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? Continue reading