LIKE A MANTRA, the words "I don't know" are repeated, again and again, by unidentified speakers at the start of "In the Realms of the Unreal," filmmaker Jessica Yu's strange and fascinating documentary about the strange and fascinating Henry Darger, a reclusive retired Chicago janitor upon whose death in 1973 at age 81 was found to have written a 15,000-page illustrated novel about a rebellion led by seven young girls against armies of child-enslaving men. Over the course of the film, the phrase becomes a kind of shoulder-shrugging anti-theme. Yet despite the film's lack of clear answers -- Was Darger schizophrenic or merely "eccentric"? How about a pervert? Why are his prepubescent heroines often depicted naked, with penises? And how do you pronounce his name? -- "In the Realms of the Unreal" is a compelling glimpse, and for many, an introductory one, into one of the more bizarre and elaborate works of outsider art ever made.
For some, Darger's work will not be entirely unfamiliar. Locally, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore has featured examples of several of his mixed-media paintings in more than one of its thematic exhibitions, though no thorough examination of his oeuvre has been mounted there. Featuring collage, tracing, paint and a hodgepodge of other artmaking techniques perfected over decades of trial and error, Darger's masterpiece (whose full title reads "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion") is brought to a kind of quirky, herky-jerky on-screen life in Yu's film, which includes simple animated sequences along with the traditional talking-head-style interviews with Darger's former neighbors and landlord.
Detail of a mixed-media work by outsider artist Henry Darger, the focus of the documentary "In the Realms of the Unreal."
Rather than shedding light on all the dark corners of Darger's mind, however, the film instead leads us into one unlit, cobwebbed closet after another. (This, by the way, is meant as a compliment, not a complaint.) Did Darger draw anatomically incorrect little girls because he had never seen a naked female? Probably, but who knows? How much of his inspiration was the result of an intense, conflicted Catholicism? Likely a lot.
Like Darger's books and his often disturbing pictures -- which depict a battle between good and evil and between innocence and depravity in which the good and the innocent do not always win -- the path taken by the film is somewhat labyrinthine and obscure, but it offers enough rewards to counterbalance its frustrations.
In some way for Darger, the film suggests, artmaking may have been a method of healing physic wounds resulting from first his mother's, then his father's, deaths, as well as his childhood confinement in a boys' home and an asylum. Yet it's easy to call Darger's epic and its related images a form of salvation through creativity. The book itself is contradictory, with a double ending that is, alternately, happy and tragic. Was this, Yu hints (in the aged-child voice of Dakota Fanning, who narrates along with Larry Pine), simply Darger's way of "following the example of the God he knew," a God who could seem at times both benevolent and heartless, who could bless someone with enormous talent even while leaving him friendless, impoverished and visited by unsettling visions of another, fully imagined world in which the kindhearted must struggle constantly to survive?
After all, as one of Darger's childhood neighbors says of him in the film, "He wasn't crazy in the normal sense of the word."
IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL (Unrated, 81 minutes) -- Contains images of artwork depicting violence against children and nudity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.