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    In the Realms of the Unreal

    Unreal reels

    "In the Realm of the Unreal" describes the life of a reclusive and somewhat creepy school janitor who died and left behind a 15,000-page illustrated children's book.


    (Reviewed at the Hawaii International Film Festival in November 2004.)

    Before his death in 1973. Henry Darger was considered by those who knew him to be a little sad, a little crazy, and probably a little dead inside. He worked as a janitor in Chicago, spending all of his non-working hours either at church or alone in the room he rented. He rarely spoke to those he encountered but could sometimes be heard by his landlords, talking to himself in a variety of voices.

    Written and directed by: Jessica Yu.
    Produced by: Karen Carter, Joan Huang, Susan West, Jessica Yu.
    Featuring: Henry Darger.
    Narrated by: Dakota Fanning.
    Cinematography: Tim Bieber, Shana Hagan, Russell Harper.
    Edited by: Jessica Yu.

    Related links: Official site
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100 Dec. 22, 2004 — Jan. 4, 2005

    Hawaii Film Festival 2004
    • Overview

    • Baytong
    • Clean
    • In the Realm of the Unreal
    • South of the Clouds
      • Steamboy
    • Take Out
    • Tarnation

    • Official site
    When he died in 1973, Darger left behind a 15,000-page illustrated manuscript, a fantastical epic novel built around a "children's revolution" in another world, wherein his heroic "Vivan Girls" battled oppression and slavery alongside a few adult heroes, including a stand-in for Darger himself. Along with the manuscript, there were hundreds of painted collages, most double-sided and ten feet in length. And, as a sort of companion text, Darger left behind thousands of pages of journal entries.

    Jessica Yu's "In the Realms of the Unreal," which borrows its title from Darger's novel, follows the narrative of the journals and juxtaposes it with excerpts and visuals from the novel. Darger's mistrust of people and fixation on the oppression of children seems to have stemmed from time spent in children's asylum. If his journals are accurate, he was placed there essentially for being kind of a weird kid rather than any clinically valid diagnosis. Upon escaping from one institution, he found himself working in another: as a janitor in a Catholic school for girls.

    Yu's film doesn't attempt to shy away from the weirdness or potential creepiness of Darger and his project. His manuscript isn't all sweetness and innocence; parts of it are genuinely gruesome in their depiction of this children's war, and the anger that drives his narrative is clear. There's also little question that many would find this man's fascination with (and proximity to) children troubling on a variety of levels.

    Mostly, though, Yu seeks to explore the question of whether one's secret inner life is any less valid a source of fulfillment than the externalized indicators of happiness by which we normally judge one another. Was Darger unhappy, or did his love for his project and his invented heroes provide him joy enough? Was Darger as lonely as he appeared to be, or did his creation alone bring him adequate comfort and company? It's an intriguing question but impossible to answer. While this is a "documentary," there's little to "document" when it comes to Darger's emotional life. The narration from his journals is mostly about his life as a child, and about certain moments in the process of his writing. There's not discussion of whether he is happy or unhappy, lonely or content. Interviews with his landlords and neighbors are anecdotal and speculative.

    Another obstacle faced by the film is the inherently static nature of its subject. While some interviews are included, the bulk of the visual material is made up of shots of Darger's artwork. The camera moves, but the pages can't. Yu seeks to counteract this by animating many of the images, adding moving snow to a painting, moving the arms and legs of the Vivian girls in a collage, adding sound effects of explosions and trumpets to visual representations of war. While this is all done in order to draw us into Darger's fantasy world, it sometimes feels like a compromise in the material, forcing Yu to collaborate with Darger more than she is simply documenting his work.

    These difficulties aside, though, In the Realms of the Unreal is an evocative glimpse into the inner life of an unknowable man. At 81 minutes, it does not attempt to exhaust its subject so much as encourage further exploration and though. Questions of "happiness" aside, it's clear that there was a lot more to Henry Darger than could have been guessed at by his neighbors and colleagues; one can't help but wonder what secrets will be discovered upon one's own death, and what epic sagas are unfolding behind the eyes of strangers.

    NOVEMBER 9, 2004

    Reader comments on In the Realms of the Unreal:

  • special effects   from amy, Jul 5, 2008

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