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In the Realms of the Unreal (2003)
In the Realms of the Unreal is a 2004 documentary about outsider artist Henry Darger. An obscure janitor during his life, Darger is known for the posthumous discovery of his elaborate 15,143-page fantasy manuscript entitled 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, along with several hundred watercolor paintings and other drawings illustrating the story. The film's style is atypical of a documentary. Because there are only three known photographs of Darger, and because of his reclusive lifestyle, the film is mostly a narrated biographical account, accompanied by animated versions of events from his magnum opus, which is also described in detail. Interviews with his few neighbors and other acquaintances are included as well. The film was directed by Jessica Yu. It won the National Film Board Award for Best Documentary at the 2004 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Jessica Yu's documentary In the Realms of the Unreal is a meditative look at what little we know about Darger's life, and the massive body of art that he left behind, utilizing the barest scraps of primary information available (there are only three known photographs of him) and Darger's own diaries. It wasn't an easy childhood by any stretch of the imagination: Darger's mother died when he was four and his father gave him up for adoption a few years later, dying not long after. Darger was sent to an asylum for 'feeble-minded children' in downstate Illinois. After serving in World War I, an experience that he found quite horrible and would haunt his art years later, Darger returned to his hometown of Chicago, where he would spend the rest of his years working janitorial jobs at hospitals and composing his multimedia masterpiece.
The story behind Darger's novel (which shares the same universe with his paintings and drawings) is as fantastic as it is troubling. A surreal stew of religion-haunted science fiction, it tells the tale of the seven young Vivian girls and the war they fought on the behalf of enslaved children against the evil Glandelinian army. It's a baffling work, where young children are tortured and killed by the godless enemy (many of the girls drawn with male genitalia) but are led by the Vivian girls to defend themselves in rousing battles that consume thousands of lives. Darger was a compulsive Catholic and this view of the universe hangs over his art, as does his troubled childhood (Darger shows up in the book under his own name, acting as avenger) and utterly naïve view of sex (one friend of Darger's opines that he drew the girls incorrectly because he very likely had never seen one naked).
Perhaps in keeping with Darger's unofficial status as one of the greatest 'outsider' artists of the past few decades, Yu eschews the usual lineup of talking heads (writers, other artists, museum curators, and the like) who could come on and expound about the greatness of Darger's work, preferring to dive into the work itself, with long views of Darger's paintings, occasionally animated, while the narrator reads from his diaries and novel. While this keeps the film on a nicely personal level - all we hear from are Darger's neighbors, the people who knew him best and yet barely knew the guy at all - it does leave a certain gap in terms of the appreciation of the art itself. We know that Darger drew his inspiration from his life, Catholicism, popular magazines and works of fantastic fiction, but how does his work compare with other artists, especially other outsiders like himself? Not that some starchy fellow with a Ph.D. is necessary to interpret all of this for us, but it would have been useful for Yu to include more information on Darger's current place in the art world firmament.
An ordinary man with an epic imagination, Henry Darger created an explosive and disturbing body of art that will likely never be quite understood. But while this film is an admirable attempt to open up the life of a recluse, its soporific PBS style and muted tone don't quite seem to do its subject justice. Although In the Realms of the Unreal is a decent introduction to Darger's work, he ultimately deserves something much stranger, far more unreal.
The DVD includes an interview with the director and other extras.
Aka In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mysterious Life and Art of Henry Darger.
It's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.