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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Reams of 'The Realms'
by Donald Levit

Near the end of 1972, retired janitor Henry Darger moved into the Saint Augustine poorhouse, where his widowed father had died long before and he himself would do so April 13, the day following his eighty-first birthday. A nice enough but excruciatingly lonely queer egg to neighbors who overheard his solo dialogues in different assumed voices, he had lived there at 851 Webster Avenue, Chicago, for forty years. What landlords Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner soon found in his room was so overwhelming that the contents, six decades of the recluse’s life, were not permanently dismantled for another twenty-seven years.

Darger has since come to be considered one of the country’s paramount “Intuitive and Outsider” artists, with major exhibitions at galleries and museums here (including permanent display in the Study Center named for him at New York City’s American Folk Art Museum) and abroad. Writer, teacher and artist herself, Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu was introduced to the work at an L.A. museum in the late ‘eighties and, taken by a “total lack of irony [in] its combination of perverse subject matter and innocent presentation,” has spent five years researching, writing, editing, producing and directing In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger.

First, the man himself, and then the film, narrated in his own words by Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine. Poor, orphaned early and losing his sister to adoption, he spent seven years at a home for feeble-minded children in Lincoln, a “children’s madhouse” from which he walked a-hundred-sixty-two miles back to Chicago, or at a “state [work] farm,” before beginning a lifetime of menial jobs at Dickensian Church-run institutions. Shy, virtually friendless, a compulsive three-times-a-morning Mass-goer at St. Vincent’s, he gathered Catholic images and cherubs, children’s books and magazines, clippings, photos, yarn, ledgers, paint sets, fruitlessly petitioned to adopt a child, wondered if he were spotless or “just a sorry saint,” and taught himself to draw.

Kiyoko discovered his collections, and then the disturbing artwork, hundreds of butcher-paper watercolors up to more than ten feet long: imagined mythological creatures, pre-Raphaelite nature, soldiers and prepubescent girls, naked, hermaphroditic, frequently with penises.

Further foraging revealed that the material was to accompany In the Realms of the Unreal, a fifteen-thousand-plus-page, single-spaced typed epic “novel” begun in 1909. Semi-footnoted by a holograph “My Life History,” it retails the convoluted wars between evil Glandelinia and forces of good led by seven virtuous pale blonde girl princesses, the Vivians. Sprinkled with the artist’s and acquaintances’ names, increasingly graphic, religious and bloody, the protracted struggle becomes ambiguous to the point of two alternate, diametrically opposed endings.

This parallel universe, where “all things should come to my satisfaction, or else,” does it reflect harmless innocence that remained a virgin -- a neighbor’s opinion, though all admit to scarcely knowing him, even to whether the surname has a hard or soft g -- or a sick, troubled mind? Or does art exist apart from the personality of its creator?

In the case of such an isolated, outwardly uneventful life, one school of thought attempts to read the artist from the tangible record of his imagination. In this Lewis Carroll-meets-Yellow Submarine documentary -- remember those LSD and Paul-Is-Dead murmurings? -- Yu interviews neighbors, who can no more than guess what went on inside the third-floor room and its occupant, but wisely avoids the “expert” opinion of psychiatrists. Merely in passing bringing up Darger’s written lamentation at growing up and getting old, plus some laughable old Windy City boosterism clips, the film depends, instead, on the man’s own battle-song lyrics (to familiar tunes) and story narration to go along with the watercolors sometimes animated slightly but still “using only elements found in Darger’s painting.”

On his famous uncle’s death, Carroll’s nephew and worshipful biographer asserted that “those who loved him would not wish to lift the veil from these dead sanctuaries.” In the Realms of the Unreal is admirable in refusing to force conclusions, from the work and sketchy documentation, about a hidden mind dead these thirty-one years. Aside from a pleasing presentation of that repetitious art, however, is it worth the effort? 

(Released by Wellspring; not rated by MPAA.)

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