In the Realms of the Unreal

Jessica Yu’s documentary about a recluse named Henry Darger who spent his life in total obscurity could’ve been riveting stuff if only its subject was half as interesting as its approach. Darger grew up in Chicago and lived a lonely, penniless life as a custodian at a Catholic hospital and, by night, stayed cooped up in his boarding room where he pored over his–I hate to say it–vapid children’s literature. Unlike, say, Harvey Pekar (who worked througout his life at a Veterans Hospital till he retired), Darger’s art has absolutely no connection or relevance to human experience, which, to me at least, is the foundation of all art. Darger’s work –include his lifelong obsession with chronicling, in very Swiftian fashion, the adventures of a quintet of fictional girls called the Vivian Girls and their heroic involvement in some fabled Christian War–reeks of the stale, solidly Christian ethics that informed Victorian children’s literature. Darger’s artistic and intellectual outlook (such as it was) existed and thrived only within the confines of his own mind, in a vacuum without any underpinnings in the real world. His literature and paintings (a collage of watercolors and retouched images from magazines) are bereft of any social purpose (the way that, say, Dickens, Swift or even Baum’s stories were). There is little or no allegory or satire at work here. The Vivian Girls narrative is the fabulation of a child-obsessed loner with a naive, arrested perspective on God–grappling for a redemption he hardly deserves.

Jessica Yu is obviously a talented documentarian and storyteller, but here she has a stunted subject: What credibility she can confer upon her subject extends to interviews with former neighbors and landlords, etc. But where are the literary critics, the art critics? After all, in a series of end titles, it states that Darger’s work was posthumously exhibited in galleries worldwide and that his work was eventually adopted in other genres. This is scant little to go on for what the documentary sorely needed was to contextualize Darger–as a writer and an artist–in the broader traditions of art and literature. As it is, Darger is a stubbornly uninteresting, uncompelling personality, too disturbed emotionally for his work to find maturity and an appeal outside himself.

Yu does employ an undeniably unique and captivating technique: fluidly animating mock-ups of Darger’s art intercut with bits of biography and interviews with the few who actually knew him, all of it guided along by Larry Pine’s whiskey-voiced narration (told in Darger’s first-person). Straining to make her subject even halfway interesting, Yu goes so far as to interweave bits of dialogue spoken and exchanged by Darger’s own characters come to life. A good effort about a frustratingly lame subject.

Grade: C

Directed by: Jessica Yu
Written by: Jessica Yu, Henry Darger (writings)


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