In the Realms of the Unreal

Reviewer: Simon P. Augustine
Ratings (out of five): ****

"What can be said to characterize the Outsider is a sense of strangeness, or unreality… that can strike out of a perfectly clear sky. Good health and strong nerves can make it unlikely; but that may be only because the man in good health is thinking about other things and doesn't look in the direction where the uncertainty lies. And once a man has seen it, the world can never afterwards be quite the same straightforward place." – Colin Wilson, The Outsider 


All of us have seen, or known, or been one of those men or women who inhabit the borders of society, usually in large cities, moving about the corners of busy thoroughfares  –  outsiders or outcasts going about their business with an introversion and sense of sorrow accompanying a quiet presence. Seeing them, whom our eyes usually notice only in sideward glances, we may surmise a past likely marked by traumas or tragedies, luckily endured, and now resolved into a silent and partly regretful anonymity. Henry Darger, the subject of Jessica Yu’s wonderful and meticulous documentary, was an example of one of these people. Bearing an excruciating childhood of orphanages, mental institutions, loneliness, and petty cruelty after the death of both parents, Henry survives his early years to grow up in urban Chicago as an increasingly solitary and seemingly downtrodden figure, often mistaken for a person without a home by his neighbors and acquaintances. The people who observed Henry along the periphery of their lives, and who give interviews throughout the film, recall him as a timid man working menial jobs, an extremely pious churchgoer with a strange inward manner. They remark that he sometimes talked to himself at night.

We often at the same time suspect that the faces of these fringe-dwellers, blank or downturned, may contain and obscure some deep inner calculus of emotion. We may begin to doubt that complexity lies hidden behind the wounded and the sidelined. And then, unexpectedly, some star from the reverse-firmament shoots up out of the most mundane and broken places to remind us of the galaxies contained within the men and women we take for granted as we pass them by – not only in our own lives but on the streets.

In addition to being an outsider, Henry Darger was also such a star, and that is why the talented Yu made this affectionate, humane documentary about his life and work. It is one of the highlights of the onslaught of documentaries that has risen in the last decade and a half, ones using a variety of techniques to enhance subjectivity and objectivity, pushing the genre into the mainstream while leading luminaries like Scorsese and Herzog to increasingly join the fray of the regular docu-artists like Errol Morris and Michael Moore.

Using the word “star” is perversely ironic in Henry’s context given that he lived, at least outwardly, such an unnoticed and bare-bones existence. Yet, when he died in 1973, the couple who had been his landlords discovered one of the most surprising and overwhelming artistic treasure troves about which you will ever learn. A separate and concurrent life, like an entire planet revolving behind his social visage, was unveiled – all at once.


Sitting alone each night in a room bereft of a TV or guests or any other distraction, sleeping maybe a few hours a night, like a mouse behind a wall, Henry had been producing a work of magnificent proportions – in fact, an alternate world of dazzling complexity and dimension. Posthumously found in his solitary room were a series of ancient looking bound journals containing a 15,000 page novel (believed to be perhaps the longest novel in the English language); an array of huge murals (some over 12 feet long) intricately illustrating the story of the novel; songs to accompany characters and events; ledgers (orderly enough to make an accountant proud) recording the results of its battles and conflicts; as well as journals and other commentary – in short, perhaps one of the fullest imaginings of a fictive place to be devised in the modern era (one that would not be out of place alongside Lord of the Rings or Dune on the bookshelf).


The story, called, The Realms of the Unreal, details the epic struggle between two forces: the Angelinians, a race of innocent, androgynous (females are portrayed as having male genitalia), but ultimately fierce children who inhabit a psychedelic-garden wonderland, living in a suspended Edenic state; and the Glandelinians, a more male-dominated, bellicose people who declare war on the children and are perpetually bent on subjugating them, disturbing their peaceful existence. Led by the heroic sisters named The Vivian Girls, the Glandelinians fight back with unrelenting will, wit, and bravery in a series of bloody confrontations. The relationship between a dual species calls to mind the Eloi and Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, while the Christian-based nature of the Realm is similar to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia – yet in Darger’s story the struggle is imbued with a more explicitly multi-faceted religious imagery, expanding on Christian symbology to create with pictures and words a vivid, idiosyncratic, fascinating, sometimes disturbing, ultimately entrancing conflict between innocence and defilement that plays out like a spiritual version of the Civil War, with bloody battles given strange names and various generals clashing on immense panoramic fields.


The struggle between the uncorrupted Angelinians and oppressive Glandelinians – between untouched spiritual awe and hierarchical corruption – as envisioned in Realms is clearly indicative of the primary trauma of Darger’s own life, in which, as a sensitive and literate child, he was abandoned by the adult world (through death, bureaucracy, and mistreatment) – a cleft from which he never recovered or emerged.

