From 1997 Documentary Oscar® winner Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien) comes In the Realms of the Unreal, the astounding tale of Henry Darger. An orphaned recluse who lived out his life of menial labor in a one-room downtown Chicago apartment, Darger was a social non-entity. So little remarked was he in life that only three photographs of him are known to exist. The amazing secret at the center of Darger’s existence only emerged when ill health forced him to abandon his one-room apartment of 40 years a few months before his death in 1973. What the landlord found launched an “outsider art” sensation that has fascinated and inspired millions.
Henry Darger’s one-room Chicago apartment
In the Realms of the Unreal is Yu’s inventive and loving rendition of Darger’s grim life and wildly creative work. It contains, among other marvels, the seven angelic Vivian Girls, who lead a rebellion against godless, child-enslaving men, and Darger’s own alter ego, General Darger, who aids the girls in their bloody battles against the evil Glandelinian army. Yu employs dreamlike animation of Darger’s art, a haunting musical score by Jeff Beal, and narration taken from Darger’s 15,000-page opus, In the Realms of the Unreal, read by actors Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine, to immerse the audience in Darger’s tempestuous alternate universe of innocence in epic struggle with wickedness. Out of the bleakest of existences, Darger obsessively fashioned a fantastic world where goodness and courage hold out — if just barely — over the treachery that lurks in men’s hearts. Darger held several jobs in his life. He’d been a farm laborer, soldier, janitor, dishwasher, and roller of gauze bandages. But no one would have thought of him as an artist, or anything other than what he seemed: a poor, unkempt, ill-educated, half-mad man lost in the fog of his own loneliness. If those around him failed to guess Darger’s secret life, they can hardly be blamed. Darger himself, in the massive unfinished autobiography he left behind, along with the single-spaced 15,000-page “novel” (and 8,000-page unfinished sequel), mentions his creative efforts only once in passing, even though those efforts must have absorbed his every free moment. Darger’s relationship to his own work — why he began it, what he expected from it — remains one of the great mysteries raised by his life story.
In the Realms of the Unreal explores these and other questions by telling what is known of Darger’s life while unfolding a dramatized narrative of the Vivian Girls’ exceptionally bloody wars with the evil Glandelinians. In the spirit of Darger’s own free-wheeling creativity, director Yu has chosen to relate the Vivian Girls’ complex story by animating Darger’s drawings. Kara Vallow and a team of animators used only elements found in Darger’s paintings, accompanied by narration taken from Darger’s writings, to give cinematic life to his strange and epic imaginings.
The stranger story, however, may be Darger’s own. “Orphaned” at eight when his father was sent sick and dying to the poor house, Darger wound up in an asylum for “feeble-minded children” in Lincoln, Illinois. The asylum’s regimen included hard labor on a state farm. When he was 17, Darger succeeded in running away, making his way to Chicago where he got work as a janitor. It must have been about the same time — 1909 — that he began the other work that would secretly consume him over the next 64 years.
Darger’s existence grew more constricted even as the narrative of the Vivian Girls grew to include larger realms and more numerous characters. He lived almost all his adult life in a small slice of downtown Chicago, where he was known by sight and found the menial work that sustained him. Darger muttered to himself, but hardly ever spoke to others. Certainly, no one remembers him showing the least concern for children. He went to church every day and took communion, but never had contact with the priest or other parishioners. His landlord, Nathan Lerner, tolerated Darger’s odd behavior, his lapses in rent, and the strange noises at night.
Darger evidently returned from long job shifts to work into the night writing and illustrating the unfolding struggle between the child-slaving empire and the Vivian Girls’ Catholic and beneficent land of Angelina. Darger combined cutouts from scrap images he collected — especially of young girls — with his own tracings, copies, and paintings in layered and collaged compositions that grew into 12-foot canvases that illustrated the equally layered and extravagant text. Entirely self-taught in true “outsider” fashion, Darger developed his own methods and techniques according to his need to tell his story in ever larger and more detailed scenarios. As early as the 1940s, he began using photocopies as a tool — a tremendous expense for someone of such meager means.
When ill health finally forced Darger from his apartment in late 1972 (he died in early 1973 at age 81), landlord Lerner found narrow footpaths leading from door to bed to bathroom through ceiling-high mounds of paintings and typed texts and scrap images. In one of art history’s lucky twists, Lerner was not only a man of lenient bohemian outlook, but an artist in his own right, and he immediately recognized something extraordinary in Darger’s piles. When he saw Darger in the charity ward shortly before he died, he told him so. Darger could only mouth the words, “too late.” Jessica Yu was fortunate enough to be able to film in Darger’s room, which had been preserved since his death, twice before it was permanently dismantled in 2000.
Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal dives into the many provocative “problems” presented by Darger’s monumental work of art. The Vivian Girls may be radiant icons of all that is good and innocent, but their struggle is sometimes presented with a ferocious bloodiness that has millions of little girls being graphically tortured and killed, while fires, floods, tornadoes and eruptions as well as warfare dispatch in merciless agonies millions of other people, thousands of them named characters. The Vivian Girls also — like all the children in Darger’s pictures — are depicted completely if chastely in the nude. They are often shown with male organs, an oddity that does not make them any more sexual. In fact, those who knew him at all — his neighbors and Lerner — discount conscious prurience, and believe the appendages actually reflect Darger’s naïve confusion regarding female anatomy.
Darger himself appears in text and picture in more than one guise, most often as the noble general “protector of children” but also as a Glandelinian killer. And Darger’s narrative was left with two endings, one in which the Angelinnians win and one where the Glandelinians do — an indecision reflected in the unfinished sequel that Darger took up after quitting his artistic labors for a while, and which illness and death interrupted.
For all the visual and moral puzzles raised by Darger’s work, Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal never loses sight of the most provocative problem of all — the psychological nature of Darger’s singular, doomed, perhaps heroic act.
“When I was first introduced to Henry Darger’s work there was something about the combination of strange subject matter and innocent presentation, the total lack of irony in his bizarre imagery, that stuck with me,” says director, writer and co-producer Yu, who took five years to make the film, devoting the last two years to editing and animation. “Early on, I kept thinking of the John Donne quote, ‘No man is an island.’ It seemed that Darger was testing this idea.
“But I was drawn to tell his story finally because he created this world of images only for himself. I kept asking myself, ‘Can imagination be enough?’ Can one replace real human relationships and community with those invented in one’s mind?’ And that’s the question this film asks.”