In the Realms of the Unreal

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/17/05 17:43:10

"An unsolved and unsolvable mystery. Aren't those the best kind?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Art has many sources, and many KINDS of sources. There are the other artists who serve as influences, there are the events in one's life that change his world view, and there are the intrinsic, often inborn, qualities of one's personality. Jessica Yu's documentary on Henry Darger shows this in an intelligent, elegant manner.

Since his death in 1973 at the age of 81, portions of Darger's story have become the stuff of urban legend. Darger was a poor, incredibly introverted man who made few friends over the course of the years, and who lived and worked within the same Chicago city block for his entire adult life. He made such a small impression that his neighbors can't agree on how he pronounced his name. Soon before his death, his neighbors found his apartment to be packed to the brim with the fruits of his creativity. He kept journals, he wrote an autobiography, he clipped from newspapers to create scrapbooks. And he wrote a 15,000-page novel, accompanied by over 300 paintings (some ten feet long and covering both sides of the cheap butcher's paper) called The Realms of the Unreal.

This novel tells the story of the seven Vivian Girls, who have grand adventures as they try to free the child slaves of Glandinia. They are aided by friendly American Generals (including one named after Darger) and fantastic flying creatures as they fight the Godless General Manley and his forces. A pan across Darger's bookshelf shows where at least some of his inspiration sprang from - the Oz novels, Dickens, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Shirley Temple dime novels. We also learn, in excepts from his autobiography and shots of old records, how he had very little formal schooling - though he learned to read before attending school, and was promoted from the first to the third grade, his disruptive behavior soon got him sent to a home for mentally deficient children despite his proven intelligence

Bad things must have happened there. We're never given details, but he escapes as a teenager and makes his way back to Chicago, 167 miles on foot. Aside from when he was drafted in 1917 (deliberately failing the vision test), he apparently never left again, working as a janitor in Catholic hospitals until almost the very end of his life. What must it mean that he spends the rest of his life writing about and drawing children, almost all little girls, being horribly oppressed? The movie doesn't hint at any specifics.

What else must it mean that Darger's little girls are frequently drawn naked, and when they are, they have male sexual organs? The movie offers two explanations, that he deliberately combined the two sexes into one, or that he never saw a naked woman and learned the difference. The latter seems more likely, especially when we're read an excerpt of Darger's novel where one character defines rape to another, and it is still a horrible violation but without a sexual component. Sex never seems to enter Darger's mind. Or perhaps it does, but the strict Catholocism impressed upon him at an early age makes it difficult for him to deal with the concept. And where does the adoption of his sister as an infant, so early that Darger could not remember her name, fit in among the influences to his psyche?

Despite the sheer volume of Darger's output, these are ultimately puzzles without solutions, or more accurately, whose solutions can never be known. The mystery of Henry Darger requires us to treat his novel as both fiction and thinly-guised confession. What events in the external life of Henry Darger, for instance, prompted him to have his namesake switch sides in his internal life? What are we to make of the two separate endings he wrote for his life's work, or the gruesome nature of some later pictures and passages?

Ms. Yu does not offer us answers, but does frame the questions and evidence in an interesting manner. The film is narrated by two voices: Harry Pine is the voice of Darger when reading directly from his writings, while child actress Dakota Fanning provides omniscient narration. Yu will sometimes stand that dichotomy on its head, though, by having the visuals contradict this; a passage read in Darger's voice about him watching snow fall will play over a picture of a little girl looking out a window at a snowstorm. The film contains footage of Darger's cramped, run-down apartment which reflects both his poverty and chaotic mind. His final landlord left as-is as a sort of museum or shrine until 2000; that she did not immediately clean and rent out the room shows how Darger's work was recognized as important and worth preserving right away.

The movie also includes extensive footage of that work. Sometimes his drawings will be animated; sometimes not. From what I can tell, the animation mainly occurs when some element of his writing is being retold, while static images indicate discussion of the art as an artifact - the process of creating it and influences exerted by things like advertising and newspaper comics. The one device that doesn't seem to work terribly well is what seems like footage of films promoting Chicago as a city with Darger's images edited in; the campy feel doesn't fit with the rest of the film. The point that Darger perhaps had difficulty separating his two worlds could perhaps have been made another way.

Clocking in at a scant eighty-one minutes, In The Realms of the Unreal is short, but packed, one of the best documentaries of the year. You won't necessarily KNOW a lot after watching it, but it's a good way to stimulate your curiosity - which is often much more exciting than having all the answers.

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