” snatched Best Picture from a gay love story.

Something had changed.

“Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water” were largely ignored by the public, and though “Moonlight” was critically well-received, “The Shape of Water” was less so, and has been largely forgotten.

Why then did “The Shape of Water” win?

Times and tastes change, for the Academy as well as the public. If 2017’s Oscars were the Academy’s response to ascension of a perceived bigot to the Presidency, maybe “Moonlight” was the Academy getting in the faces of puritanical middle Americans.

Then why did “Call Me by Your Name” lose in 2018?

Maybe, having in 2017 addressed society’s mistreatment of homosexuals, the Academy’s members were ready to overturn the next stodgy norm or correct the next social injustice. But how to top 2017? By voting for a film about a handicapped woman who loves a fish?

Maybe, but if that’s correct, if the Oscar goes to whichever film addresses the oldest, most repressive social norm or smallest, most exotic sexual minority, where to go next, crossdressers?

Hogankamp was a crossdresser.

Could Zemeckis’ twist the story of a man with a taste for wearing women’s clothes into a Best Picture contender? Could Carell twist the less than heroic crossdresser, too traumatized to face the world, into a Best Actor contender?

In 2017's “Manchester by the Sea” Casey Affleck took home Best Actor for playing an unheroic man unable to recover from a traumatic experience. In 2018 the Academy nominated Timothee Chalamet for playing a gay teenager in “Call Me by Your Name”, and Daniel Day-Lewis for playing a couturier who’s pained by the world, and gets off by being poisoned within an inch of death in “Phantom Thread”.

It seemed Academy voters were gravitating toward stories and characters more defined by sexuality than drama or heroism. Hogankamp was so emotionally damaged by a traumatic event that he was unable to live in the real world, an event caused by his sexual disposition. His story seemed to tick off both Oscar boxes. Shazam, as Gomer used to say.

And the plan might have worked, were Zemeckis not Zemeckis.

Meet his cast:

Zemeckis’ primary cast for half the film’s running time.

No, they’re not really plastic dolls; they’re actors rendered digitally into plastic dolls. Nearly half of “Welcome to Marwen’s” running time takes place in the imaginary world into which Hogankamp regressed, in which he plays a six-gun-toting, crashed-landed, Nazi-killing P40 pilot, whom his plastic female cadre affectionately call Captain Hogie:

Any jokes about the stilettos and I shoot, understand?

The other half of the film takes place in Hogankamp’s real world, or what we’re lead to believe is his real world, cast composed of the same actors who play the dolls in his imaginary world.

Zemeckis penchant for mixing animation and live action might lead you to think he twisted Hogankamp’s story to suit his technique. Not so. This much isn’t fiction. Hogankamp populated his miniature imaginary world with plastic dolls painted and dressed to resemble people who were important in his real world.

Eiza González the cook, AKA Carlala the killer.

Zemeckis has spent years experimenting with special effects. He inserted Tom Hanks into historical footage in “Forest Gump” and made actors into animated characters in “Polar Express”, keeping live actors and animated characters segregated. “Forest Gump’s” digitally added Tom Hanks stayed in the living world, and the animated characters of “Polar Express” stayed in the animated world. In “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Zemeckis merged the real and animated worlds. He had live and animated characters interact in the same frame, but kept them distinctly real or animated.

Though there’s no evidence his real world assailants were more than thugs, in his imaginary world they were Nazis.

In “Welcome to Marwen” he took a completely different tack. Instead of keeping it real or digital, ”’Marwin’s” characters are both real and animated. They hop back and forth between the real and animated worlds. One moment they’re live actors, the next moment they’re plastic dolls.

The technique fails.

The digital representations of Hogankamp’s dolls resemble the actors who play them, but they’re not presented to us as reality, nor do they resemble it. They’re shiny. They have articulated joints and move in toy-like fashion.

Zemeckis avoids the Uncanny Valley (That doomed “Beowulf”. Even Zemeckis’ digital rendering of a nude Angelina Jolie failed to attract a crowd.) by leaping back and forth across it, but this works less well than leaving us on one side or the other. They are separate stories, and each time we leap across the Valley Zemeckis pulls us out of one and pushes us into the other.

Making us cower in Hogankamp’s imaginary world whenever the stress of the real world overwhelms him not only forces us to suspend our suspension of disbelief, it eventually brings us to suspend our patience with him.

Carell makes sure Hogankamp is a sympathetic character. We never see him in full crossdressing bloom, and we get used to him in heels. We accept the outer Hogankamp. It’s the inner Hogankamp that eventually gets on our nerves.

The digital Nicol and Captain Hogie, Leslie Mann as the real Nicol and Steve Carell as the real Hogankamp

Three years after his trauma Hogankamp clings to his imaginary world. He goes nowhere and does nothing without his miniatures and dolls. He takes for granted the real-life women who form his support mechanism, who seem less dear to him than the dolls he paints to resemble them.

Eventually we’re frustrated by Hogankamp’s inability or refusal to overcome the smallest of life’s bumps. By the film’s end, we’ve watched him mistake sympathy for love and ignore real affection, and end up not getting the girl, any girl, and by the time we find out Hogankamp still lives in his imaginary world of dolls — we no longer care.

We feel cheated at having spent emotional capital and two hours of precious time on someone who is less heroic than we, less heroic than any and all in the audience, and less than heroic enough to win an Oscar for either Zemeckis or Carell.

“Welcome to Marwen” failed at the box office because it broke a basic film rule, its protagonist isn’t a hero or antihero, he’s pathetic, he engenders pathos, and in spite of Zemeckis’ and Carell’s calculations “Welcome to Marwen” will fail at the Oscars too.