Not a Kook
Filmmaker Jessica Yu explores the life and work of mysterious artist Henry Darger in an innovative new documentary.
By Trinie Dalton
Originally published in Arthur No. 15 (March 2005)
In the Realms of the Unreal opens with shots of artist Henry Darger’s dusty homemade books and scrappy art supplies, with actress Dakota Fanning relating how Darger sought solace in art after a childhood as an abused orphan. This bit of biography prepares audiences for Darger’s own summary, narrated by actor Larry Pine, of his life work—a cryptic 15,000-page epic novel detailing a war waged over child slavery—at first illustrated onscreen by stills of Darger’s startling art. But it’s when one of his drawings comes to life—a girl flaps her butterfly wings and flies away—that you realize director Jessica Yu has taken biographical documentary to a new level.
Using animation constructed from Darger’s artwork, Yu opens a door into Darger’s hermetic world of evil, adult Glandelinians and their captive Vivian Girls—cute, Shirley Temple-ish girls who sometimes sport horns, wings, tails and penises. Lightning flashes in stormy skies, soldiers fire guns, and monsters called Blengins circle through the clouds. These nightmarish scenes, it turns out, harken directly back to Darger’s own past: nuns, mean teachers, and childhood enemies from his early life reappear as Confederate army members, often slaughtered on the page as a way to recoup his mental losses. (One especially cruel bully morphs into General John Manley, head of the opposing regime.)
Henry Darger grew up in asylums for feeble-minded children, and spent his adult years as a recluse. A self-taught artist who made a living as a janitor, he lived in a small apartment in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago, secretly recording the war between the Glandelinians and Vivian Girls, down to the last casualties and debts accrued. Incredibly, no one knew of his prodigious artistic talents until his landlords discovered Darger’s work upon his death in 1973 and began to share it with the public. Countless articles and several books have since been published on Darger, but never has his art been actively portrayed as it is here, embellished by a storytelling voice that sounds the way Darger’s voice may have sounded: gentle but curt, impassioned but matter-of-fact. Add in several interviews with neighbors, including one with Kiyoko Lerner, and you get a fascinating—if necessarily speculative—picture of Darger inhabiting his strange fantasies.
Animating someone else’s art is a controversial proposition, doubly so with Darger. His sincere, exacting artistic approach required that he dedicate every second of free time to perfecting his techniques. The boxes of pencil nubs, tall stacks of visual reference and piles of used watercolors that Yu’s camera scans across demonstrate that Darger was his own harshest teacher and critic. Fortunately, Yu’s animators kept the special effects to a minimum, going more for an old-fashioned, paper-doll like style rather than the gaudy Pixar look. The animation is charming and loyal to the work.
Yu’s last two films—the Academy Award-winning Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of John O’Brien and The Living Museum—also documented artists who overcame physical and mental challenges. She’s friendly and open, making it obvious that she’s doing what she loves. I interviewed her at her home in Los Angeles, as she was preparing to travel to Chicago, Darger’s hometown, for the film’s opening festivities.
In the Realms of the Unreal is screening in select theatres across North America through April.
Arthur: How did this film come to be?
Jessica Yu: I was giving a talk about my last film, The Living Museum, about a group of artists in a psychiatric center in New York. A reporter in the audience knew the Lerners [Darger’s landlords], and he asked me if I’d heard of Darger. The next day he took me to Kiyoko Lerner’s house. Kiyoko showed me some paintings, then she let me go up to his room by myself. Before this, Darger had been an abstraction to me. But I felt such a strong sense of his presence in his room. Everything in there said something about him. I wanted to tie together the feeling of that room with some comprehensible look at the work, so that we might get a sense of who this person was.
There’s so much great footage of his room in the film. Did you shoot that footage on your first visit?
No, I went back to ask Kiyoko about making a documentary. She was open, but cautious. She doesn’t want people to exploit Darger’s work. I wanted the room to substitute for Darger himself. To do this, I tried to get movement in all the shots, and we shot a lot from where he sat at the desk. I imagined how he might have looked at the room. He had his central point, gazing up at the stained glass window of the dove, sitting at the table surrounded by his work. It gives you a sense of how he lived.
Was your fascination rooted in a love for Darger’s artwork or with his tragic story? Or both?
It was combined. Some art can stand on its own, but Henry Darger lived through his art, so you can’t separate his life and work. We only have Darger’s mountain of work, a few supporting materials, and then his actual presence in the outside world. There’s so little evidence of his life. I was tantalized by the fact that you can’t really know him. I embraced the idea of the mystery. Nathan [Lerner] used to say, “Just because there are questions doesn’t mean there are answers.” Nathan took questions as a statement. This beautiful philosophy applied to Darger. In a film, you don’t want mystery just for mystery’s sake—that can be frustrating—but if you can say something about a person’s life and impact, you can satisfy in another way.
The speculative aspect of the way the interviews were spliced together, with everyone guessing about Darger, was satisfying.
When we watch something, our brains naturally seek answers. I had to set the film up early on not to be that way. It’s more an emotional or imaginative experience.
Did you feel like you got to know him?
I don’t think we could now sit down and share a beer, but I do think I have a better appreciation for where the work came from and how it served him. I have a context for it. The problem with exhibitions of Darger’s work is that they don’t give people enough context for the work. People come away thinking, “This work is amazing, but what a kook.” It’s easy to dismiss him as a man who couldn’t control his imagination. But actually, he was extremely methodical and he had a strong sense of purpose. His world was bizarre, but you can see that he was shaping everything. The fact that he was creating it for his own eyes really shows how singular the work is.
