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Henry Darger worked all his life in menial jobs in Chicago. Living alone and in poverty, he had no friends or close family. Spending all his off hours alone, he whiled away the hours working on a 15,000 page illustrated novel called The Realms of the Unreal. A stunning amalgam of religious imagery, fantasy, and heroic drama, the work was only discovered after Darger was moved to a hospital during the last days of his life. Darger also wrote journals and an autobiography. The documentary uses interviews with Darger's neighbors and narration of passages from his works, along with his illustrations, to explore the mind and work of Henry Darger.Written by
Ken Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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After Darger's death in 1973, the Lerners decided to share their discovery of his work, preserving his room and its contents.
Since then, Henry Darger's work has been exhibited and collected worldwide. His art has inspired the creation of paintings, poetry, music, and works in theatre, dance, and opera.
The room was dismantled in 2000.
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Still at a Distance
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hospital for fifty years, and then died with a 15,000 page manuscript and yards and yards of artwork, unknown and unpublished, in his room.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 Wikipedia.
"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.
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