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Unreal As It Gets

An inventive documentary enters the imagination of a reclusive outsider artist

What if a man has no friends? What if he speaks only when spoken to, and then only of the weather? What if, every day of the week, he attends mass, serves as a janitor and retires to a one-room studio, emerging only to return to work? What happens to this man? Who is he, and how did he get that way?

In 1973, when the 81-year-old recluse Henry Darger died, his landlords opened his apartment door to discover a treasure trove of artistic expression: 300 paintings, some more than ten feet long; a 15,000-page illustrated novel (titled In the Realms of the Unreal); a 5,000-page autobiography; and thousands of pages of notes, journals and source material -- not to mention countless books, dolls, statues and other curios, objects selected by Darger for their relevance to his projects. Though their tenant had occupied the room for 40 years, neither Kiyoko Lerner nor her husband, Nathan, had had any inkling of what was happening within its walls, or within Darger's utterly hidden imagination. The room was a miracle of intricate fantasy, dedication and surprise. They made it public.

In the 30-plus years since, Darger has become a well-known "outsider artist," a figure acknowledged for his contribution to the field despite having neither training nor contact with other artists. His work has been displayed around the country, and in 2000, it was the subject of a major exhibition. His studio, maintained intact by his landlords for years, was only recently dismantled. But before it was, filmmaker Jessica Yu had a look inside.

That visit was the inspiration for Yu's new and excellent documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, about the life and work of Henry Darger. The winner of a 1997 Academy Award (for Breathing Lessons), Yu brings a startlingly fresh sensibility to the material, approaching Darger with both genuine curiosity and creative invention. Her most notable decisions: first, to narrate the film from two points of view, that of a young protagonist in the novel (voiced by ten-year-old actress Dakota Fanning) and that of Darger himself (voiced by Larry Pine); and second, to animate Darger's paintings. The latter choice comes almost entirely out of left field, but miraculously the animation works. In fact, it more than works -- it soars. When the figures in the paintings come to life, hinged at the joints like the paper dolls that inspired them, they bring an aching intimacy to the events of the novel and of Darger's life. We see them, we sense, as he did.

Darger hid himself and his life from the world, and it's no wonder. His autobiography reveals a childhood tormented by abandonment and forced labor. At a young age, he was sent to an asylum, a children's home for the "feeble-minded," where he passed a lonely seven years. After that, he was transferred to a state farm, working the fields for ten hours a day. At 17, Darger escaped and began work as a janitor, a job he retained for the rest of his life. Of course, his vocation lay elsewhere, in the creation of an alternate universe peopled by brave little girls engaged in a war against an evil empire, known as Glandelinia and characterized chiefly by its enslavement of children.

That's the central conflict of In the Realms of the Unreal, Darger's novel. In it, the seven virtuous Vivian Girls (saintly sisters, the picture of innocent victims) lead a revolt against their captors, the slaveholding Glandelinians. Protected by fantastical creatures, the girls are often victorious, but the battles rage on and on, and the casualties mount. Darger kept meticulous records of every military confrontation, listing names and statistics, many of which are amusingly bald: General Smashinthehead, for example, and the Battle at Fort Ignorance. Eventually, the novel introduces a General Henry Darger, a traitor who serves the Glandelinians. (Did Darger blame himself for putting his heroines in everlasting danger?) And it is never resolved. Or rather, it is resolved twice, favoring first the girls and later their dark enemies.

Darger's techniques were small-C catholic, as he appropriated from whatever he could find. He used overlay, collage, copying and tracing; his little-girl heroines look exactly like the coloring-book figures of the era, and they convey all of the attendant innocence. (Oddly, they sometimes have penises, perhaps because Darger had never seen a girl naked -- or because the girls are meant to stand in for all children.) There is no irony here, but there is darkness and depravity shadowing everything. The whole world, it seems, is out to get the children. Considering Darger's own experience, this view makes perfect sense.

"He was reclusive," Kiyoko Lerner says of her tenant. "That doesn't mean he was crazy." Indeed, both the consistency and singularity of Darger's vision suggest not so much madness as an alternative reality, a world apart, the titular unreal realm. Darger scarcely existed in the material world, but the universe of his imagination was immense and very alive. The brilliance of Jessica Yu's documentary is to enter that world with respect and humility, and to bring it to us untainted by either judgment or analysis.

 
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