- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

“In the Realms of the Unreal,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, provides a rare and invaluable glimpse into a kind of teeming basement room of the imagination. It was furnished over the course of a long lifetime by a naive, self-taught illustrator-fabulist named Henry Joseph Darger (1892-1973cq sted 1972 subsistence living at a menial job, a custodian in a Catholic charity organization in his native Chicago. From the seclusion and obscurity of a small rented apartment, he produced a vast body of drawings and writings destined to remain beneath the radar of popular or learned scrutiny while he lived.

The title of Jessica Yu’s fascinating and haunting biographical-artistic documentary is drawn from Mr. Darger’s magnum opus. The 15,000-page adventure epic was typed on a used Remington typewriter over decades and decades beginning in 1909. Influenced by popular magazine fiction and such famous children’s books as the Oz series, it celebrated the heroic exploits of seven sisters, called the Vivian Girls, who outlast a rapacious horde, the Glandelinians, led by a warlord costumed as a Confederate general and ruthlessly addicted to slaughter and child slavery.

The Darger archives were discovered and then preserved for many years by Mr. Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner. Miss Yu is a 1997 Academy Award winner for a documentary short titled “Breathing Lessons.”

Her movie is the result of years of research and immersion in the sheer uniqueness of the Darger legacy, abundant in some respects and scanty in others. He left a journal, as well as the extended, lavishly illustrated chronicle of the Vivian Girls, along with countless drawings, clippings and watercolor implements. But his likeness is preserved in only three snapshots.

An orphan, Mr. Darger was also permanently separated from a sister when she was adopted. As a youthful Dickensian charity case, he was committed to an orphanage for “feeble-minded children” in rural downstate Illinois. After seven years, he ran away and found his way back to Chicago.

His close friends or neighbors could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. The survivors, notably Mrs. Lerner and a neighbor named Mark Berglund, give the movie a fondly personal and touching element.

Miss Yu has declined to consult art experts of any sort. Although portions of the Darger collection have been exhibited, typically in museums devoted to folk art and most frequently in Chicago, there is no voice of artistic authority imposed on the film.

Actor Larry Pine and actress Dakota Fanning have been engaged to simulate voices from the Darger literary output, and an animation unit tinkers with some reproductions in order to give them a semblance of movement. But by and large, one is free to be astonished, puzzled or unimpressed.

As a result, the reclusive body of work on display remains weirdly idiosyncratic and elusive. If you’re given to speculation about the vagaries of the human imagination, especially when cocooned in shyness or isolation, Miss Yu’s movie should prove exceptionally edifying and stirring.

Certain perverse facets of Mr. Darger’s work, now catnip for armchair Freudians, would have required polite concealment. Mr. Darger’s intrepid Vivians, for example, suggest little soldier girls imagined by a grown-up little boy lost. They appear naked in many illustrations, which also adorn the girls with male sex organs.

If a definitive explanation appeared in the Darger journal, Miss Yu neglects to mention it. Perhaps this oddity can be explained by the word “unreal” itself. Another school of thought favors the notion that Mr. Darger was simply a complete stranger to female anatomy.

It’s rather more alarming to confront the illustrations in which naked Vivians are being strangled, disemboweled or crucified by Glandelinian brutes. However, that appalling tendency may go with the territory as much as the artist’s sunny, idealized drawings. Plenty of visionary imaginations take forms you’d rather not dwell on.

***

TITLE: “In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mysterious Life and Art of Henry Darger”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, involving occasional elements of morbid and sexual illustration)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jessica Yu. Animation supervisor: Kara Vallow. Music by Jeff Beal.

RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes

WEB SITE: www.wellspring.com/intherealmsoftheunreal

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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