Realms of the Unreal (***1/2)
review by Jon
When Henry Darger died, he didn’t just leave this world;
he left his own as well. Darger grew up shy and reclusive,
which got him sent away to a special home. Upon his return
he obtained a job as a janitor. He would leave his room only
to go to work and to attend church daily. On his off time,
he constructed a vast epic novel of 15,000 pages. To accompany
this story of a children-led rebellion, were countless illustrations,
some ten feet wide on canvases he created himself. Oh, and
by the way, he taught himself how to draw. The world he created
only surfaced after he was unable to live unassisted. He has
since become known as one of the greatest outsider artists
of all time.
So, now that you pretty much know about the guy’s life,
why should you go see this documentary? There are a few reasons,
actually. The most important one is so you can even slightly
begin to grasp what kind of brain thought this up. Not a whole
lot is told to us about Darger (besides what he writes himself
in his diligently kept journal). His former neighbors can’t
even agree on how to pronounce his last name (consensus is
a hard G sound). That’s how withdrawn he was.
Director Jessica Yu does a good job of showing that mystique
as well as the isolation (with nearly claustrophobic cinematography).
Close-ups of his living space (which was preserved by his landlord
until 2000) abound. Hardly anything is mentioned without the
accompanying visual. Part of that is to support the narration
and part of that is because Darger created so much that could
be and was meant to be used to supplement the text. Yu goes
the extra mile and with David Wigforss animates some of Henry’s
drawings in an appropriate and eye-catching way.
The narrators help drive the chronological narrative along.
Yu wisely chose a young girl to act as the main narrator. Even
wiser, she chose wunderkind actress Dakota Fanning. Fanning
truly understands what the project is all about and she proves
that not only can she act, but she can also read some mean
copy. I’ve heard many lifeless, monotone narrators in
my day and this isn’t one of them. Equal praise belongs
to Larry Pine who brilliantly voices Darger in his journal
and his novel.
Darger’s artistic style is an interesting one. I don’t
pretend to be a critic of paintings, so I won’t get into
mechanics and technique for something I don’t know about
it. But I can tell you that I found it appealing and slightly
repulsive at the same time. Some of the work was quite unsophisticated
and in normal circumstances would be considered overload. Here,
those qualities draw you closer to investigate the works and
to understand the motivations behind them. Jessica Yu’s
film accomplishes the same goal of wanting to delve deeper
into the mind, but without the crude technique. The problems
I have with it coming out of the theater is that the film seems
to drag at a surprisingly long 81 minutes. Also, I didn’t
feel I understood the artist any better than when I went in.
Even if that was the point, a little help would have been better.
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