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In the Realms of the Unreal

reviewed by Matt Hinrichs

July 11, 2005 | 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 be shared.

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 portrait.

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 themselves.

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.

Matt Hinrichs is a Phoenix-based writer and designer. In addition to Mindjack Film, he blogs regularly at

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