Judge Russell Engebretson thinks this Darger dude is wack.
"Am I a real enemy of the cross, or a very sorry saint?"—Henry Darger
Henry Darger (1892-1973) was a poor reclusive bachelor who lived in a rooming house in Chicago during the last four decades of his life. Shortly before Darger died (he had recently been placed in a charity ward), his landlords, Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner, found in the cramped living quarters 300 paintings and a 15,000 page typewritten manuscript entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angellinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The manuscript and illustrations, a work that consumed 60 years of Darger's life, chronicled an epic war between the Christian nation of Anniennia and the godless Glandelinians fought on a distant, unnamed planet. The illustrations—elaborate montages that mimic the luminous quality of stained glass—were drawn in pencil and charcoal, traced from artwork that caught his fancy, and meticulously pieced together and water colored. He culled pictures from magazine ads, comic strips, and children's books (the Coppertone Girl and Little Orphan Annie were two of his favorites). He had many of the clippings photographically enlarged to provide various-sized templates for the massive pictorial chronicle.
The strangest aspect of Darger's art is that most of his prepubescent girls are naked and sport little-boy penises. Also, some of the montages depict images that easily exceed the comics of Frank Miller for sadistic violence. Darger created unflinching graphic depictions of little girls being strangled, dissected, crucified, and tortured in various diabolical tableaux by the evil Glandelinians. In the Realms of the Unreal's director (Jessica Yu) glides over the controversial aspects of Darger's mental instability with a handful of glib explanations embedded in the narrative and a few unconvincing rationales from his former neighbors—but more about that in a moment.
Today, despite Darger's peculiarities, his paintings are considered by many as the pinnacle of "outsider art" (art created by an individual with no formal art training and who works outside of the artistic mainstream), and are highly sought after by collectors and art museums. His paintings and writings have been the subject of several books. His life has been studied, parsed, and analyzed by a host of academics, art historians, and psychoanalysts. What little is known of his secluded life comes from public records, a few occupants of the rooming house who vaguely knew him, and an autobiography of his early years, written in 1968, entitled The History of My Life. After about 206 pages, the autobiography mutates into a 4,672 page novel about a giant twister called Sweetie Pie (the weather was another of Darger's obsessions).
A couple of unassailable facts have been gleaned from these meager sources: Henry Darger led a singularly grim and solitary life. When he was four, his mother died while giving birth to his sister. The baby girl was given up for adoption, and Darger never saw her. Darger's father, a destitute tailor, decided a few years later that he could no longer support his son, and had the eight-year-old placed in an orphanage. Darger's father died soon after. At 12 years of age, Henry was committed to the Lincoln County Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children for "masturbation," which some commentators have speculated may have been a discrete code word for some other, probably more serious, aberrant behavior. At the age of 16, after several escape attempts, he managed to flee the asylum forever and found a janitorial job at a Catholic hospital.
The documentary does a fine job of presenting a capsule summary of Henry Darger's life and artwork. There are archival photographs of the institutions where Darger lived, and extensive footage of his room and belongings (which was preserved until 2000 when it was dismantled). There are two narrators, Dakota Fanning (Hide and Seek) and Larry Pine (The Royal Tenenbaums). Pine does the voice of Darger and reads from his autobiography, while Fanning reads excerpts from The Realms and the Jessica Yu script. It makes for an informal narration that is easy to follow and rather entertaining. The most unorthodox aspect of the documentary is Jessica Yu's animation.
Yu animated several of Darger's paintings for the film, and it all looks quite natural. Her animation is discrete, almost staid, and does not violate the spirit of the originals. I doubt that even most purists would object to her tasteful cartooning. Where the documentary falters, for me, is in its lack of an antagonistic point of view, which was exactly the director's intention.
Director Jessica Yu decided early on that "…when you have documentaries with experts saying that this means this, you usually have another guy saying this means that and you wind up with a film that is just about conflicting talking heads. I wanted to avoid that. The other thing is that with Darger, there is a danger that if you have experts giving a diagnosis for him, there is a tendency to see the artwork simply as the output of some disorder. That reduces the artwork and I didn't want to do that. It is kind of a delicate thing; you want to preserve the mystery but the film does have to have some kind of shape to it, some journey for people to take." Be that as it may, there are people who have a strong, moneyed interest in presenting Henry Darger as a harmless eccentric. Kiyoko Lerner, for instance, has sold movie rights to producers Susan Adler and Michael Besman (About Schmidt), and director Ed Zwick (The Last Samurai). By all accounts, the screenplay will present Darger in a favorable light: The lonely, impoverished, eccentric genius rejected by society, forced to produce his work in anonymity. However, there is another version of Darger posited—notably by art historian John MacGregor.
MacGregor spent months in Darger's room studying thousands of pages of The Realms and its illustrations. He spent a decade researching and writing Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, which was finished in 1998 and published in 2002. One thing MacGregor wrote about was the possible meaning of a photo that Darger clipped from the May 9, 1911 Chicago Daily News. It was a picture of Elsie Paroubek, a five-year-old girl who was strangled and dumped in a drainage ditch. Her murderer was never found. Darger lost her photo and some early writings in 1912 (they might have been stolen from a dormitory locker in a hospital he worked in) and flew into a rage. In his fantasy world, Paroubek was renamed Annie Aronburg, and in The Realms Aronburg was a child rebel and martyr whose death became the impetus for the apocalyptic Glandeco-Angelinnian war. Darger became obsessed with the loss of the picture; he built a shrine to Aronburg and swore that the war would end if her photo was ever found, or conversely that the war would escalate into a blood drenched holocaust if he could not recover the picture. MacGregor did not accuse Henry Darger of Paroubek's murder (although time and location place it within the realm of possibility), but he does believe that Darger was psychologically a serial killer. For sellers of Darger's image and artwork, that is not the sort of news that turns a frown upside down. Obviously, Henry Darger as murderer does not have the appeal of Henry Darger as misunderstood genius.
Jessica Yu does include footage pertaining to the Aronburg incident, but it is all wrapped up in pious narration from Darger's autobiography that places great emphasis on his petitions to God and devout attendance of Catholic mass. The whole incident tapers off into an unresolved, cinematic mumble: Fanning narrates lines written by Yu that, "Henry struggled with God throughout his life, but he could never wholly abandon his faith," and the film segues off onto the subject of Darger's lifelong wrestling match with Catholicism. The documentary needs a skeptical voice. It would liven up the film and present the controversies (well-known within the art world) that swirl about Henry Darger. Instead, we only get the copyright holders' party line.
There is nothing special to report on the technical side. DVD authoring is standard for a well-budgeted documentary. The sound is very clear (with the bonus of a Tom Waits number that plays over the beginning and ending credits), and the picture is crisp and colorful for a non-anamorphic presentation.
The only extra of consequence is a 30-minute interview with Jessica Yu. The photo gallery contains five small, blurry images of Darger's murals, but there is an abundance of his artwork on display in the film, so that is no great loss. A set of nine black-and-white storyboards, a director's filmography, and three trailers round out the anemic set of extra features.
In the Realms of the Unreal is a good introduction to the weird world of Henry Darger if it is consumed with a pinch of salt. Since the director did not see fit to include a devil's advocate to balance the scales, the fascinated viewer might use his search engine to delve further into the murky controversies that surround Darger. Better yet, he should read one of the excellent books now available: John MacGregor's book or Michael Bonesteel's Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings.
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