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THIS REVIEW CONTAINS CONTENT WHICH SOME READERS MAY FIND SEXUALLY
Henry Darger (1892-1973) remains the most startling exemplar of 'outsider art': art created by an individual who has absolutely no contact with the formal art world. Darger, a native of Chicago, suffered an extremely abusive childhood ... in which he was institutionalised in an asylum for feeble-minded children, even though he may have been of above-average intelligence. He spent almost his entire adult life as a janitor in a Catholic hospital, never earning more than $25 weekly. During these decades, he obsessively attended Mass thrice daily (four times on the Sunday) and typed a 15,000-page novel which nobody has read in its entirety. (I've read four pages of the impenetrable typescript which resides at the American Museum of Folk Art: that's all I could manage.) What has brought Darger so much posthumous attention is his artwork: obsessive drawings of little girls, brightly coloured, on long sheets of butcher's paper. Many of Darger's girls (traced from better artists' work) wear elaborate frocks. Others, drawn free-hand by Darger, have bizarre animal appendages: butterfly wings, rams' horns. Speaking of appendages: many of these little girls are naked ... and they have little-boy penises. Darger's murals and his multi-volume novel document a fantasy realm in which heroic little Christian girls are eternally at war with pagan soldiers.
Jessica Yu's documentary 'In the Realms of the Unreal' (a shortened version of the title of Darger's novel) attempts to make sense of Darger's life, art and obsessions. Darger was not precisely a recluse: he appeared in public but interacted very little. Because Yu has no footage of Darger, and only a handful of photographs of him, she resorts to re-enactments. We keep hearing a male voice-over that purports to be Darger, speaking about himself. Only in the end credits do we learn that this is an actor (Larry Pine), reading fictionalised narration scripted by Yu. The immensely talented child actress Dakota Fanning also narrates: the decision to use a little girl for this task is exactly right, and Fanning reads her material splendidly ... but Yu has written text for her which sounds improbably mature from such a young narrator.
Yu interviews a surprisingly large number of the very few people who actually knew Darger. (They disagree on how to pronounce his name.) I agree with the interviewee who theorises that Darger drew penises on his little girls because he was entirely innocent (and ignorant) of the female anatomy, and he sincerely believed that little girls' sexual equipment looked like little boys'. Many of the little girls in Darger's art (and in his novel) are tortured or brutally murdered by men in military uniforms with mortarboard hats, yet it's clear that Darger's sympathies are with the little girls. He seems to be repelled, not aroused by the violence which he fictionally inflicts on them.
I thought I knew all the weird stories about Darger, but this documentary springs a new one. Apparently, when Darger was alone in his bedsit, he was overheard through the walls by his landlords and the other boarders: having loud arguments with himself, speaking in different voices and accents, sometimes in unknown languages. It wouldn't surprise me if Darger had multiple personalities. Also, I hadn't known (until I saw this film) that Darger's imaginary world was so detailed that he kept lists of the casualties on his fictional battlefields, and financial accounts of the warfare's expenses ... both of these figures exceeded the thousands of millions!
I was intrigued to learn that the Chicago-born Darger attempted to reinvent himself as Henry Dargarus, native of Brazil (where the nuts come from). This behaviour is absolutely typical of someone who experienced long-term sexual abuse in childhood, and who desires a new identity as a means to blot out those memories.
For most of his life, Darger lived in one room of the house of Nathan Lerner, an aspiring artist in his own right who ultimately made his impact in the art world as the curator of Darger's work. Lerner's widow is interviewed here. Yu mentions that the Lerners eventually subsidised Darger's rent, but doesn't mention that they later made a fortune by auctioning many of Darger's girlscapes after his death.
