In 1973, after the death of reclusive, retired Chicago hospital janitor Henry Darger at 81, his landlord, the well-known photographer Nathan Lerner (1913-97), entered the cluttered third-floor room where Darger had lived since 1947 and made a mind-boggling discovery. The solitary lodger who resolutely kept to himself had devoted some 60 years of his life to writing a 15,145-page novel called "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion." It is a monumental saga of child innocence and martyrdom set on an imaginary planet on which the girls' fate sparks many a battle, clearly inspired by Darger's fascination with the Civil War.
What has brought Darger enduring posthumous acclaim, however, are the paintings he created to illustrate his novel, ranging from small portraits to 12-foot-long scrolls in watercolor and collage. Darger also compiled a 5,000-page, handwritten "History of My Life," kept a 10-year meteorology diary — neighbors said the only thing he would ever talk about was the weather — and held on to hundreds of empty Pepto-Bismol bottles and almost a thousand balls of string.
Filmmaker Jessica Yu, in "In the Realms of the Unreal," outlines Darger's lonely life and interviews Lerner's elegant, sympathetic widow Kiyoko and other Darger neighbors — highlighted by enchanting animation of some of Darger's exquisite scrolls. The sequences, produced by Kara Vallow, bring to life a gossamer fairy-tale world, recalling the style of Kate Greenway illustrations but drawn from ads and comic books and other scavenged images. In this realm, the seven Vivian Sisters and other little girls are eternally menaced by an array of tyrants who sometimes succeed in subjecting the children to hideous ordeals despite the protective efforts of the dragon-like Blengins. The paintings reflect Darger's horrendous childhood, his struggles with Catholicism and his sorrow over being denied the right to adopt a child himself.
The early deaths of his parents, the adoption of his sister, his miserable experiences in Catholic homes for boys, capped by an adolescence at an asylum for feeble-minded children from which he successfully escaped at 16, certainly suggest how the impoverished Darger would want to retreat into a world of his own creation. While Yu has made a sensitive and intriguing introduction to Darger and his world, she could have gone further without the film becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude of his unsettling isolation and oeuvre.
Yu deliberately restricted her interviews to those who knew Darger and eschewed art experts and psychologists. But those who knew him, even those especially sensitive to him as a remote individual, like Kiyoko Lerner, admit they didn't, and couldn't, really know him. Therefore, why not include remarks by John M. MacGregor, a psychoanalyst whose 2003 book "Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal" argues that Darger was a victim of Asperger's syndrome, a milder form of autism.
MacGregor has developed a persuasive analysis of the paintings, and surely his comments and conclusions would be at least as valuable as those by a neighbor who guesses that the reason Darger's little girls have male genitalia is because Darger didn't know anything about sex.
Yu has a perfect right to her own artistic intentions, which include a desire for her audience to do draw its own conclusions from what she has presented of Darger's work and what she has revealed (which, it could be argued, isn't really sufficient). More troubling, ultimately, in a film that continually stresses the unknowable nature of its subject, is the absence of knowable facts. Did Darger leave a will? In any event, who became his heirs? (Reportedly, Kiyoko Lerner controls his estate.) How were the Lerners able to keep Darger's room intact until 2000, and why was it dismantled then? Who profited from the sale of a 9-foot-long, double-sided drawing by Darger, valued at $50,000 to $70,000, when it came up for auction at Christie's two years ago? Who is breaking up this interconnected "Realms of the Unreal" art — and why?
If an artist and his work are worth exploring in the first place, isn't the fate of his legacy, especially one so special and so long held in secrecy, worth knowing? Yu easily persuades the viewer to care about Henry Darger and his art and to become concerned about its fate. By extending her 82-minute film to 90 minutes she could easily have answered all these questions and included some insights from MacGregor.
In this light, it is good to know that Darger did at last bring "Realms of the Unreal" to a happy conclusion and that he did resolve his struggle with his faith. And there's consolation in Kiyoko Lerner's remark that she "couldn't imagine anyone with a richer inner life."
'In the Realms of the Unreal'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Mature themes
A Wellspring release of an ITVS presentation of a Diorama Films production. Writer-director-producer Jessica Yu. Producer Susan West. Animation producer Kara Vallow. Cinematographers Tim Bieber, Russell Harper, Michael Barrow, Shana Hagan. Narrators Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. At selected theaters.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun