Henry Darger was a sorry saint who fought most of his life trying to protect children. It was not an easy task, because the evil John Manley and his child-enslaving Glandelinian army were always on the hunt for the seven angelic Vivian sisters. Darger himself always seemed just one step behind; never sure whether he was pure of heart enough to meet face-to-face with the young and courageous leaders of the child slave rebellion. After scrubbing the floors and taking out the trash one night in a Chicago Catholic center, Darger came home to his little apartment and finally met the Vivian girls.
He drew them carefully like all his other artwork, from tracings and cutouts of newspapers, magazines, and phone books. Since he regularly attended mass two to three times a day and took communion every time, Darger knew he was an obedient, faithful soul and felt confident that now was the time to draw himself and the sisters in the same picture. After all, he’d wanted to adopt a child. Since he never seemed to shake his own childhood, protecting children was all he really wanted to do. This particular opportunity, however, had been refused him by the state. So writing a 15,000-page illustrated novel featuring an army of evil child-killers who battle an army of innocents and a heroic protagonist named after himself, was the next best thing.
So goes the life of Henry Darger, who died quietly at 81 years of age. Director Jessica Yu has brought together Darger’s mythical fantasy life (which he transformed into a life’s work) and his obscure real life (which was marred by confinement, poverty, and devastating loss) into a quasi-documentary that brings this mysterious figure into a brighter light. It is no coincidence that most of what we learn about the artist/janitor comes from his own paintings and his massive story. “In the Realms of the Unreal” uses the film-specific medium of animation, sound effects, music, and character narration to draw parallels in Darger’s real life and his bizarre, yet simple-minded and exhaustive fiction.
Ultimately, the film’s power lies in Yu’s ability to capture the spirit of a child-like loner who spent most of his life unknown to those around him. Since there are virtually no biographical facts available, and only three photographs of him are known to exist, Yu goes straight to the man’s art to reveal his true character.
Darger’s 15,000 pages were not made up of different stories. This was one crude, individualistic, self-defining, all-consuming life’s passion. A standard criterion of quality cannot be applied to one’s life project, especially a work created by, and solely for an audience of one. Darger never showed any of his art to anyone, and it was only discovered when the landlords went into his apartments weeks before he died. By bringing Darger’s paintings to life with movement, voices, and sound effects, the audience is allowed to step into “The Realms of the Unreal.” Through that passage, we are allowed access to not only the artist’s own pain and true innocence, but to our own as well.
How can you not have the utmost respect for a man who created unfiltered art, all set in a self-created land, for almost sixty years in the privacy of his own apartment? We now know what the creative mind can do if it is free of all social convention. In Yu’s remarkably unconstricted documentary, the unconscious mind of Henry Darger becomes the moving, talking fantasy world that it was to Darger himself. The landlords tell of hearing voices behind closed doors, and in the movie through narration, we hear the voices of the book’s characters. These voices speak louder than any of the people interviewed, giving us a window into the soul of a man who went so unnoticed while he was alive that his neighbors cannot even agree on how to pronounce his last name.