After Henry is brought up by nuns in a home for orphans, and then sent by them to a mental hospital because of his eccentric behavior, the Catholic teachings and the church remain the central monument around which his life pivots. Yet he is also painfully and sardonically aware of the hypocrisies and dissatisfactions of a conventionally religious life, and desperately preoccupied and protective of children, in a manner no person in the past was for him. A terrifying local incident in Chicago in which a 5 year old girl is murdered captures Henry’s sympathy and becomes the subject of his prayer and supplication to God. The event, widely covered in the newspapers, spurs on the furious passion and detail he begins to pour into the Realms as an adult author; it helps spark the ongoing wars that is the novel’s centerpiece, and allows its fictive terrain and meanings to compete as his personal axis-mundi alongside the church.

Eventually looking to merge the worlds of external and conceptual, and perhaps undo what was done to him, Henry attempts to adopt a child, petitioning the church throughout his life, many times, to help him do so. But he is always refused. The rejection fuels his tortured relationship to Christianity, as he alternates between longing to belong, to be ushered into a safe place to experience religious reverence, and rage at the indifference and “red tape” involved with the Church – and also in the psychological dynamic of communication with God. Not having a child to raise becomes the great heartbreak of his life.


Given his lack of social skills and possible mental illness, it is not difficult to see why the Catholic authorities were reluctant to enable him to adopt; yet there is also a tremendous capacity for love and caring present in him that is left with no outlet. It must be poured into an unseen place. However, despite such subject matter being ripe for a further analysis of Henry’s psyche, magnified by the fact that Henry left journals as well as his novel behind – providing a chronological mirror between his life and art – to her great credit director Yu does not take this easier, obvious route. Instead, she chooses to celebrate the work itself – orchestrating the different aspects of Henry’s writing and art in order to convey a coherent, but rightfully odd representation of the world he alone inhabited and invented. Allowing the layers of the "Realm of the Unreal" to unfold on their own terms is at the heart of the movie’s purpose – an uncommon and courageous choice for Yu to make, considering the potentially controversial nature of Henry’s obsession with children and his unconventional vision. She herself makes no apology, and offers no justification or external explication.

The sincerity, originality, and sheer craft of the artwork would put to shame much of what filled art galleries during Darger’s time – as it would today. Henry developed a method of using photo enlargements to replicate images over and over again and distribute them through his paintings and collages – the murals are strikingly off-kilter and enchanting, a fusion of what would later be called “pop art,” anticipating the playfulness and replication of artists like Keith Haring, with a patina of antiquated imagery one might expect to find in a children’s book from a hundred and fifty years ago – rife with angelic wings, flowers and infantryman. The children take on a hypnotic, not quite human, not fully materialized look: at once static, mechanized, and organic, they impose an effect on the eye both disconcerting and unique. Yu’s focus is providing the fullest forum in which the sensibility of a once buried treasure can be resurrected: to this end we are shown how Henry built visual patterns throughout his work, creating the murals from newspaper clippings and photos and drawings. There is skillful and moving narration by a young Dakota Fanning, with a terrific Larry Pine as the voice of Henry. Yu’s greatest accomplishment, however, is the way she lovingly animates the artwork with such care and diligence, lifting it from paper to move and collide on screen. It is an aesthetic feat in itself that does justice to her subject and inspiration – and it will be the enduring legacy of this unusually creative documentary. The director thus becomes an accomplice to Henry vision in a way he never would or could have imagined. The film allows Yu to pick up where Darger left off.

In dreams and writings we try to finish what life would not allow…thus one might expect that as his life came to a close, Henry might give tenderness a triumph over brutality in the finale to his ongoing story. But in the battle between the Glandelians and Angelinians Darger did not give into that impulse wholeheartedly, despite the fact that the paucity of his outward life may have demanded it from him more than most. As the end of the movie, the surprising resolution he brings to an epic tale makes his stature as an artist all the more rich and satisfying.

Toward the end of the film, Henry’s landlord, who helped provide a small support system in his elderly years, remembers a moment discussing the mysterious Henry – at that time still alive and “undiscovered” – with her husband. The husband had said to her, “Just because there are questions, does not mean there are answers.” Following that logic, In the Realms of The Unreal leaves us with many tantalizing questions about the meaning and reasons for creating art, without needing to pose them out loud as questions – let alone answer them. Although there is a brief postscript informing the audience that Darger’s room was eventually made into a museum of sorts, and his work became posthumously famous and very influential on many subsequent artists around the world in fields as different as poetry and opera, that part of the drama does not really feel like the essential point.

The “success” of Darger’s work in finding a broad audience, in the context of the film, seems almost an afterthought. And that is a healthy approach for Yu to present. Unlike other celebrated outsider artists with similar trajectories, such as John Kennedy Toole, whose book A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously only because his mother found Toole’s manuscript after his suicide, Darger never even actively sought an audience, making his case all the more remarkable. What seems more important are lingering issues: if no one is there to see it, why do people still make art? What role does an audience play in the creation and integrity of art? What is the relationship between art and obsession, or art and emotional healing? What is the true measure of an artist in terms of private and public satisfaction? As he dies in the same poorhouse that claimed his father, Henry utters a final, enigmatic sentence from his bed that will leave you wondering: just what were the intentions of his masterpiece?

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