Angel in China asks: How did you get started making films?
Jessica Yu: I wasn’t one of those people who knew in second grade that I wanted to be a director. I didn’t go to film school. I started working sporadically in production after college and ended up freelancing with Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, two Academy Award-winning documentarians who are also wonderfully generous people. I found the hands-on, DIY, under-funded world of documentaries to be strangely alluring. I learned a lot on the job from them and slowly began to make my own films, starting with a series of odd shorts.
Aleta in North Carolina asks: What a fascinating story. I want more. Is any of his work available in print?
Yu: There are several books about Darger out there, including Michael Bonesteel’s excellent one, published by Rizzoli. It has good reproductions of the work and some transcribed passages from the novel and Darger’s autobiography. However, Darger’s paintings are difficult to replicate in any other media, as they are so large and their textures are subtle and varied; there’s no substitute for seeing his work in the flesh, so to speak. if you have the chance to visit the American Folk Art Museum in New York they always have some of his work on display.
Ken in New York asks: How did you come to select the Tom Waits tune for the end? I thought it was perfect.
Yu: It’s uncanny how well that song fits, isn’t it? My fellow producer Susan West contacted Tom Waits and he was unbelievably gracious, essentially offering us our pick from his catalogue. When I heard that one I got chills (the good kind). We couldn’t have imagined a piece of music that would be a better end to Darger’s story.
A. Alexander in Florida asks: Have you considered the possibility that Darger was a woman in a man’s body? This could be a likely explanation to many of his peculiar behaviors and a reflection of himself in his artwork.The paintings of girls with a penis, writing as a girl, the Vivian sisters as his heroes. It also explains his lack of sexual interest/desire, his loss in the world, his seclusion and lack of social skills. What would an orphan at the beginning of the 20th century do with such a predicament? Who could he turn to with such a secret?
Yu: An interesting suggestion, although what I was struck by in reading thousands of pages from the novel and other papers was the fact that he never mentions that the girls have penises. In other words, the most remarkable part of the girls possessing male genitalia is the fact that it isn’t remarkable to him. Of course no one knows what his deepest feelings were, but from what he left behind — both in works he created and in people’s recollections — there seems to be no sense of shame or even self-conscious confusion in terms of Darger and gender. I know that may seem like a bizarre statement, given the content of many of his paintings, but I have always been struck by the innocence and lack of irony in even the most perverse examples of Darger’s imagery. He didn’t seem to know what he didn’t know.
Vicki in Oregon asks: While I always felt Darger was a figure of sympathy, there is the uglier presumption that, at least in his head, he felt a lot of violence towards little girls, and some feel, may even have hurt some. This was never touched upon in your WONDERFUL movie. What is your feeling about him in that regard?
Yu: Thanks for an excellent question. In my nearly two years of research on Darger, I never encountered any evidence that Darger did anything to hurt anyone, apart from some childhood fights he describes in his autobiography (a loner even as a child, he seems to have been ganged up on). If I had found anything that pointed in that direction I would have pursued it, but I didn’t. I know there is a lot of speculation out there, but in working on the film I purposely avoided reading anything anyone else had written on Darger. Not because I thought others got it wrong, but because I wanted to approach the material with an open mind.
The issue of violence is treated in the film, in terms of the paintings and the fiction and how violence serves to motivate Darger’s moral war. But I think your question is asking something a bit different: how much did Darger indulge in the imaginary violence he created towards little girls? While there’s no disputing the excitement with which he frequently describes such episodes, I think it’s important to point out that there is also outrage: while he is part of all his characters, my personal impression is that Darger identifies with the little girls more than he does with their tormentors. And although I wasn’t able to put this in the film, of the hundreds of paintings Darger made only a few dozen are the graphically violent ones that seem to attract the most attention in museums and galleries. It’s hard to fault someone for not giving Darger the benefit of the doubt when only seeing those indelible images out of context, but I hope that in knowing more of the bigger picture people will entertain the possibility that he was someone of spectacular and determined imagination rather than a psychopath.
Darger knew that his work was fiction. He called himself an artist. When he was overwhelmed or simply found it convenient, he would retreat into fantasy to avoid people or situations (such as when he was evidently mugged, but claimed he was “raped by a beautiful 17-year-old Italian girl”). Like the Vivian Girls, he had a talent for turning trauma into adventure. But he was also someone who would dutifully record the utterance of a single curse word in his journal, or note whether he had hotdog or a sandwich for lunch. He wrote to his priest inquiring whether or not women wearing slacks were committing a sin. He wrote and painted with his door open, as he had little ventilation in his room. He worked in isolation, not secrecy. He did not live like someone who had something to hide.
Barbara in New Jersey asks: Thank you so much for making such a great film. I wondered if you consulted with any doctors regarding a psychiatric diagnosis for Mr. Darger. I work in the mental health field and what touched me the most about this film was the fact that today’s mental health community may have “medicated” Mr. Darger right out of his book. This film challenges us to find room for everyone, even those among us who prefer to stand in a corner just looking.
Yu: Thanks for your kind words. It IS strange to think about how Darger might have been “cured” today. In making the film, I decided early on not to include any “experts,” in the film, either in art or psychiatry, because I wanted to present evidence from which one could draw one’s own conclusions, rather than third-party speculation. The problem with presenting one expert opinion is that you then have to show the other side, and before you know it your film has turned into the Battle of the Talking Heads. Concerning your question of diagnoses, though, there’s a more philosophical issue. If you start talking about what was “wrong” with Darger, his artwork starts to be seen as a symptom of some mental disorder, rather than willful creative work. To me that’s a criminally reductive way of looking at Darger’s work. And like most people Darger doesn’t neatly fit any psychiatric category in the DSM-IV… he was odd but he held a job, paid his rent, went to church, not to mention creating all that art. As Mary O’Donnell says in the film, “If you’re rich they call you eccentric, if you’re poor they call you crazy.” I should say, though, that at virtually every screening of the film I’ve been approached by someone with a surefire diagnosis for Darger. I don’t think I’ve heard the same one twice!