In the Realms of the Unreal
Sometimes a storyteller won’t admit that she can’t get to the story she’s after—that her search for the truth is tearing up the trail rather than clearing the way. In In the Realms of the Unreal that realization comes a few seconds after the reels start turning, when paintings begin to dance. Documentarian Jessica Yu has taken on a forbidding biopic topic: Henry Darger, the pathologically reclusive artist who had no friends or family and who, after his death, left behind thousands of illuminated stories that are as spellbinding as they are inscrutable. But Yu struggles valiantly to tell his tale, and the result is a visually captivating void where a movie should be. Owing to the lack of ready stock needed to describe a man nobody knew—much less understood—Yu chooses to substitute style for substance.
In 1973, Henry Darger died at the age of 81, having made few connections during his uneventful life as a hermitic janitor. Only when his landlords began clearing out his cluttered Chicago apartment did they discover that Darger had devoted six decades to a peculiar self-taught craft: writing a 15,000-page epic about a nation of enslaved children, which he then illustrated with eerie and oftentimes vexing tableaux—military scenes in which soldiers wear mortarboards in place of helmets; depictions of little girls in Mary Janes going to war against these teacher-men; and, most curiously of all, enormous landscapes populated by nude, hermaphroditic she-children, some with rams’ horns on their heads, others with butterflies’ wings on their backs, and all with penises between their legs. Darger called his opus Realms of the Unreal, and in its guileless doggedness and breathtaking ambition, its discovery all but birthed mainstream acceptance of outsider art.
Yu does what she can to bring a human face to Darger’s story, in part with a series of brief and increasingly tenuous interviews: his landlord, his next-door neighbor, even the now-adult altar boy at the church Darger frequented. Not surprisingly, none offers any insights, and perhaps just as unsurprising, Yu dedicates the balance of her film to the only raw materials left: Realms itself. But the fruits of her attention are an expensive-looking disaster. Darger’s story is narrated by the twee Dakota Fanning, hyping the director’s already fetishistic fascination with Darger’s interest in children. Actors then recite long passages of Realms, with little in the way of context or explanation. And worst of all, to provide action on the screen during all the voice-overs, Yu actually animates Darger’s paintings, using computers to make his nymphs speak, his soldiers parry, his naked gamines dance. Unable to get to the truth of the man, the director instead tarts up his creation, turning the artist’s life work into a hallucinogenic cartoon. Now the man remains elusive as ever.