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In the Realms of the Unreal, a film review

Jessica Yu’s documentary film In the Realms of the Unreal is an insightful and sympathetic look at the famous outsider artist Henry Darger.

Henry Dargerfrom the epic long novel The Realms of the Unreal

Darger spent almost all of his adult life working on an epic long novel titled The Realms of the Unreal, about a group of young sisters called the Vivian Girls, who wage war against evil grown men. Darger is most famous for the novel’s illustrations, in which he depicts naked little girls with penises. Rather than expound the popular notion of Darger as a man who was insane and perhaps a pedophile, Yu seeks to show how little anyone really knew this man. She limits judgment, allowing a more sympathetic explanation of who Darger really was — and why he was so consumed in making a 15,000-page novel, as well as several hundred paintings and drawings, depicting scenes from The Realms of the Unreal.

Yu, like a good documentary filmmaker, demonstrates how little those around him knew Darger by including their contrasting observations of him. Interviewees, including his neighbors, not only did they not know the correct pronunciation of his last name but they could not remember where he would sit during mass.

Yu depicts Darger’s drawings and paintings of scenes from The Realms of the Unreal in untraditionally. Rather than simply displaying the artworks one after the other, she attempts to lure the audience into Darger’s fantasy world through close-ups and animation. Most often the animation is subtle: a head moves here, the water ripples in the river, a girl winks over there, and a tear slides down a little girl’s face. But the animation does not work well when Yu tries combine scenes of life in Chicago with segments of Darger’s drawings running across. The integration of the two worlds Darger lived within does not make sense, since Darger kept his private life and work a secret from everyone else. In placing Darger’s private world into scenes of public life in Chicago Yu assumes that Darger saw his fantasy world co-existing with the public world.

Henry Dargerfrom the epic long novel The Realms of the Unreal

Two voiceovers, one of a man and the other of a little girl, are used by Yu to distinguish between Darger’s biography and Yu’s own observations of him. The male voiceover is by Larry Pine, who is the narrator and voice of the male characters in The Realms of the Unreal. Besides the dialogue of the male characters in Darger’s novel, Pine’s voiceover is used to be descriptive and objective. The other voiceover is by Dakota Fanning, a young girl who not only speaks the dialogue of the Vivian Girls, but also speaks Yu’s own observations about Darger. Yu’s choice of a female child to speak insightfully about Darger is key for a couple of reasons: it helps the audience to view Darger’s relationship to little girls in a sympathetic light, and it illuminates the audience’s inability to understand Darger. She uses a little girl’s voice to try to unravel the artist’s mind, reversing his belief about the mystique of little girls. When Darger speaks of little girls in his journals and in The Realms of the Unreal, he describes them as mysterious, yet Darger is just as mysterious as his Vivian Girls, and it seems that all the books about him and even this film can never fully explain who Darger was and what really drove him to produce his unusual body of work.

Images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

Stephanie Martz is an artist and associate curator for Microcinema International.

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