Movie Reviews: Three Films about Schizophrenic and Sociopathic Artists – Jesse Bernstein, Stephen Merritt, and Mark Hogencamp

I am Secretly An Important Man

“I Am Secretly An Important Man” is an excellent documentary on a sad, sick soul who found a place for himself in the sad, sick arts community of Seattle, where mental illness and physical morbidity have traditionally been preferred to the creative output of healthy imaginations. Steven Jesse Bernstein impressed the locals with such stunts as reading his often trite poetry while swishing a rodent around in his mouth, an event captured with gut-twisting lucidity in a grisly piece of archival footage. Director Peter Sillen does not confine the scope of his film to Bernstein’s mad escapades in the junk-sick Seattle of the 1980s, but offers a succinct overview of the man’s life.  A surprising number of ex-wives, girlfriends and offspring come forth to testify in his behalf, revealing  a person who loved and laughed and played  (when he was not crippled by his schizophrenia) with all the attributes of a normal person.  Jerry Heldman’s recollections of the Llahngaelhyn coffeehouse, where Bernstein found shelter and encouragement upon arriving here in 1967, also suggest Bernstein had a broader creative base than the depressive angst of the scowling death–rattle that became his public mantra. In the end, he became another unfortunate martyr, a suicide at the age of 40, deified by a hellish society of middle-class brats, to the sad, sick belief that the only true art is to be found in madness.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields 

Stephin Merritt writes songs the way a hen lays eggs. He differs in that he feels his eggs are more unique than those of others. Offhand, I can think of half a dozen songwriters who work in a similar vein with superior results. Noel Coward, Scott Walker, David Ackles, Neil Hannon, Jarvis Cocker, and Stuart Murdoch.  spring immediately to mind.   Deservedly obscure, Merritt  is a product of his own likes, which are so pretentiously kitschy that his lack of taste informs everything he does. His favorite singer is Doris Day, the only song he considers joyous is “Zip-a-dee-dod-dah,” and his only friend is a female cellist whose mothering instincts cannot compensate for the chalkboard-scratching tone of her instrument.  I was a   college radio disc jockey in Boston during his formative years, and had neither heard of him nor knew of anyone who had.  Then, while working at Seattle’s Borders in 1999,  there was a run on a three-CD set   by a band called the Magnetic Fields.  It was impossible to keep “69 Love Songs” in stock, the title was on perpetual back order.  I tried to listen to it, but found the low baritone voice of singer Merritt mulishly inexpressive. After hearing them at the Opera House during Bumbershoot, I rued not having been vaccinated against the virus he called music. His rhythmic sense alone was enough to fell a barn full of square dancers, with its nervously aggressive tempo that was to sensuality what death is to life.  Here was music with absolutely no sex appeal, no forward thrust, stupid lyrics, and melodies that were splinters of things   he had accrued during years  of listening to showtunes and 1980’s synthpop.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the business of considering “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields,” the documentary on a boy and his band directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, the latter a longtime groupie of the band who gave Merritt a job as  copy editor at Time Out New York.  Suffice to say that the movie is an inside job. As such, it must be admitted that it is no whitewash.  In fact, the film glories in the repulsiveness of its subject.  Fans of the Magnetic Fields will relish every moment of it, and many who have as yet undiscovered Merritt’s questionable talents will be won over to his narcissistic tunnel-vision. He is representative of the “only-child” syndrome, in which the doted-on brats have a sociopathic reaction to the discovery that not everybody in the world is their mom.


Mark Hogancamp  has a mother.  She is a Pussy Galore doll, an action figure from the James Bond movie,   “Goldfinger,”  and a resident of  Marwencol, the tiny town that Mark built.   Marwencol is populated with the alter-egos of many of Mark’s friends and enemies, each personified in a GI Joe, Barbie, or specific character doll.

Beaten to near death by five goons, Mark lost most of his memory   and   built his town as self-therapy after being kicked out of the hospital when his Medicaid ran out.  Now he bathes, grooms, and dresses his dolls,  pairing the females with the males, and setting them together in seductive poses, and photographing them.  He has a story to go along with the pictures, an alternate-reality manifestation of his own fantasy life, rife with  SS  plots to destroy his peaceful town where Germans and Americans enjoy the catfights at his Ruined Stocking Saloon.

The SS characters are a twisted cross between the men who attacked him and   his own revenge impulses against them.  Monsters of the Id, Freud might have called them.  Then again, Mark Hogancamp might have given Freud enough new material for another lifetime.

Mark’s hobby gives his case history some pizzaz , but it not art.    Tod Lippy, the editor of Esopus, who discovered and was impressed with Mark’s work,  is guilty of exploiting  the mentally handicapped hobbyist by anointing him with the oils of artiness.  Like Henry Darger, whose infantile fables of androgynous child heroes has garnered him an undeserved chapter in the history of outsider art, Mark is being foisted upon an ignorant public as a visionary when he is just a voyeur who projects his fantasies onto inanimate objects, then photographs the results.   The definition of art today is anything that sells.  A snapshot of some GI Joe dolls in a jeep blown up to 1000 times its original size can be hung on a wall of Greenwich Village’s White Columns gallery and sold as a piece of art.  And what does Mark get out of it?  The  fantasy of being a beatnik artist dressed in a chiffon slit skirt in a world where dudes wear high heels and compliment each other on their shoes. Mark is the one who needs Marwencol,  not the art collectors.


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