Filmmaker Yu scrupulously documents Darger's obsessions. One of these was for weather patterns, specifically storms. (Darger was present when a cyclone levelled an Illinois town in 1913.) Another of his obsessions was rather odder. In 1911, a five-year-old Chicago girl named Elsie Parobek was abducted and strangled; the case remains unsolved. Darger was in Chicago at the time, age 19, and he obsessed over this girl for the rest of his life. Some Dargerphiles theorise that he may have killed her. But there is no evidence for that, and Yu's film commendably sticks to the known facts.
Was Darger a paedophile? From what I've read, I believe that he was sexually aroused by little girls (and may have wanted to *be* one), but that his desire to protect girls (including Parobek) was sincere, and that he would have been genuinely repelled by the thought of sexual activity with children. We can't know for sure, but Darger was almost certainly a virgin when he died, precisely one day after his 81st birthday.
'In the Realms of the Unreal' uses several gimmicky visual devices. The decision to make animated cartoons from several Darger murals is a good one, and the stiff-legged 'lazy' animation technique used here is appropriate to the material. Less commendable is Yu's decision at several points to use new artwork that paraphrases Darger's themes; audiences will mistake these images for actual Darger artwork. I'll rate this powerful documentary 8 points out of 10.
The Henry Darger story is fascinating, and it made a terrific documentary for Jessica Yu and her animation team. She approaches it partially as a narrative, partially as a fantasy, and overall as as documentary. The animation is beautiful as it really transforms us in the world of Darger's artwork and life. There is rarely a dull instant in the piece, and I found myself just awed at this beautiful piece.
Henry Darger was a janitor. He lived in one room. He cleaned a Catholic
hospital for fifty years, and then died with a 15,000 page manuscript
and yards and yards of artwork, unknown and unpublished, in his room.
You can find out more about Henry Darger and his life work, chronicling
the adventures of "The Vivian Girls" at the Henry Darger entry on
"In the Realms of the Unreal" is a documentary about his life. The narrative comes through a few different sources: There are interviews with those who knew of Darger in his last days, including the landlords who discovered his work. There is an old man's voice reading Darger's autobiography. There are pieces of Darger's novel. Then there is a narrator who is about 5 years old, providing a little summary and connectivity now and then. The visuals behind the readings are sometimes photos of relevant locations, like the state farm where Darger spent his late childhood, or the hospital where he worked most of his life. Sometimes they are stills or animations of Darger's artwork.
The life of Henry Darger is fascinating. It's especially intriguing to think that there are people around us who are silently, secretly living these incredibly rich and complicated internal lives. It's sad that Darger was never "discovered," but even that sadness is complicated. I'm not sure what the world would have done with him, had we known what he was about. His was not the type of art that's comfortable to package and sell. Hard to contemplate a lonely old man drawing pictures of naked children, unless you put it in the context of his whole life. Not easy to reduce to a few key words.
The movie was kind of distancing. I came away knowing more about Darger but I felt unsatisfied somehow, like some primary source had been held back, like everything had been too filtered, too disjointed. Maybe it just goes with the subject matter -- Darger was a recluse, not open to interpretation or summary. The most meaningful parts to me were the pieces read from his autobiography. It was surprisingly kind, chatty, a bit apologetic, and patient. No bitterness. No angst. Isn't that strange.
This is a very, very strange story and even a different kind of
documentary. From what I could see here, scanning the reviews, most of
them were not favorable toward this.
Myself, I found it slow in the first but more and more fascinating as it went on. It's just so bizarre, it's hard to know what to think as you watch this. When it was over, I found I was glad I took a chance on this DVD and will watch it again. But - it's not a happy experience.....and it is a bit haunting.
I would just comment on a few things: 1 - I agree that, considering the subject matter and strange character (Henry Darger) whom this is about, this documentary should have been more interesting; 2 - I did not object to the artwork coming to life on occasion. It added badly-needed interest to the presentation. You never quite knew what you were going to see next, and I liked that; 3 - I enjoyed the two main voices, those of Larry Pine and Dakota Fanning. Pine voiced Darger as an adult and Fanning was the narrator and represented the Vivian Girls. Although young for this kind of role and vocabulary, Fanning is an exceptional young actress and seems to handle to everything well. Both did an outstanding job and the two complemented each other nicely, too.
