In the Realms of the Unreal

When Henry Darger died in 1973 at the age of 81, nobody, except for a few of his neighbors cared. He was an eccentric hospital janitor by day, and, as people would soon discover, an author and astonishing artist by night. His neighbors uncovered a 15,000-page novel titled The Realms of the Unreal, accompanying paintings, some of which were ten feet in length, and an autobiography. Darger's work would go onto various exhibitions, earning him posthumous fame as one of the top "outside" artists (self-taught and completely unknown) in American History. In the Realms of the Unreal is writer/director Jessica Yu's (The Living Museum, Better Late) documentary about Darger and his work. It is a fascinating look at a very strange artist, and tells his life through both his autobiography and his work.

Darger's striking artwork immediately grabs the audience. Over the years, he voraciously collected photographs and pictures. He pasted them into phonebooks, and taught himself how to draw and paint by tracing and copying the pictures. The room he lived in was compact and dingy, yet his artwork was bright and colorful, telling the story of the Vivian sisters and their battle against the forces of evil. Yu literally brought his work to life, using artists to animate Darger's illustrations, giving them movement and life. It's her way of allowing people a glimpse into Darger's mind. Darger's Vivian sisters were little pigtailed girls with curly hair and cute dresses, the epitome of innocence. The paintings and pictures mix the serene with the violent. There are many pictures of girls at play, yet others of them fighting soldiers, and of strange creatures. Along those same lines as the girls, Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire, The Cat in the Hat), who sounds like she needs a tissue, narrates.

Darger the man was much more mysterious. He worked and went to Mass, but had no friends. His neighbors cared for him, yet clearly found him 'eccentric.' He often dug through the trash to find his pictures, and did not like being around or talking to people. His social contact was so limited that the interviewees could not agree on the proper pronunciation of his last name. In his room, he spoke aloud to himself in many voices and accents, so much so that sometimes people thought he had a number of guests over. Darger's understanding of the sexes was even more limited. He often drew the Vivian sisters naked, with male appendages. This wasn't done in any sick way, it apparently was what he thought little girls were like.

Yu uses narration to intertwine the story of the Vivian girls and of Darger. She is able to reach into his autobiography and use his own words (voiced by Larry Pine, The Clearing, A Foreign Affair) to describe his life. In a sense, the story of the Vivian girls is the story of his life. Darger used many events in his life as beginning points in his novel, and he even makes appearances in the voluminous text. Even so, Darger remains a mystery. His actions labeled him as odd to those around him, while his autobiography is eloquent and gives no hint at his strange behavior. His novel and paintings point to a wonderful imagination. Yu does not attempt to give any summary of The Realms of the Unreal (the documentary does claim it may be the longest novel ever written) aside than to call out various sequences. Peering into Darger's life and his novel does provide a marginally better understanding of him, there is still so much about him that remains unexplained, and probably will forever.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 21 minutes, Not Rated but would probably be a PG, possibly a PG-13.

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