In the Realms of the Unreal
reviewed by Matt Hinrichs
| Among the ranks of eccentric outsider artists, few
can top the strange case of Henry Darger (1892-1972).
I was first exposed to Darger back in the early '90s, when a small
sampling of his work was published in Art Spiegelman and Françoise
Mouly's comics anthology, RAW. What I saw were drawings both wonderful
and insanely creepy: angelic little girls in pinafores brandishing
guns, strange flying creatures, mangled and tortured bodies, hermaphrodite
children, colorful widescreen cloudscapes, incomprehensible text
passages. The artwork seemed almost too personal and idiosyncratic;
viewing them was like being let in on a stranger's innermost psyche.
Darger's work has been seen by thousands, perhaps millions — every
one privy to an intensely personal relationship, a secret not to
Director Jessica Yu brings this same sense of wonder, awe and possessiveness
to her terrific documentary on Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal.
Yu's main purpose for the film lies in delineating between Darger's
two lives: his prosaic real-life existence as a Chicago janitor
and intensely private old man with few acquaintances, and his fantasy
world, an outlet for his many obsessions (Catholicism, children,
the weather). The narrative is pieced together from Darger's own
autobiographical writings and reminiscences from the few people
who knew him. For such an enigmatic subject, it's a remarkably thorough
The paintings in question served to illustrate Darger's masterwork,
a 15,000-page novel ambitiously titled The Story of the Vivian Girls,
in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco- Angelinnian
War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Yu accurately describes
this rambling narrative as "The Old Testament meets Alice In Wonderland".
The story concerns the seven "Vivian Girls", paragons of virtue
and innocence, as they wage a long and terrible battle against an
army of sadistic adult men. Throughout the film, various excerpts
from the book are vividly brought to life with animation, music
and sound effects.
Part of the genius of this film lies in the casting of two very
different actors for the narration. Child actor Dakota Fanning contributes
to the fictional and biographical portions with amazing poise and
a creepy knowingness, while actor Larry Pine provides a pleasing,
rough-hewn Midwestern drawl as Darger himself. As the film goes
along, fantasy and reality start to intermingle — just as it undoubtedly
did towards the end of Darger's life. In another clever touch, Yu
illustrates the story with the same kind of printed ephemera — magazine
and newspaper clippings, prayer cards and religious texts, children's
books — that Darger hoarded throughout his life.
Of course, the film doesn't shy away from Darger's more disturbing
aspects: was he a pedophile? Was he frustrated, or happily oblivious?
Did he care that his art was made for an audience of one? It's to
Yu's credit that she doesn't cop out and use psychiatrists or art
experts to analyze those questions. The viewers have to decide for
Wellsping Media's DVD presents In the Realms of the Unreal
in a crisp, anamorphic widescreen picture with a full soundtrack.
The main extra is a dry but informative interview with Yu in which
she details the five-year odyssey of bringing Darger's life to the
screen. The DVD's booklet contains another Yu interview from FOLKART
magazine. Rounding out the package are filmographies, a gallery
and the film's trailer.
Hinrichs is a Phoenix-based writer and designer. In addition
to Mindjack Film, he blogs regularly at scrubbles.net.
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