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3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Jessica Yu
Directed by
Jessica Yu
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2004

In the Chicago spring of 1973, Henry Darger died as he lived -- alone, impoverished, bereft of any family and known only slightly to a few neighbours in his apartment building. There, for the previous four decades, he had rented a single room.

Entering that room after Darger had left for his final and fatal stay in the hospital, his landlord found an extraordinary trove: hundreds of watercolours, painted on both sides of crude butcher paper, vast in length and vibrant in hue. Only later, of course, did the world take notice; only after he ceased to exist did Henry Darger begin to exist. In life, he and his work were invisible; in death, one became an artist and the other art.

If the storied tale of van Gogh has made all this seem pop-song trite, Jessica Yu's In the Realms of the Unreal does a good job of dusting off the cliché to rediscover its sheen of poignancy. Certainly, she's found an extreme case in Darger, so much so that her film falls squarely into a tradition that extends from Grey Gardens through Crumb to American Splendor -- the tale of the talented misfit, of the isolated individual, not rugged but merely reclusive, not outlaw but just outcast.

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Her methods are intriguing and essentially threefold. The first two are narrative devices. Eschewing pundits or art experts, she uses an on-screen chorus drawn exclusively from Darger's tiny circle of neighbours, who offer up their memories of him -- usually faint, often contradictory. The second is a pair of voice-over narrators reading from his copious journals and a gargantuan novel (15,000 typed pages) that his paintings were designed to illustrate. One narrator is a child (Dakota Fanning) the other an adult (Larry Pine), creating a stereo effect that neatly captures the tension in Darger's work between pure innocence and dark experience.

From these sources, we learn of Darger's own childhood, Dickensian in its bleakness: His mother, baby sister and father all died in short order, prompting his removal from school (he could read by the age of three) and exile to "an asylum for feeble-minded children," where the boy toiled on a state farm before running away back to Chicago and landing the lowly job that would sustain him right up until his retirement years -- a janitor at a Catholic hospital.

Soon after, while still in his teens, he would settle into his two principal residences, living entirely in that cramped apartment and in his fervent imagination. There, he spoke mainly to himself in the voices that would reappear in his sprawling novel, an outpouring of juvenilia that told and retold the story of brave warrior girls battling the forces of grown-up evil. With nothing to distract him -- no radio, no TV, no friends or relations, nothing but his menial job and his daily attendance at mass -- he wrote and painted virtually every day of his 81 years, until the opus filled his room as surely as it obsessed his mind.

Panning across that room (it was preserved until four years ago), Yu's camera occasionally lingers on a rare photograph of Darger, looking -- what else? -- grainy and nondescript. But the main visual experience is rooted in the third of Yu's cinematic techniques: A series of computer animation sequences that bring the watercolours right onto the screen. Dominated by those repeated images of the warrior girls, the paintings are rich in colour, vibrant in composition, and odd in their mixed effect -- whimsical, lovely, creepy, disturbing. When the chronicle of Darger's relentless solitude grows tired, as it sometimes does, these animation scenes live up to their name, and spark the documentary back to life. The film, like its subject, is more adroit with pictures than with words.

Except for the last words, which are heart-rending. Confined to the hospital, Darger was still alive, albeit barely, when the contents of his room were discovered by those neighbours. Astonished by what he saw, one of them paid a visit to the man's sickbed, and, through him, the world took its first notice of the artist in Henry Darger, of the creative spirit previously hidden to all but the person it consumed. Gushed the neighbour: "Your paintings are beautiful." Whispered the painter: "Too late now."

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