Posted: 02/08/2005


In the Realms of the Unreal


by Del Harvey

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Confession: I live in Chicago, and I’d never heard of Henry Darger before seeing the trailer for this film at the Music Box Theatre. Chicago is one of the biggest cities in the U.S., and it is difficult to track every news item on a daily basis, but the details of Darger’s story, as presented in the new film by Jessica Yu, are truly astounding.

Henry Darger was a janitor at a Catholic poor house in Chicago for over 50 years. He was a solitary, singular individual who must have traveled amongst the world as a shadow. There is little actually known of his childhood, other than his mother dying when he was four years old and his father giving him up to an orphanage at 8, after becoming physically unable to care for his son. Apparently, his mother died giving birth to a sister Darger never saw. Diagnosed as a disruptive trouble-maker, Darger was confined to several mental institutions until he ran away at 16. Without family, without much formal schooling or training, Darger really did the best he could, working as a janitor during the day, attending as many as five masses at the Catholic church on a daily basis, and wandering around gathering newspapers and magazines to use in creating his work. Neighbors would see him going through the trash, picking out magazines and newspaper illustrations. Finally, at age 80, unable to climb the stairs to his room, he was moved to a nursing home and died shortly thereafter.

But his work is the most astounding thing of all. When he died at the age of 81 in 1973, his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, cleaned out the clutter room and discovered paintings: hundreds of brilliant watercolors, some over 10 feet long. The images were disturbing and mysteriously beautiful: little girls frolicking under stormy skies, little girls fighting soldiers, little girls being rescued by fantastic winged creatures. In many images, the girls were drawn naked, with penises. This was part of Darger ‘s life ‘s work, perhaps the longest novel ever written at more than 15,000 pages of single-spaced, hand-typed text titled, “In the Realms of the Unreal “, an epic story of the virtuous Vivian girls and their religious war against the evil Glandelinian army. For most of his life, Henry Darger, a recluse whom others called “Crazy,” had lived in this rich fantasy world. It was a world he had kept to himself.

Jessica Yu is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for Breathing Lessons: The Life And Work Of Mark O ‘Brien, an intimate portrait of the writer who lived for four decades paralyzed by polio and confined to an iron lung. The film won over 20 festival awards, including the IDA Achievement Award, the Audience Award at Aspen Shortsfest, and First Prize at the St. Petersburg International Film Festival, and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. She also won an Emmy and a Cable Ace Award for Best Documentary Director. Yu ‘s documentary The Living Museum, the award-winning HBO film about an art community in a New York mental institution premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.

Yu was first introduced to Henry Darger about 15 years ago at the LA County Museum of Art, where his work was included in a collection of “outsider art.” It stood out to her for its combination of perverse subject matter and innocent presentation —there was something about the total lack of irony in his depiction of soldiers wearing mortarboards or nude little hermaphrodites toting rifles. Such bizarre and powerful imagery, but without a wink and a nod. Yu says Darger’s work really stayed with her, and that she had no doubt that there was a lot more to that particular story. Some 10 years later she was giving a lecture on “The Living Museum” in Chicago, and a man in the audience asked if she had heard of Darger. This was the journalist Ted Shen, and he happened to be a friend of Darger’s last landlord, Kiyoko Lerner. The next day Ted took Yu to the house, where Kiyoko graciously showed mher a collection of Darger ‘s paintings and then the 3rd floor room where he had lived for over 40 years. Yu says, “Entering the room was a powerful experience, as Darger ‘s presence was palpable in every square inch of the place. Everything in the room was something that he had chosen—paper dolls, statues of the Virgin Mary, paint pots, boxes of rubber bands. And it had all aged to the same rich sepia tone. There was incredible stillness in the room; you could see the dust hanging in the air. It was one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever been in, and in that moment I became obsessed with the thought of making a film about the artist who had lived there. After seeing the hand-bound volumes of Darger ‘s 15,000 novel, several hundreds of the paintings that accompanied it, the thousands of pages of notes and journals, and drawers filled with color tests, source material, and piles of clippings, it was clear that the paintings I had seen at LACMA could not be dismissed as the spontaneous output of a crazy man. They were definitely pieces of a much larger and more intricate puzzle, an epic work that consumed much of Darger ‘s life. I wanted to learn the inner architecture of this grand structure. A daunting task, but I felt that Darger ‘s work could only be done justice if treated as a whole—the expression of a life.”

Today, Henry Darger is considered to be one of America ‘s foremost outsider artists: an untaught artist working in isolation from the commercial or public eye. In The Realms Of The Unreal, an adventurous documentary feature, explores the fantastic vision and shadowy life of this enigmatic artist.

In The Realms Of The Unreal, an innovative feature length documentary, directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu and produced by Susan West, explores the parallel lives of legendary outsider artist Henry Darger. Reclusive janitor by day, visionary artist by night, Darger ‘s 15,000 page novel details the exploits of the Vivian Girls, seven angelic sisters who lead a rebellion against godless, child- enslaving men. Featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam, Cat In The Hat) and Larry Pine (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Ice Storm), the music of Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal and the work of a team of animators, this wholly original film tells the story of a hidden universe.

Del Harvey is a writer and screenwriting teacher living in Chicago.

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