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IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL: THE MYSTERY OF HENRY DARGER (unrated) (2004)

Wellspring

Official Site

Director: Jessica Yu

Producers: Karen Carter, Susan West, Jessica Yu

Written by: Jessica Yu

Cast: Dakota Fanning

Rating:


I’ve been looking forward to Jessica Yu’s new movie, In The Realms Of The Unreal, ever since I heard about it. Yu made a fabulous short documentary several years ago—Breathing Lessons: The Life And Work Of Mark O’Brien—and got an Academy Award for it. Her Oscar-winning doc profiled poet and iron-lung patient Mark O’Brien, a truly remarkable man. I figured Yu is drawn to the stories of remarkable people (who isn’t?) and has the talent to take us into their lives. Having now seen In The Realms Of The Unreal, I conclude that it helps a whole lot if you can actually know something of the life of the subject of your film, even more if the subject is actually in your film. Unlike O’Brien, Henry Darger, the subject of In The Realms Of The Unreal, is no longer with us.

Darger’s story became known because he died. When his landlords went to clear out his apartment, they found hundreds of paintings of an ultimate battle of good and evil that was spelled out in the 15,000-page novel (The Adventures of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, or the Glandelinian War Storm, or the Glanico-AbbieAnnian Wars as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion) Darger also left behind. Darger spent his entire adult life working as a custodian and attending mass daily. His novel overflows with religious imagery. His paintings often depict angelic naked girl soldiers, all of whom have penises. Darger’s neighbors speculate that he went to his reward innocent and celibate as the day he was born.

Without the actual presence of Darger in the film (except for three oft-shown photographs), Yu falls back on her filmic instincts, some of which are spot-on and some of which fall disappointingly flat. Yu enlisted Dakota Fanning to narrate In The Realms Of The Unreal, a touch that’s just right for this tale about girl soldiers for Christ. Yu also presents the little biographical information that’s available to her, particularly focusing on Darger’s childhood—his mother’s death, his baby sister being adopted out, his institutionalization in a home for the feeble-minded. It’s no big stretch to connect a few dots between distressing events in Darger’s youth and the obsessions limned in his art and his novel, and Yu makes these connections plain. But then she goes further, putting words into Darger’s mouth (as read by an actor here) that state his thoughts about his life. Some of these utterances come from Darger’s voluminous journals, but others were scripted by Yu. Why speculate? Why interpret? Why bother?

Yu also bafflingly includes several scenes of Chicago boosterism footage, for no discernible purpose. Yes, Darger lived and died in Chicago. But what’s this Chicago stuff for? Ditto the animations of several of Darger’s paintings. To what purpose? His artwork would appear to need no embellishment. I didn’t get to view this movie at a theater, screening it instead on my TV. I’m thinking that may have considerably reduced some of the wonder of Darger’s artworks, many of which were wall-sized. No doubt In The Realms Of The Unreal is a visual treat when seen on the big screen. And while I support Yu’s decision to make the documentary something more than merely a filmed gallery exhibit, I cannot applaud her execution. In The Realms Of The Unreal is recommended, barely, for its subject matter, not for its filmmaking.

—Roxanne Bogucka

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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