4 - I disagree with those who assumed Darger had no idea the physical difference between men and women, which is why he drew penises on the little girls. Come on - how naive can you be? Everyone - even shut-ins - knows the difference, whether one is celibate his/her own life or not. People see nudity throughout their life, even in the most innocent of places such as statues in public parks, museums, galleries, almost anywhere. He knew. Lord knows why he drew what he drew but let that remain his business. 5 - The more one listens to this account, the more insane Darger appears. I wasn't totally sure of that until he went into his "weather" phase. Holy smokes, this man had problems! It's sad, in a way, and is a prime example of how much an imprint your childhood has on the rest of your life. With a "normal" childhood, with a loving mother and father, would Henry have been a "normal" adult?
Anyway, I found his book - from what Dakota and the others read from it - somewhat boring and definitely depressing, to be frank. To me, in addition to being immense adventure story it is, it was just as much - if not more - simply a long diary of man wrestling with his tortured soul.
Definitely recommended, but know what you're in for.
The *subject* of Darger and this film about him are two different
things. Rather than coming at Darger as someone who understands
outsider art let alone Darger, Jessica Yu has the eye of the typical
person who is "fascinated" by Darger's story. She just happens to have
access to capital and the means to make a movie.
This isn't meant to harp on Yu or her film-making abilities which are okay, but she lacks an emotional connection to the story outside of being "blown away," just like everyone else. In fact, I heard Yu describe her fortuitous discovery of Darger... but that's all it was. Unlike, say, Franklin Rosemont, who's been writing about Darger waaaaay before any of the critics or "experts" of late. What was Rosemont's impetus? He was a Surrealist...
The film itself is, I hate to say it, rather boring. Pedestrian. I also completely agree with the viewer who said that everything was in close up - it makes for a monotony that's palpable.
As is, this film should have been no longer than 45 minutes. It is simply far too long and monotonous...
One can only imagine what a film about Darger might have been if made by, say, Bunuel. It would have made all the difference. It would have hinted at the marvelous in the mundane, rather than been fascinated by a car wreck with a spectator's eye. As it is, it is "accomplished" and "polished". That's about it.
This was a very impressive documentary. Although it was different from the films I generally go to see, I remained interested in Henry Darger's life throughout the whole movie. He was portrayed as quite an interesting person. As a child, he is taken to an asylum and thought to be insane. When he finally escapes this life, he becomes a janitor and later, a part of the army. His neighbors play an important role in the movie because they describe his personality and what they knew about him. It was interesting to hear each perspective. Much of what they had to say about him was the same, but some of it varied at least through word choice which I felt was significant because it revealed each of their attitudes toward who they thought he was. Henry Darger's artwork was amazing. The illustrations of the Vivian sisters provided insight into his eyes. The most impressive thing was how the lives of these girls seemed to represent his life and feelings toward it. If you are interested in learning something, I encourage you to see, "In the Realms of the Unreal."
What a find for the unsuspecting moviegoer. The story is already known: damaged young boy turns into damaged and embittered adult who seeks refuge in a fantasy land influenced by school books, children's literature, and some classics. The result is a monumental work of words and illustrations that result in fame...in death...as an outside artist. The film itself is beautifully made. After ten minutes the doubts that the filmmaker can make this nearly on-liner work is erased, and the world of an unhappy, naive, angry, talented man is joyfully received. Great conceit animating the work, wonderful rendering of the artist's subtle colors (think Bonnard, Vuillard,) and a truly touching look at the soul of a true outsider in every respect. Ah yes, we love the children, always have...on our lips, but in life it has been, and remains, something else.
