The not so subtle irony of the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal is that the film’s very existence would probably be its subject’s worst horror revealed. Director Jessica Yu focuses a magnifying lens on Henry Darger, a recluse who lived a simple life of a quiet janitor by day, but in his one room apartment in Chicago he spent the majority of his life creating a world of art and fiction. Now known as one of the most influential and prolific outsider artists, Darger spent his life in solitude in a nondescript room in a nondescript building living a nondescript life. However, in his mind was a world of fantasy, theology and justice translated into a 15,000 page novel that became his obsession.
On the street, he was the everyman. Darger was the guy who you might say thank you to if you weren’t too busy as he emptied your waste bin. He was the little old man you might see in the store buying a single can of soup or acting as an impediment for you to pass on the sidewalk as he hobbled slowly along. He was invisible and without impact or consequence. But when he finally got to his world inside his apartment, the world became made of watercolor and words. He would often have full, emphatic conversations and battle his past, and that past would be made tangible in his story and artwork. Keeping to himself and trying to eke out an existence, Henry Darger screamed out to God and all that wronged him through his typewriter and paint brush.
Taking the better part of his 80 years on earth, Darger left a shadow of his history and capacity in the form of a small apartment filled with the 15,000 page novel “In the Realms of the Unreal” illustrated by massive, detailed watercolor portraits, detailed histories of all of the characters, inventories of costs and tallies within the story, as well as his own autobiography and compulsive collections. His small apartment was filled with his expressions and angst and hopes.
The film highlights a thin line between the eccentric and the insane. Was Darger mentally ill or was he just simple and solitary? It becomes clearer that a bit of both is probably closer to the truth. Yu tells the story of Darger in parallel with the telling of the fiction that he wrote, as a mirror or examination of his life translated into art. But it is not necessarily compelling. Although interesting, I didn’t find the novel particularly well told or comprehensible. And although his watercolors are beautiful, I think were it presented out of the context of the artist and his story, they would seem simplistic and unimpressive. The documentary too seems to stop short of impressive as it relies on Dakota Fanning’s voiceover and an unnecessary animation of Darger’s work to tell the story. All told, the setting smacked me as a bit staged and melodramatic. Unfortunately, the question I had at the beginning of the film remained unanswered in the end. Why is Darger influential in the outsider art world? Was this simple man sick or was he genius? Yu leaves that to the viewer to decide, and in the end, that’s alright. In Darger’s apartment, the surreal became real, and a testament to the life’s work of a simple man.