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Tuesday, February 19

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In the Realms of the Unreal
3 of 5 stars
Directed by Jessica Yu.

In the Realms of the Unreal, a new documentary from Jessica Yu, centers on "Outsider" artist Henry Darger, an enigmatic figure who escaped from a psychiatric ward as a teenager in the early 20th century, moved to Chicago to work as a janitor, and largely kept to himself for the remainder of his life. When he died in 1973, he left behind stacks and stacks of clippings, writings and drawings, most notably The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a children's story of sorts in twelve volumes, of more than 15,000 pages in length overall. This manuscript was accompanied by roughly 300 boldly colored watercolor illustrations of various sizes and crafted using a peculiar blend of collage, tracing, and somewhat crude pencil drawings. Some of these drawings were as large as 2 feet tall by 10 feet wide, such that Darger could barely have viewed the entire piece in his tiny Chicago apartment.

Begun in 1910, the story of the Vivian Girls, which may or may not have been completed, depending on the interpretation of the last chapters, concerns a war between the evil Glandelinians, led by a General John Manley (named after a figure from Darger's childhood), and the Christian forces of Angelinia, particularly the escaped slaves, the seven (or eight) Vivian sisters, who are often aided by giant 45,000-foot-long dragons called Blengiglomeneans (or Blengins) and, of course, one Captain Henry Darger. Like the artwork, the story is lifted from a wide range of sources, but the changes, inventions, and the enormous context surrounding the material he has "borrowed" creates something altogether new. The result, in both the illustrations and the written work, is both captivating and perplexing at the same time.

In telling the story of Darger's life and work, In the Realms succeeds most in depicting the often confusing overlap of fact and fiction, and in uniting the words and pictures of the Vivian Girls into a decipherable narrative. As an introduction to the artist's life and work, the film makes for a terrific starting point, but In the Realms of the Unreal is woefully -- if understandably -- short on depth. But as a documentary about the life of Henry Darger the film fails to satisfy, in part because it is frustratingly short on facts. Perhaps this isn't a fair point to fault Yu over; the verifiable facts of Darger's are few, as she makes abundantly clear in, for one example, contradictory statements about as trivial a point as the pronunciation of his name (the film itself chooses a hard "g" sound, as opposted to the "j" sound used by one or two people in the film).

We know that Henry Darger was born in 1892, most likely in Chicago, despite a claim by Darger that he was born in Brazil (and with the surname "Dargarius," no less). We are reasonably sure that his mother died during the birth of his sister when Henry Darger was four and that this sister, whom he never met, was subsequently given up for adoption. We know that he attended mass almost daily for decades, except during a some periods where he was questioning various facets of Roman Catholicism or the idea of God itself. But much of what we think we know about Darger comes from his 10,000-page autobiography, written in the last 10 years of his life and found with the Vivian Girls manuscript after his death. Yet even this "autobiography," is largely concerned with describing a wholly fictional tornado he calls "Sweetie Pie." Suffice it to say, Darger is a mystery. But therein lies the problem with the documentary: In the Realms of the Unreal can be little more than a mystery as well. It is, like Darger's work, often very beautiful, but it is also impossible to grasp. And whereas the allure of a macabre children's epic and its whimsical, grotesque illustrations may lie in that mystery, as a documentary, it is mostly just frustrating.

The digital animation Yu uses in footage of Darger's drawings has been both praised and criticized by reviewers. The film's detractors generally feel that it is bastardizing his art, whereas the film's admirers feel that it brings a life to the art we are shown, helping to convey the story. They are both right. Like some other reviewers, I found the animation actually rather charming at first, but as the film wore on, its overuse started to get a little bit... well, as the Reader's J. R. Jones put it, "annoying." The animation seems to be used mainly to stretch out the few pieces that Yu was able to film, saving the film from simply showing and re-showing details from the same handful of pieces over and over. There simply wasn't enough imagery to adequately fill out the documentary's 82 minutes.

Again, this is a questionable point to criticize Yu on, considering that the Lerners (Darger's former landlords, who became caretakers of his work) and, presumably, subsequent sales have scattered the 300-odd drawings illuminating the Vivian Girls manuscript to so many disparate places, but my overall impression is that In the Realms of the Unreal works best when viewed as a rather cursory, superficial introduction to an fascinating figure's life and equally, if not more, entrancing creative work. But it's hard to consider that as much of a compliment.

In the Realms of the Unreal is playing at the Music Box Theatre.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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