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December 27, 2004

Movie Review: In the Realms of the Unreal

To witness Henry Darger's art is to get immersed in his fantastical story of the Vivian Girls, spunky pre-adolescents fundamental to a war being fought between Christian Good and the Secular Bad. I first saw Darger's work at SFMOMA about 5 or 6 years ago, and his vivid, candy-colored depiction of "The Realms of the Unreal" sticks with me.

Darger is firmly ensconced in the canon of American outsider artists. With no formal training, he devised his own approach, liberally borrowing from found sources to piece together his bizarre tale. A recluse, Darger lived alone in a small apartment in Chicago, toiled as a janitor by day, and produced his haunting narrative at night.

He also put penises on his drawings of naked little girls. No one knows why.

For me, perhaps the most resonant aspect of Darger's work is its size -- drawings could be as much as 10 feet wide, vast panoramas filled with obsessive detail.

It's this aspect of Darger's work that gets lost in the documentary film In The Realms of the Unreal. Through interviews and Darger's autobiography, filmmaker Jessica Wu pieces together Henry's lonely life, weaving it with his life's work, the fantastic story "In the Realms of the Unreal," with over 15,000 pages of textual material, and 300 large format drawings.

I can't recommend this doc to people who haven't seen Darger's art, because I don't think it does his artwork justice. It can't capture the bigness and detail of Darger's work... I was left feeling that people who'd never seen his work wouldn't have any real idea what the fuss of the film is about.

Also, Wu decided to animate Darger's art in order to aid in telling the story... A bold decision that leaves me uneasy, as it tampers with the vision that is being held in such high esteem. It also makes an imprecise introduction to Darger.

If you *are* familiar with Darger's art, then by all means, you should see the doc -- Wu's presentation of his life and work is thorough and compelling. The interviews with those who know them offer insight into the recluse, though it's clear that no one will really know what was going on with Henry.

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