The Unreal Life Of Henry Darger

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2005

"In the Realms of the Unreal," by documentarian Jessica Yu, chronicles the life and un-career of Henry Darger, a self-taught artist whose drawings, paintings and writings were discovered upon his death in 1973, and who went on to become considered one of America's foremost outsider artists.

Yu's film, a sensitive, ingenious, visually dazzling evocation of the forces that helped shape this confoundingly elusive man, will surely be as gratifying to Darger's fans as it will be enlightening to the uninitiated. With an astute sense of mission and unerring creative judgment, Yu has created a testament not just to Darger's odd form of genius, but to his abiding mystery. This is a film every bit as poetic, textured and intriguing as Darger's own rapturous visions.

"Am I an enemy of the cross or a very sorry saint?" So asks Darger at the beginning of "In the Realms of the Unreal," whose script borrows from the artist's own journals, as well as from his 15,000-page novel. (Darger is given voice in the film by the redoubtable character actor Larry Pine.) The novel's full title was "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" -- an indication of the complicated inner life that simmered beneath Darger's almost monastic existence.

Such questions bedeviled Darger for much of his life, which was marred early on by the death of his mother, and which continued to be impoverished and lonely until he died at age 81 in a Chicago poorhouse. Virtually friendless and a devout Catholic who worked as a hospital janitor from the time he was a teenager, Darger was an enigma to the few who knew him best; the neighbors and fellow parishioners Yu tracked down to interview for "In the Realms of the Unreal" can't even agree on how he pronounced his name, or where he sat in church.

This is just the kind of confusion Darger courted throughout his life, during which he became fascinated with alternative histories, including his own. "In the Realms of the Unreal" takes viewers into Darger's interior world, where he -- an otherwise small, forgettable character ("just another little old man who was all by himself," as one observer describes him) -- became a hero and savior, the ultimate preserver of Christian virtue.

Although he set the story to paper, it's in the drawings and watercolors he created to illustrate it that Darger's artistry came to light. Never a confident draftsman, Darger collected all manner of illustrations from storybooks, magazines, newspapers and cartoons that he used for tracings and collages on reams of butcher paper. The resulting double-sided nine-foot-long paintings -- richly colored vignettes wherein a group of plucky young heroines, called the Vivian Girls, do battle with an army of godless oppressors of children called the Glandelinians -- formed a graphic version of Darger's novel, and stand today as his most famous and confounding legacy.

In these pictures, young girls are often depicted naked, with male genitalia, images that look at once perverse and naive. These disquieting figures, along with scenes of ritualized torture and bloody, even visceral violence, have led to inevitable speculations regarding Darger's pedophilic impulses. One of his landlords, Kiyoko Lerner, as well as Darger's other friends, insist he probably didn't realize women and men are built differently; thankfully, Yu isn't as interested in diagnosing her subject as in bringing his fascinating contradictions to the surface. (Even if his depiction of girls was benign, it still gives one pause to discover that he petitioned the church for years to adopt a child.)

Just as she avoids the temptation to create a psychobiography, Yu has wisely chosen not to interview art critics and curators, so "In the Realms of the Unreal" is happily free of the academic, often patronizing cant that accompanies so many appreciations of outsider artists. Instead, she focuses on the man and the art, lingering long on Darger's fantastically colored, carefully composed images and allowing viewers to come to their own terms with their meanings.

Her most innovative decision was to animate many of the panels; these sequences -- whose crude look belies the sophisticated computer technology it took to create them -- aren't used as gimmicks as much as to bring Darger's already vivid imagination that much closer to life.

What's more, Yu has enlisted the young actress Dakota Fanning to narrate "In the Realms of the Unreal," a choice altogether appropriate to Darger's ambiguous enterprise. As Fanning's little-girl voice reads words that are clearly beyond her years, the effect is as unsettlingly charming and disturbing as the world depicted on screen.

In the Realms of the Unreal (82 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company