Saturday, January 08, 2005

In the Realms of the Unreal Directed by Jessica Yu, 2004

Jessica Yu's documentary examines the life of Henry Darger - supposed mental invalid, employed janitor, and closet artist. Darger died in 1973 at the age of 81 and left behind three photos of himself, a tiny disheveled apartment, and a trove of his own drawings, paintings, and literary works. The magnum opus of the lot being a 15,000-page novel titled In the Realms of the Unreal. The novel concerns the plight of a large group of children held slave by a large group of adults, the Glandelinians. The children, led by the seven Vivian Girls, rebel against the Glandelinians, sparking an arduous, elongated war.

The beauty of the film lies in the balance employed by Yu. Equally represented are Darger the Artist and Darger the Recluse, and the line between the two is often blurred. For Darger the work was a catharsis, and even he often blurred the line between his two lives. He embedded his life, and the lives of those around him, into the narrative of the story. Names, faces, and personalities bubble up as a way for Darger to exalt friends or excoriate enemies. His childhood, a tormented, fatherless hop from orphanage to mental institution, comprises the foundation of the novel. The narrative wavers between euphoric and vitriolic - an idealized heaven and a vengeful hell. His means would have even been reprehensible if not for the fact that he never seemed interested in pursuing publication. It is made clear that Darger was not necessarily mentally insane, just misunderstood. He was lucid regarding life - he could work, pay bills, and function in the same manner as any normal human being. Surely he must have recognized that his was, at the very least, unique. In the Realms of the Unreal portrays a private life, a life not necessarily meant to be seen. At points in the film the viewer feels a sense of guilt - seeing and hearing things that Darger composed for himself and God alone. It is equal parts unnerving and compelling.

Even though the subject matter alone is worth the price of admission, and potentially overwhelming, Yu succeeds in making a quality film, not just a film about quality subject matter. The visual work done to Darger's own illustrations - care of David Wigforss - brings an animated life to his drawings, something akin to the work done by Paul Crowder on 2004's Riding Giants. Yu also refrains from passing judgment on Darger's work itself. There are no critics, pundits, or experts to deem Darger either a genius or a farce. The viewer is left to her own thoughts, but, really, those types of thoughts are irrelevant. The point is not whether Darger was brilliant or mad, but that he was a person clearly divided between public and private life. His work constitutes a complete, documented life. The private life of a private man.


Blogger Scott said...

Wow, how did I not know about this one? Can't wait to see it on DVD.

09 January, 2005 11:13  
Blogger Michael K. said...

It just came out in the theaters (like...Dec. 24 was it's VERY FIRST release), so maybe you'll even get to check it out on the big screen. Either way: a really good film. (In fact, it's intimate nature might work better on dvd..who knows?)

09 January, 2005 13:04  

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