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Overall Rating
4.06

Awesome50%
Worth A Look: 29.41%
Just Average: 0%
Pretty Crappy: 17.65%
Sucks: 2.94%

3 reviews, 16 user ratings



In the Realms of the Unreal
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by Aaron West

"A misguided, dull and innaccurate portrait of a fascinating man."
2 stars

I feel that a documentarian has several responsibilities. The first, of course, is to make their tale as entertaining as possible to keep the viewer involved. This can be their most challenging task, especially considering they also have the responsibility of doing their subject justice, by giving the viewer an accurate and clear depiction, while not slanting their information and giving the wrong impression. Sometimes a director can become so mesmerized by their subject that they lose sight of their responsibility and the final result is a one-sided, fluff piece that will leave the audience wanting, regardless of their interest. I believe this is what happened with Jessica Yu on her portrait of the fascinating Henry Darger.

Henry Dargerís life work was uncovered in 1972, after he had vacated his apartment for the confines of an elder care facility. He led a quiet, reclusive life, working as a janitor and attending church daily. Yet, unbeknownst to anyone he encountered, he left behind perhaps one of the most accomplished displays of outsider art ever. His drawing expertise was rudimentary at best, but his canvases were vivid in color and grand in scope. All of Dargerís artwork were accompaniment pieces to his true passion, 25,000+ pages of scattershot, but occasionally brilliant written work, including an autobiography and two novels, one of which comprises the bulk of his work, at 15,000 single-spaced, typewritten pages. Darger was a brilliant and prolific man, but troubled by his own demons.

Jessica Yuís In the Realms of the Unreal is a brief glimpse at the manís life and his art. Unlike more conventional documentaries, she doesnít use many talking head interviews, but uses Dargerís artwork itself, both written and painted, as the canvas for the movie. Yu uses an assortment of voice actors to read his work, while she shows several of his paintings, often animating the characters to follow the vocalized narrative. The movie is as much a tour through Dargerís deranged and fantastical world as it is a portrait of the personís hidden life.

The reason for the absence of interviews is mostly due to Dargerís inactive social life. So few people knew him, and even fewer remembered him, leaving only his landlords and an acquaintance to describe his personality, but not even they knew the extent of his personal pursuits. We see the superficiality of their relationships early in the movie, with the various (mis)pronunciations of his name. There are other inconsistencies in the memories of those who encountered him, such as three people people who claim to remember Henryís habitual seating preference at church, but none of them share the same recollection. The fact is, nobody intimately knew Henry while we was living. Aside from the landlords, whom he allowed limited access into his life, there are no reliable witnesses. The absence of such testimonials speaks more for Henryís quiet way of living.

Although Yuís style is creatively unique for a documentary, she does a disservice towards her subject. Since Dargerís death in 1972, people have pored through his works to try to understand the man. Some have come up with fascinating and convincing hypotheses about the manís psyche, none of which are brought up in the documentary. One, in particular, is that Dargerís way of thinking resembled someone criminally insane; his writings bear comparison to the psychological profile of a serial killer. In fact, many feel that Henry probably did murder at some point in his life, which may have something to do with his need for isolation. The documentary does touch on the case of a missing newspaper clipping of a young girl that Darger sought for years. Henryís failure to reclaim the photograph caused him so much anguish that it became a story point for his books. The girl in question was found strangled in a ditch in the early 1920s and many experts believe this may have been Dargerís first, and perhaps only murder. The movie also points out Henryís fixation with strangulation, but fails to connect the two. Regardless whether Henry was a criminal, there is no doubt that he had a disturbed and sadistic mind. The documentary goes so far as to speculate that Henry may not have been mentally ill at all, which is not only inaccurate, but also highly irresponsible. Itís as if Yu didnít do her research, or deliberately intended this to be more of a saccharine treatment of her subject.

Yu mistreats the material and sacrifices the viewer experience by delving too deep into the ramblings of a crazy man. Few people, if any, have read the entire written works of Darger and there is a reason for that. For the most part, they are unreadable. He may show moments of brilliance, but for the most part his novels lack structure and werenít intended for anyoneís entertainment other than his own. In the Realms is more about the artistís fantasy world than about the man himself, but the problem is his work is simply too far fetched to provide any entertainment value. At first, the stories seem curiously interesting, especially when compared to some experiences within Dargerís life. Soon enough the narrative loses the viewer. The artwork is still visually impressive, which makes it too easy to look at the pretty pictures but tune out the rest.

I can only recommend this movie as an introduction to Dargerís life, just because he is such an interesting character, but I would implore anyone interested in the man to not stop there. There are several insightful books on the subject, including Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, a 10-year study by John MacGregor. There are also countless magazine and web articles on the man that are far more satisfying than this short sighted and irresponsible film. Perhaps one day someone will revisit the subject with a more thorough analysis by literary and psychology experts. Now that is the documentary I would love to see.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8598&reviewer=403
originally posted: 07/03/05 11:30:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/26/10 brian The artistic autistic. Brilliant approach to telling the story of a singular human being. 5 stars
8/16/06 Mary Beth filmmaker not allowed to explore possible criminality of Darger 4 stars
11/11/05 jennifer Beauitiful film 5 stars
8/25/05 tatum Haunting, fascinating documentary 5 stars
8/03/05 ted hood it was interesting 4 stars
1/31/05 sully to much animation,Darger's artwork can stand on it's own 5 stars
1/27/05 tomb beautiful film. Spectacular animation by kara vallo makes the film unique and amazing. 5 stars
10/10/04 Emily astonishingly beautiful and compelling 5 stars
4/14/04 Chung creepy story bout an unrealized pedophile not a visionary 4 stars
3/25/04 Tom M. Liston A mesmerizing account of autistic innocence. Wonderful! 5 stars
2/16/04 Linda Wu beautiful film 5 stars
2/04/04 tmp great movie 5 stars
2/03/04 TK Jessica Yu and Kara Vallow transform Darger's work through animation in a respectful and or 4 stars
1/27/04 doug animation by kara vallow is sublime 5 stars
1/26/04 janey beautiful and amazing 5 stars
1/25/04 Dave wreaks of B Grade attempt at second rate script by less than adequate writer 1 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  22-Dec-2004 (NR)

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Directed by
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