'Unreal' World

Documentary sensitively captures the life and art of troubled soul Henry Darger.

Movie Reviews

February 25, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It's an amazing tale. Henry Darger's mother died when he was 4. He never laid eyes on his baby sister. His father, physically incapable of keeping up with a growing boy, placed him in a boys' home before dying himself in a Catholic poor house. When Darger fled Illinois' asylum for feeble-minded children at age 16, he settled in an area of Chicago that he wouldn't leave until he died at 81, in 1973, in the same poor house.

He toiled throughout adulthood as a hospital janitor. But alone, in his room, he secretly labored on his real life's work: a 15,000-page illustrated novel, The Realms of the Unreal. He borrowed ideas, names and images from magazines, newspapers and popular children's fiction. He traced the human forms and faces that he needed and even used photographic reproductions to make his duplications easier. He put humans together with fantastical creatures in panoramic landscapes, employing collage techniques of his own devising.

He created an epic for his eyes only: the story of a children's revolt against adult evil led by seven heroic little girls. There was nothing wholesome about it. The novel described the horrors of war on an earth where innocence was likely to be punished. The illustrations often depicted the girls undressed, sometimes with gruesome wounds, always with male genitalia. (His acquaintances suggest that he never saw a naked female and didn't understand sex.) Yet when Darger's sympathetic landlords and neighbors discovered his creations as he lay dying, they immediately remarked upon its beauty.

The triumph of Jessica Yu's documentary is that she derives something universal and moving from a catalog of this strange man's yearnings. It's a study of Outsider Art that applies to all art and maybe all honest callings. Darger put his soul into his work, including his troubled relationship with a Catholic God who never answered his prayers (his biggest wish was to adopt his own little girl), his understanding of a child's need to retaliate against injustice, his own sense of responsibility for the sinfulness of the world, and of course his creepy obsession with naked young hermaphrodites.

Because Darger's epic was a way of externalizing and wrestling with his own tormented spirit, director Yu can use its illustrations to illustrate her telling of his story. Yu relies on animation to keep the film visually alive, making the figures in Darger's landscapes move and the landscapes themselves alter or explode. The animation also provides an aesthetic distance that permits us to appreciate Darger's toughness and creativity without over-valuing his immense output or air-brushing his disturbing features.

To find a shape for a life spent in a room and a private career of enveloping bizarreness must have been daunting for the filmmaker, who spent five years on the project. But as she keeps picking up the strings of Darger's continuing preoccupations, she catches you up in a parabola - you feel like James Stewart caught in the whirling dreams of Vertigo. With the help of narration voiced by a precocious, unsettling Dakota Fanning, and by that under-used actor Larry Pine (Vanya on 42nd Street), Yu achieves a dreamlike intensity ideal for her subject.

Darger made art as if the lives of his subjects depended on it. That's how Yu has made her movie.


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