Apr 082009

Cover for In The Realms of The UnrealHenry Darger, an elderly recluse, spent his childhood in Illinois’s asylum for feeble-minded children and his adulthood working as a janitor. He lived a quiet, nearly solitary existence, but his imaginary life was exciting, colorful and sexually provocative. When he died in Chicago in 1973, his landlady discovered in his room 300 paintings, some over 10 feet long, and a 15,000-page illustrated novel (The Realms of the Unreal), which told the epic story of the virtuous Vivian Girls leading a child slave revolt against the evil Glandelinians. Featuring Dakota Fanning (Hide and Seek) and Larry Pine (The Royal Tenenbaums) as narrators and imaginative animation of Darger’s work, Oscar® winner Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons) brings to life one of the twentieth century’s greatest self-taught artists.

Genres: Documentary; Running Time: 1 hr. 21 min.; Release Date: December 22nd, 2004 (limited); MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine, Henry Darger

Directed by: Jessica Yu

I admit this was a movie I stumbled across because of the colorful DVD case. When I read the description, I was intrigued by the story line of the reclusive man who created this beautiful body of work. Henry Darger (1892-1973)  created an amazing collection of illustrations with absolutely no contact with the formal art world. Darger, a native of Chicago, suffered an extremely abusive childhood … in which he was institutionalised in an asylum for feeble-minded children, even though he may have been of above-average intelligence.

Jessica Yu’s documentary ‘In the Realms of the Unreal’ (a shortened version of the title of Darger’s novel) attempts to make sense of Darger’s life, art and obsessions. Yu interviews a surprisingly large number of the very few people who actually knew Darger.

The movie uses several gimmicky visual devices. The decision to make animated cartoons from several Darger murals is a good one, and the stiff-legged ‘lazy’ animation technique used here is appropriate to the material. Less commendable is Yu’s decision at several points to use new artwork that paraphrases Darger’s themes; audiences will mistake these images for actual Darger artwork.

This is a very interesting story with a surprising dose of an undercurrent of suspense about what will happen next. It was worth watching.

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