I remember hearing about Henry Darger several years ago, but the article I read back then was brief and I was disturbed by images of little girls being strangled in his art. I was eager to see a documentary that would more fully explain his art. I thought the film did a very good job of providing insight to his work - how his traumatic early life led to the themes of his obsessive artwork, how the torture of the little girls probably references his own feelings of feeling tortured in his own life, clues to why he drew penises on all his little blonde girls --"the Vivians," his basic sense of himself as an "innocent," his attempt to adopt children, how he created a secret world for himself, complete with talking to himself in different voices, etc. A much more interesting look into mental illness in some ways than the movie A Beautiful Mind.
Henry Darger, an unassuming, reclusive janitor, working and living in
Chicago, died at the age of 81. To his landlady and neighbours, he was
a simple man, who rarely conversed with them, and died in 1973 a lonely
man, with no family or friends to speak of. Before he passed in a
nursing home, a neighbour visited him, telling him that he had seen
Darger's work, and was deeply impressed. He replied: "It's too late
now." His landlady, Kiyoko Lerner, entered Darger's small flat to clear
it and found, to her amazement, rows of manuscript, along with hundreds
of accompanying paintings. The book, a fantasy world constructed over
decades, was over 15,000 pages long, and completely unique to the
unknown inner world of the man.
Darger had created a totally specific world, titled 'The Realms of the Unreal', that told the story of the Vivian girls, and their adventures during many Christian-led wars, the Glandeco-Angelinnian War, caused by the child slave rebellion. The paintings, constructed with various mediums and methods, illustrated this fantasy world, using collage, ink and paint, and he collected images, xeroxing many particular images over and over, to portray his beloved Vivian girls. With no exterior life, and a lack of social skills, Darger had lived completely within this inner world, where he kept intricate details and charts detailing the events in the "realm", and documented the wars - including names, dates of soldiers deaths, the costs of each of these wars: immensely detailed, impeccably assembled.
Whilst the actual reality of Darger's life is difficult to portray - only three photographs of him exist - he did begin a diary of his life after he retired. His life was one of desolation, separated from life, he was a devout Christian; he seemingly never had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but wanted deeply to have children. Many of the images he left behind hint at a man, whose asexuality, seems to be more about naivety. Often, naked little girls are portrayed in the paintings as having penises. This could point to a complete lack of knowledge of gender difference. However, without any actual input from the man, it is difficult to fully understand, and we can only speculate - it would be easy to accuse the man of unnatural desires, but I think this may be a cruel conclusion.
Jessica Yu's film is constructed of interviews with the few neighbours (I can't say they knew him, as clearly no one did), and a narration by Dakota Fanning - Larry Pine also recites passages from the Darger diary, expressing his inner desires. Visually, Yu uses Darger's paintings, animating the figures, and constructs a narrative largely connected with the stories in the book. It is an incredibly touching, disturbing, enlightening and beautiful story, but one which is tainted by many insidious conclusions and speculations. I saw this about five years ago, and it never really left my mind. The opportunity to watch it again filled me with questions as to whether it would touch me quite as much. It's hard not to be moved by this story. After all, Darger created one of the most colossal, detailed, and epic pieces of outsider art that I have ever encountered. A portrait of a damaged, complex person, who never really had the opportunity to share his body of work, until his death. Posthumously, his work is now displayed for the public. In 2001 the Henry Darger Centre was opened in The American Folk Art Museum in New York.
With the recent focus on outsider art,somebody must have figured that Henry Darger was a natural. Darger was a janitor and well known introvert for years. What was not known (at least until after his death in 1973),was that Darger kept a series of stories & paintings, as a continuing account of a realm of fantasy that only Darger could relate to. Vast volumes of paintings & text were found in the cramped apartment that he lived in for years (he had little family & had less than no use for the company of other people). Jessica Yu's film attempts to tell Darger's story (with extracts of his writing read by the likes of Dakota Fanning,and others). This film is a "must see" for anybody with an interest in art (especially outsider art). As this film is independently produced,it carries no MPAA rating,but does contain a bit of mature subject matter (mainly in the way of some of his paintings depicted that has nudity).
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