May 20, 2005

In the Realms of the Unreal

Directed by Jessica Yu Narrated by Dakota Fanning

Outsider artist Henry Darger completed more than 300 avant-garde paintings and a 15,145-page, single-spaced, hand-bound novel. But before his 1973 death at age 81, people only knew him as a reclusive janitor who attended multiple masses daily, scavenged trash, and conversed with himself at home using different voices and dialects. Named after Darger's novel, director Jessica Yu's documentary In the Realms of the Unreal transports viewers into his world - both a dingy apartment and a fertile imagination manifested in stories and paintings where little hermaphrodites wage epic battles against child-enslaving soldiers and chimeras.

His marginal existence and traumatic upbringing - including seven years of hard labour at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children - find many parallels in his escapist fantasy. Passages from his novel, autobiography and journals (read by Larry Pine) here accompany lingering pans of Darger's sometimes 10-foot-long, double-sided, butcher-paper canvases. Ingenious animation of his drawings vividly illustrates disquieting eccentricity, as do the dried paint, worn books and tarnished clippings inside his cluttered room. Preserved by landlords until 2000, his residence of more than 40 years resembles homes of sociopaths from Seven and The Silence of the Lambs.

The film hints at more disturbing aspects of Darger's beautiful mind. Aside from anti-social tendencies, his meticulous weather journals, rage over unanswered prayers, and disproportionate obsession with a misplaced picture all signal mental illness. His collecting and painting pictures of unclothed girls as well as his failed attempts at child adoption suggest the psychological profile of a pedophile, though he was probably too socially inept to do harm. The facts that he drew girls with male genitalia and that he claimed a 17-year-old woman raped him reveal his startling ignorance about sex.

Darger makes an interesting case study for art scholars and psychologists alike. But Yu deliberately bypasses expert opinions in favour of speculations by his few acquaintances. The overlaying, often unattributed and at times conflicting accounts from those who knew him almost sound like voices inside a crazy person's head. As interviewees disagree over the pronunciation of his last name and where he usually sat in church, Darger and his mental state remain mysteries in the end. Although the film deftly opens the door to Darger's realm, it meanders somewhat without focus and perspective. The significance of his work and the meaning of his life are entirely up to the viewers to envision.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.