The Manichean Genius of a Janitor

Before his 1973 death, Henry Darger had created the blueprint for a fantastical world

In the distant yet eerily familiar world of Abieannia, bloody war rages between barbaric, child-enslaving adult overlords and an underground resistance of angelic little girls, as comfortable nude as they are frocked, and nearly all endowed with male genitalia.

Welcome to the hallucinogenic inner life of Henry Darger, the self-taught artist who lived in near-total obscurity, but has achieved posthumous renown since his death 30 years ago. Darger’s hermetic universe explodes brilliantly onscreen in Jessica Yu’s lively, thoroughly entertaining documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal,” opening Wednesday, December 22, at the Film Forum.

Born in 1892 Victorian Chicago, Darger’s primal trauma occurred at age three, when his mother died in childbirth and his newborn sister was immediately lost to adoption. Branded by dim-witted schoolmarms as crazy, the precociously literate young Henry—already steeped in Civil War history and Dickens—was consigned to a remote juvenile asylum, where at age 13 he learned of his invalid father’s death. After escaping and making his way back to Chicago on foot, he held down menial jobs and moved into a second-floor Lincoln Park studio.

There, working in utter solitude for the next 40 years, he developed an artistic virtuosity, combining elements of watercolor painting, tracing, collage and photo-enlargement, producing a mammoth body of unprecedented American art. His pièce de résistance is the fantasy epic “In the Realms of the Unreal,” a 15,145-page saga, illustrated with some 300 paintings, of war between the uniformed battalions of adult male Glandelinians and the enslaved Christian legions of Abieannia, led by the seven Vivian Sisters, a puckish cadre of pint-sized hermaphrodite warriors.

When Yu—known to gay audiences for her queer festival favorite “Better Late” (1997)—first decided to make a documentary about Darger, she faced the practical dilemma of how to bring him alive with just a handful of living acquaintances and exactly three extant photographs of the reclusive genius. Besides vintage photos, period ephemera and newsreels, Yu depicts Darger the man and the artist by narrating the film with his own writings, and not only filming his paintings, but taking the bold liberty of animating them, using high-octane digital effects that, on the whole, maintain an impressive fidelity to Darger’s sui generis style.

Veteran A-list character actor Larry Pine (“The Door in the Floor”) voices Darger with an ingratiating burr, while 11-year-old Dakota Fanning (“Man on Fire”), in the film’s freshest conceit, performs Yu’s scripted narration in the guise of one of Darger’s nymphets. Both are excellent, yet Pine’s aw-shucks delivery paradoxically renders Darger implausibly wholesome. Indeed, a general excess of production value—sumptuous, sepia-tinted cinematography that belies Darger’s threadbare existence and a gimmicky, over-demonstrative musical score—has the effect of domesticating his irreducible oddity.

Taking the straightforward psychological approach that Darger’s work virtually demands, “Realms” shifts between a linear recounting of Darger’s doleful bio and the steady evolution of his art, convincingly demonstrating how lifelong hardships and stresses both fueled and were transmuted in his work. Yet the film sidesteps the central question of Darger’s sanity by framing it in terms of class consciousness, exemplified in a now-elderly neighbor’s remark: “I guess if you’re poor they call you crazy, if you’re rich they call you eccentric. He was poor, so we said ‘crazy.’” Mindful of public broadcasting’s propriety (the film was financed by ITVS), and perhaps anxious to dispel suggestions of pathology, Yu minimizes the sheer perversity of Darger’s phantasmagoria.

Such qualms don’t diminish the film’s greater value. Building on the Darger phenomenon that’s been gathering steam in museums and galleries for years, “Realms” not only imparts everything most viewers could wish to know about Darger and commits him to movie immortality, but may clinch his entry into the popular pantheon of American art.

But the documentary’s deepest, surprisingly timely, resonance comes from the hermit-artist’s vision of an apocalyptic war without end, waged along overtly theological lines. Yu animates several battle scenes, with musket fire and mortar rounds exploding on the soundtrack, and includes discreet glimpses of Darger’s ghastly war-carnage panels, depicting scores of his little girls garroted, dismembered and eviscerated by male soldiers. Observing “as terrible as the war becomes, the Vivian Girls embrace it all as adventure,” this insightful film could be describing one diabolically deluded commander-in-chief himself.

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