"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.
By FRANK EPISALE
(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.
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.
|IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL|
|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
209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.)
Dec. 22, 2004 Jan. 4, 2005|
| RELATED ARTICLES|
Hawaii Film Festival 2004|
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|
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