IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREALNR
In the carefully crafted documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, filmmaker Jessica Yu introduces us to Henry Darger, a man not very different from Mark O'Brien, the subject of her Academy Award-winning short Breathing Lessons. Henry Darger's writing, like O'Brien's, was a deliberate act to control a life severely limited by circumstance. O'Brien, one of only a hundred polio survivors in the United States, lived much of his life in an iron lung, and Darger, an impoverished laborer, was a recluse who lived for 40 of his 81 years in one room. Unlike O'Brien, who received notoriety during his lifetime, both as a writer and as an advocate for the disabled, Darger toiled in obscurity in a North Chicago rooming house.
Darger's magnum opus, The Realms of the Unreal, a novel with accompanying illustrations and songs, has been the subject of many art exhibits in the U.S. and abroad, including one in 2000 at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, and in 2002 at the Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. His fanciful pen and watercolor drawings reside in private art collections and in prestigious institutions such as the National Museum of American Art and the Museum of American Folk Art. Darger's life, his fantasy novel and his art have sparked controversy since his death in Chicago in 1973.
Psychologists and other pundits continue to debate whether Darger, who spent time in a home for feeble-minded children, was actually mentally ill, and whether the Vivian Girls, the heroes of his novel-hermaphrodites who fight child slavery-are the creation of a disturbed psyche. Art critics dispute the value of his drawings, many of which were tracings, and as for the literary integrity of his novel, over 15,000 single-spaced, typewritten pages, biographers have wildly disagreed. Darger also left behind an autobiography, 5,000 pages that are part journal and part weather diary, and another 10,000-page work of fiction. Wisely or unwisely, Yu steers clear of the ongoing controversies over Darger's oeuvre.
With the help of seven animators led by Kara Vallow, Yu animates Darger's scroll-like paintings so that the novel's bloody battles between the child enslavers and the Vivian Girls achieve a disturbing ferocity. No doubt these savage conflicts were at least in part the result of the artist's troubled spirit: A devout Roman Catholic, Darger experienced a crisis of faith that is reflected in the dual endings he wrote for his largely allegorical novel. While Yu suggests such parallels between art and life, there are no insightful discussions of them. Instead, the filmmaker interviews a childhood acquaintance of Darger's; a neighbor in the rooming house; and Darger's landlord, Kiyoko Lerner, the widow of Nathan Lerner, who helped the anchorite often, especially when he became ill. The Lerners later discovered Darger's work. Using several narrative voices and a clever score by Jeff Beal (Pollack), Yu provides a personal perspective on Darger's art.
In the Realms of the Unreal is a visual feast, but it lacks the depth of an investigative approach. Yu writes in a director's statement that she "looked over" the voluminous remains of Darger's life and set out to make a documentary that would suspend judgment about whether or not he was mentally ill, and about the artistic and literary value of his work, but no filmmaker can practically achieve that. If The Realms of the Unreal arose from the disastrous events of Darger's childhood-the loss of his mother and sister-as Yu seems to believe, then expert opinion would have deepened our understanding of the relationship between these events and Darger's work. It was Yu's mistaken belief that experts would detract from her intimate approach that gives the film its tenuity, the lingering sense that far too little has been explored.