You’ve said that you became Darger-like while researching. Did you get depressed? You clearly decided to imbue the film with as much hope as possible, rather than dwelling on the negative.
I only felt depressed while learning about his early life. There were so many orphans at the turn of the century. But since most of my research was about his work, and because his work operated as a wondrous substitute for the world, it was with a state of wonder that I faced this. Museums tend to focus on his most violent images, so people get the impression that he was this angry person barely capable of controlling his rage. But only a fraction of his pieces depict girls being crucified, raped, and torn apart. He used this other world as a place to release emotions, of course, but it was also the place where he enjoyed himself. I thought this was going to be a tragic story in lots of ways, and he certainly didn’t get to live his early life the way he would have chosen, but I realized that while he appeared to be this timid, shuffling old man later in life, what he was doing was very audacious. To decide at an early age that you don’t need the outside world, that you can live inside your imagination, that you can create meaningful relationships in your mind…? He was really bold.
He faced one of our greatest human fears, being alone.
While we imagine the horrors of living on a deserted island, he was grappling with the question, Can a man be an island?
Did you relate to his obsessions, in terms of being a director?
Definitely. Creative flow was so easy for Darger. He generated this excitement, this momentum, when he got home from work every day. That’s part of what makes the novel difficult to read, however. But I admired this about him.
How do you feel about Darger being labeled an outsider artist? Part of that comes from the belief that he was probably schizophrenic.
It’s ironic because he’s the ultimate insider. He wasn’t trying to be a part of the outside world. My friend says that Outsider Art is any thing outside of Manhattan, and that’s the commerce side. But on the other side, people label him because they need to. So it’s not terribly harmful if it helps people understand the work. In terms of mental illness, it’s not always useful to have a diagnosis. Darger just doesn’t fit any diagnosis. After every single screening, people come up to me and say, “I know what was wrong with him,” and the answers vary: Aspberger’s, autism, schizophrenia. The problem with that in art is that you tend to then see the creative output as some symptom of a disorder. That’s such a reductive way of looking at it. It undermines the notion of willfulness, the idea that an artist creates work for a reason. The discipline. Darger would sketch clouds, then study different ways to color them. I saw some of these. There was an envelope full of brown clouds labeled THESE ARE GOOD, and an envelope full of blue clouds that said THESE ARE NO GOOD. He wasn’t just obsessed with making the pen move. I wanted to show how meticulous he was. He held down a job, he paid his rent, lived by himself. How, then, does he fit the definition of a person with a serious mental disorder?
His neighbors were so generous to watch over him rather than to hospitalize him at the end of his life.
I know. Most people don’t want to deal with it. He finally got his break towards the end of his life. It’s hard to imagine now—especially in Lincoln Park since it’s so completely gentrified—that he was allowed to keep his fire-trap of a room full of junk, that he was allowed to just work.
Darger seemed so nostalgic, sentimental, really longing for his past. When did you decide to use multiple narrators as a way to complement this idea? There’s the Vivian girl [Dakota Fanning] alternating with Darger’s voice [Larry Pine]. Pine has this great William Burroughs-y voice. Did you want the film to feel nostalgic?
I wanted it to have the quality of a radio play. They narration is nostalgic, but not overly-emotional. I didn’t want an actor to do a Rainman-version of Darger, or to inject emotion that Darger might not have brought to it. With Dakota’s voice, I wanted to do something different. Usually in documentary, there’s this voice of authority that we cling to and depend on to tell us what’s going on, and instead, I felt like a little girl’s voice could be more of a draw into Darger’s world. What’s interesting about Darger’s yearning is that it acknowledges that art is merely a substitute. He realized he was an old man dreaming of the past. People think of him as being stuck in the past, but really he was longing for it.
Were any other documentaries inspirational to you?
No, I tried to look at only primary sources. I was so absorbed in the research that it was hard to figure out how to work it. But when choices are limited, you’re forced to be more creative. So it was fun, too. I had to really script it out. I like to do the writing and editing myself.
How did the animation style happen?
I came up with the 2-D concept. I wanted to animate the action already suggested in the paintings. I kept thinking of Hogarth, how he’d tell a whole story in one panel. And I wanted to use only elements already in Darger’s artwork. The animators took this idea of preserving the texture of the painting and ran with it. For example, we left the paper seams in to acknowledge that we were dealing with physical materials. Finally, we wanted to invite people into his world. In the beginning, there’s only a little animation, but once you better understand the themes in his work, you can follow along more easily with his story.
What about the Civil War parts? Was the war was more about sexual issues than religiosity?
His conflict with God was foremost in what was going on in the war. He couldn’t bring himself to talk back to the nuns. He had an image of God as being Santa Claus. That if he was good, went to church, behaved, that God should come through, and he never did. Even though Darger lashed out at God, renouncing his faith would’ve meant he was completely alone. His last journal entry was, “What will it be?” Did he mean heaven? And then he had two endings in his fiction. He knew he couldn’t control what was beyond him. I wanted the film to suggest that although his life was sad, he had a richness. He had a fulfilled creative life. Tragedies became adventures rather than disasters. You know the lady with the tall hair?
The one who said, “If you’re poor they call you crazy, if you’re rich they call you eccentric. So we called him crazy.”
She said he’d constantly walk the streets, reading the paper, and that he wouldn’t even look up when he crossed a street. He finally got hit, though, and that’s when his health started to decline. But I love the idea that he was so vulnerable, yet he had more important things to do.
What part of the film are you the most proud of?
When people have an emotional reaction—not if they burst into tears—but if they can emotionally respond to Darger. We’ll never know who he really was, but we can appreciate him and have a deeper understanding of his artwork as being a fully-realized world rather than a scattered, random selection of alien images.