In the Realms of the Unreal (USA; 81 min.)

directed by: Jessica Yu
In the Realms of the Unreal
Bruce says: "Henry Darger (1892-1973, pronounced Darjur) became the darling of the outsider art world about a decade or so ago. The film begins with a query, 'Am I a real enemy of the cross or a sorry Saint?' This is not the type of question an average man would ask but there was nothing average about Darger. At the age of four his mother died in childbirth and his sister was given up for adoption. His father was crippled and when Henry was eight his father entered the Mission of Our Ladies Home. Henry was sent off to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois 185 miles from Chicago. Since Henry skipped two grades because of his advanced reading abilities, it is inconceivable that he was sent off for no reason other than no one knew what to do with him. He was difficult to control.

"At the age of 16, he escaped from the Asylum and ran back to Chicago getting a job as janitor for a Catholic hospital and he remained in custodial positions for the rest of his life, constantly working and living with in a circumference of a few blocks in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. He had only one friend and to no one’s knowledge ever had a date.

"What was Henry doing all those years? Writing and painting. When Darger died his landlords at 851 Webster, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, found a 15,000 page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion plus 300 paintings, many of them double-sided, which served as illustrations for the novel. It is the paintings of the Vivian girls, seven sisters and their Christian army of little girls, which have made Darger world famous. Some of them are ten feet wide and all feature vivid pastel colors. Darger’s subject matter, style and palette are instantly recognizable and all are unique.

"The film intersperses clips from what appears to be promotional films from the Chicago Chamber of Commerce. They have nothing to do with Darger aside from his living there. Boring talking heads consist of other tenants in his rooming house, who indicate he attended mass at least once every day; he could not relate to anyone; he paid no attention to other people; and he continually talked to himself in many different voices within the confines of his single room. The bright star of the film is Kiyoko Lerner who is both articulate and wise.

"What the film does best is give us clues about how Darger worked, where he got his source material, how he used photographic techniques to achieve consistency. He used overlays and collage; he copied and traced from magazine and illustrations from children’s books. He even used the little Coppertone girl with her bare bottom as a model. All the little girls have primitive little penises which may mean that Darger was aiming for androgyny or that he knew little about female anatomy. His inspiration for his writing came from literature - the Oz books, Dickens, and Penrod – and from his experience as an orphan, a runaway, and child laborer. Catholicism was infused in his veins and greatly influenced his work.

"Jessica Yu, for whatever reason and my suspicion is that the film would be too dull otherwise, decided to animate Darger’s paintings with voiceovers by Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine describing the action. For me that is an unforgivable sin. Darger’s paintings have a inimitable place in art history and they do not deserve or require animation to make them more interesting. I’ve seen exhibits of his work at the Folk Art Museum, several alternative or outsider galleries and at the Collection de L'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. They are awe inspiring. Unfortunately, Yu’s camera never let’s us see an entire painting.

"One wonders at the fact that no one ever saw Darger’s work until he was placed in a Home for the Poor as his health failed late in life. I’m thrilled that more people will be exposed to Darger’s work with IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL. I’m saddened that many people who see the film will never understand how alive and singular his paintings really are. If I ever see anime and Darger in the same sentence I will be angry. 1.5 cats

Michael says: "Director Jessica Yu has made a name for herself with several documentaries and some television work (episodes or ‘E.R.’ and ‘The West Wing’) but she really shows her talent with IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, a documentary about Harvey Darger, an outsider cult artist who died in the early 1970’s. Darger was a troubled man who lived a solitary life with no family or friends to speak of. He spoke mainly to himself, endured cruel hardships in his childhood, and harbored a secret imaginary life that was made evident upon the discovery of his lavishly illustrated 15,000 page novel that was discovered after his death.

"Yu mixes several documentary conventions effectively, talking head interviews, an actor reading from Darger’s memoir (also discovered after his death), young it-child Dakota Fanning reading passages from Darger’s novel, lots of Darger’s artwork, and stock footage to give a sense of time and place. Yu also animates some of Darger’s artwork to mixed effect. At times it’s fairly distracting, while it also effectively showed the way his work effectively became his entire world. Darger’s artwork and incredibly involved story is thoroughly engrossing. The work involved reading that massive tome to find appropriate passages for the film is almost incomprehensible. I was brought back to THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, which I really didn’t like, as a comparison film. But where KID was just filmmaker Robert Evans reading from his autobiography to images from his life, REALMS adds the all-important other point-of-view from the people who know Darger, giving his story context and mystery. It also reminded me quite a bit of HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY, last year’s documentary about another cult artist, Ray Johnson, but also more successfully. Not only was Darger more fascinating and more of a mystery than Johnson, the people interviewed for the film were normal people thereby providing better balance than the sometimes equally strange artists and gallery owners interviewed in BUNNY.

"Most importantly, REALMS does what any good documentary should do: it made me want to know more about Darger and his work, about the mysterious, saintly Vivian Sisters, the seven young heroines of his novel, and about the question of whether you can live a fulfilling life entirely in your imagination. 4 cats"

Scot says: "I loved this film. I am fascinated with the idea of this grown-up man playing out make-believe stories in his head. And if I thought I could read a 15,000 page novel, I’d read his, as whacked out as it seems.

"I now have the Vivian sisters on my computer desktop. 4.5 cats"

Hilary says: "I really enjoyed this film even though it made me profoundly sad, which I suppose is a great tribute to the filmmaker, Jessica Yu.

"Stylistically I loved the way Darger's drawings, found media, and other items were animated and integrated into the narrative. To my mind it reinforces the connection to the written word and the artwork, but I know some people fid this technique distracting and/or ineffective.

"I couldn't see it again without bawling my eyes out, but recommend it; 4 1/2 cats."