In the Realms of the Unreal Jessica Yu
Published Feb 01, 2005This documentary about reclusive outsider artist Henry Darger (1892-1973) honours the shy, obsessive man behind a 15,000 page novel unknown before his death. Prolifically illustrated with watercolours, often ten feet wide, the endless saga of a septet of sisters called the Vivian Girls and the evil Glandelinians is evidence of an almost unbelievable example of sublimation.
To recount any of Darger's tragic childhood would sound banal but to hear it intoned feelingly as written by Darger, awash with his own images, connects the broken heart of the child with its awesome metamorphosis into a work filled with passion, whimsy and violence. Reportedly the novel is almost unreadable but however it fails as a literary work it is stunning in its revelation of the complexity and intensity of a man whose acquaintances thought of him as merely "funny."
When he made it back to Chicago after many childhood horrors, he secured a janitorial position in a Catholic hospital and stayed until retirement. He took a room in a boarding house and there recorded his fantastic inner world until several weeks before his death. Amazingly sophisticated in composition and colour, the paintings are cobbled together with collages and tracings gleaned from an encyclopaedic collection of images from magazines and newspapers. Animators bring these paintings to life by subtle manipulations accompanied by readings from the novel and Darger's autobiography. This is the main technique of the film. More secondary are Darger's neighbour's comments, which establish that the world inside that marvellous room was completely unknown before his death.
With only three photos of Darger there is little else to draw on. These limited resources falter occasionally but generally support a heartfelt effort to bring to life Darger's Realms of the Unreal. (Mongrel Media)