In The Realms Of The Unreal

on December 22, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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When Henry Darger died in 1973 at age 81, little was known about the recluse who'd worked as a janitor and lived in the same apartment on the north side of Chicago for 40 years. It wasn't until a little before his death that his landlords discovered in his cluttered room his life's work: a 15,000-page single-spaced novel--the longest known work of fiction ever written--called "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion"--a rather self-explanatory, if copious, title. Also unearthed were hundreds of paintings that illustrate the epic tale, beautiful but also disturbing, of naked children cavalierly wielding weaponry and enduring unspeakable torture, the little girls often drawn with penises.

Darger has now been identified by the artistic establishment as a major figure in what's been dubbed outsider art--a movement among untaught artists working in isolation from the commercial or public eye. His collection has been acquired by the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and his life and work have become a popular subject for books and symposiums. It's interesting, then, that director-writer Jessica Yu eschewed expert interviews for her documentary on Darger, thus omitting more controversial theories like biographer John MacGregor's assertion that "psychologically, Darger was undoubtedly a serial killer." Instead, Yu features only those who actually knew Darger, allowing viewers to make up their own minds about the artist. The result is an inevitably much more innocent--and appealing--interpretation of a harmlessly mad man than might otherwise be concluded.

Working with a subject of whom only three known photographs exist, Yu, who won an Academy Award for her short subject doc "Breathing Lessons," by necessity focuses much of her film on the work itself, employing child star Dakota Fanning to narrate passages of the book over ingeniously animated sequences of Darger's work using only elements found in his paintings. One leaves the film with a sense of awe and hope at what can be accomplished with determination and focus. Directed and written by Jessica Yu. Produced by Susan West. A Wellspring release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 81 min

Tags: Jessica Yu. Produced by Susan West. A Wellspring release. Documentary, interviews, isolation, controversial, paintings
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