Henry Darger is one of the most well-known outsider artists in the world, but I had never heard of him until this documentary, which means I was as clueless as his Chicago neighbors back in the early '70s. To them, he was an old sullen janitor whose only trips outside his apartment where for work, supplies and Mass. He did not seek their friendship; in fact, he did not speak to his neighbors and preferred that they not speak to him.
Illness forced Darger out of his apartment and into a health facility about a year before his death in 1973 at 81. That's when his neighbors found out that, in addition to the expected clutter, Darger's cramped, one-room apartment was packed with art produced by the recluse: hundreds of paintings - some over 10 feet long - stacks of diaries and a 15,145-page (yes, you read correctly: fifteen thousand, one hundred and forty five pages) single-space typed fantasy novel about the noble Vivian girls and their religious war against the male, child-enslaving, mortarboard-wearing Glandelinian army.
When one of the neighbors mentioned the amazing contents of the apartment to Darger at his sickbed, his only response were the words, "Too late."
Filmmaker Jessica Yu chooses not to use experts from the worlds of art or psychiatry. The only interviews in the film are with neighborhood people who routinely encountered Darger. The decision keeps the verbal clutter down, while underlining just how apart he really was. These people, the closest to friends that Darger had, cannot agree on how to pronounce his last name or whether his seat preference for his multi-daily trips to Mass was in the front, back or middle of the church.
Don't expect any great insights from the acquaintances. Really though, how often do news interviews with neighbors ever produce insightful information? As it turns out, Yu's plan is not to provide definitive words on the recluse. Instead, she offers comparisons, voiced by Larry Pine and child actor Dakota Fanning, between the life of Darger and the images and storylines he created, while immersing us in his artwork as we hear the grim details of his Dickensian adolescence.
In addition to losing his mother and father during his youth, Darger spent years in a home for "feeble-minded" children, making two escape attempts. The first ended with him being dragged through the dirt back to the facility while tethered to the back of a horse. The second escape was successful. Aside from an uneventful stateside stint in the military, he spent the rest of his life at his first adult job as a janitor.
While Darger avoided speaking with others, he was quite verbal in the confines of the apartment; having spirited conversions with himself while using a variety of voices and dialects (alas, no quotes from the exchanges are provided). He had a great deal of art from children's books, including Wizard of Oz creator and fellow Chicago native L. Frank Baum, and the influence shows in his creations. He painted numerous large displays of the previously mentioned holy way, with charming portraits of little girls incorporated into the mayhem of battle. Yu keeps the film lively by using computer-animation to allow the existing images to move. The results, reminiscent of the film Yellow Submarine, are occasionally clunky, but generally effective.
Darger often drew angelic girls nude, only with penises. Why? One acquaintance suggests that his exposure to life was so narrow that he might not have ever learned that girls look different than boys "down there."
We'll never know, of course, which makes the bizarre images even more compelling. Some reviewers suggest that Darger may have had pedophilic tendencies, but the impression I got from his art was that he was trying to "fix" the injustices done to him as a child, and that victimizing others would horrify him.
Henry Darger was utterly separate from the reality we know. In the Realms of the Unreal offers you a chance to bridge that gap. You have never seen anything like his artwork, which has the capacity to both disturb and enchant. Worth a trip to Key Cinemas, don't you think?