In The Realms Of The Unreal

In The Realms Of The Unreal


Reviewed by: Themroc

Born into abject poverty on April 12 1892 in Illinois, Henry Darger suffered a traumatic childhood before being committed to an institute for feeble-minded children at the age of 12. On escaping (at the second attempt), legend has it that Darger walked the 162 miles back to Chicago where he had grown up. There he lived for the rest of his life eking out a meagre living on the $25 a week he earned working as a janitor at the local Catholic hospital in Lincoln Park.

A strange and reclusive loner, Darger had few friends and finally died aged 81, at the same Catholic hospital in which his father had passed away. It was only when the couple who had rented Darger his tiny flat went in to clear out his belongings that they discovered what amounted to a staggering life’s work. Over 300 canvases, some as large as 10 feet in length and painted on both sides, featuring watercolour illustrations from a 15,000 page epic novel entitled “The Story of the Vivian Girls And The Child Slave Rebellion In The Realms of the Unreal”.

Both tell the story of the seven devoutly religious Vivian Girl Princesses, depicted in the paintings as pre-pubescent hermaphrodites, who lead the eponymous rebellion against their adult oppressors. The paintings, on which Darger’s posthumous reputation is largely based, have now been exhibited worldwide and have been known to fetch six figures at auction.

Jessica Yu’s peculiar but rather beautiful documentary is less an attempt to explain Darger than to give an uncomplicated introduction to the man and his work. Darger’s surviving neighbours, who barely knew him, provide sympathetic anecdotes about his idiosyncrasies, but Yu keeps the talking heads to a minimum.

Instead, her film is dominated by a voice-over narration by child actress Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) and extracts from Darger’s memoirs and novel (both read by men). Scant authoritative evidence exists surrounding the exact details of Darger’s life, and since he is, on at least a couple of key points, proven to be an unreliable and inaccurate source, we are left with less a definitive history than a nebulous but fascinating portrait of an enigma. (Even his neighbours’ testimonies conflict over certain details.)

In the absence of many photographs (only three of Darger exist) stock footage, or the usual friends and family, Yu makes imaginative use of Darger’s artwork, cleverly animating his paintings to illustrate passages in the novel or to draw parallels with events recounted in Darger’s memoirs. What emerges is an imaginatively structured film apparently designed to mirror Darger’s own state of mind. Insofar as this goes, it is largely successful. Even the decision to use a pre-pubescent as a narrator, though initially grating, ends up being of a piece with the film’s dreamy and quasi-fantastical approach.

However, frustratingly, Yu seems uninterested in discussing or exploring the more troubling and controversial aspects of her subject’s work. The apparent ambivalence of Darger’s attitude towards children has prompted many to speculate about whether he was in fact a paedophile (even if he never acted upon it), and whilst many passages in his writing are idyllic, there are also passages of savage and graphic violence, the implications of which are never pursued. Presumably, Yu felt uncomfortable or uninterested in areas that depended upon conjecture, or felt they might sensationalise her simple story. But by refusing to attempt a proper analysis of Darger’s art, or even a more measured discussion of its artistic worth, she has left a gaping hole in her portrait of the artist.

Nevertheless, Yu’s film shines a much needed light on what was a sad, tragic, yet ironically, strangely inspiring life.

Reviewed on: 13 Aug 2005
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In The Realms Of The Unreal packshot
Posthumous investigation into reclusive artist and writer Henry Darger.
Amazon link

Director: Jessica Yu

Writer: Jessica Yu

Starring: Henry Darger, voices of Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine

Year: 2004

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US


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