FEATURING: Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine

PLOT: Documentary on Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago janitor who secretly wrote a slightly insane, 19,000 page fantasy novel about a child slave rebellion, illustrated by hundreds of incredibly detailed full size paintings.

Still from In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Outsider artist supreme, a devout Catholic with an innocently fetishistic obsession for little girls, Henry Darger is a persona every weirdophile should be acquainted with. The method behind this solid and respectful documentary isn’t itself weird enough to make this a candidate for the List, but if anyone ever attempts a literal adaptation of Darger’s opus 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, I suspect it will be a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: With one exception addressed below, In the Realms of the Unreal  uses only standard documentary tools to tell the tale of Henry Darger: interviews with people who knew him, readings from primary sources (his autobiography and his 15,000 page novel), still photographs of the places and people the poor janitor knew, and most significantly the man’s own paintings. The world Darger invented inside his head, a mixture of the Bible, the American Civil War, and children’s storybooks, populated by saintly little girl warriors in pigtails and frilly dresses bearing bayonets, is so inherently fascinating that the documentarian does best to get out of its way and let it speak for itself. The few facts that are known about the recluse’s life are given to us chronologically, followed by glimpses of events in the Realms that may have been inspired by his life experiences. Darger was orphaned at a young age. The bookish boy had trouble fitting in with his peers at the orphanage, and was sent to live at a “home for feeble-minded children,” where he was forced to labor on a work farm. After several failed escape attempts he was finally successful at fleeing the farm and made his way to Chicago where, after a short Stateside stint in the army in World War I, he settled into a lifelong routine of cleaning the floors at a Catholic hospital, attending Mass three times a day, and spending his evenings in his lonely room constructing the Realms of the Unreal. In this world, the evil Glandelinians (whose soldiers dress like Confederates wearing graduation caps) fight mighty battles against the Christian armies of Abbieannia. The conflict is sparked by a slave rebellion led by the seven Vivian girls, saintly children who occasionally exhibit magical powers throughout the epic war. The children are sometimes aided by winged Blengins, mythical creatures who can appear as dragons or butterflies with the face of children, or as children with rams’ horns. Darger himself appears in the story, summoned to help the Abbieannians due to his cosmic reputation as an enemy of all who hate and oppress children. Even more fascinating than the 15,000 page narrative supplemented by detailed lists of battle casualties, generals, and lyrics to the various military anthems were the hundreds of paintings Darger used to illustrate the Realms. Incredibly detailed landscapes full of odd folk beauty were  populated by angelic little girls whose faces had been traced or copied from newspaper advertisements. Disturbingly, the children are often naked, sometimes bound, and occasionally depicted as eviscerated or choked. Even more disturbing, and the weirdest aspect of Darger’s very weird opus, is the fact that he invariably drew his naked little girls with tiny penises. Theories for this odd conception of the female body range from the symbolic to the psychosexual to the commonly held notion that Darger was simply so sexually naïve that he had no knowledge of the anatomical differences between males and females. The apparently innocent, ambiguously erotic nature of these nude tableaux endow Darger’s work with a mysterious and intriguing artistic friction. When not working on his novel or paintings, Darger obsessed about the weather, carried on conversations with himself while speaking in different voices, tried to adopt a child, and wrote angry prose railing at God when the Church turned down his adoption petition. Henry Darger, the janitor from Chicago, was a very strange and sad man whose self-imposed loneliness, religious torment, and utopian longings found a secret outlet in art. Unspoiled by formal art training or by any sense of social shame, Darger created a hermetically sealed alternate universe, a world weird in the purest and noblest sense.

Although it is a conventional treatment overall, two criticisms have been levied against Jessica Yu’s documentary. One, often raised by film critics, is that the film fails to seek out experts in psychology and art history to help give us a deeper perspective on Darger. Of course,  only a critic would complain that a movie didn’t feature enough input from critics. The other, somewhat more serious objection, offered by Darger fans, is with Yu’s decision to crudely animate certain scenes from Darger’s action-oriented war paintings. In my view, the addition of occasional movement in the battle scenes (there’s probably only a minute or two of actual animation) does no real damage to the images, but nor does it add anything. One offended fan angrily asks whether we’d accept a documentary on Picasso or Gauguin that set their masterpieces in motion. Since that idea doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I may be the wrong person to ask.


“Was this simple man sick or was he genius? Yu leaves that to the viewer to decide, and in the end, that’s alright. In Darger’s apartment, the surreal became real, and a testament to the life’s work of a simple man.”–Greg Wilson, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

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