Jessica Yu reconstructs artist Henry Darger’s notoriously private life in her documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, opening at Film Forum this week. Famous for creating a 15,000-page manuscript illustrated by hundreds of epic paintings depicting an intricate, violent fantasy world of strangely sexualized children, Darger lived an obscure, reclusive existence as a Chicago janitor, never revealing his lifelong project to the few people who knew him.
1. Why did you want to make a film about Darger’s life? When I saw his works firsthand, and the room he lived in, I got a sense of how incredibly ambitious this artistic endeavor was. I wanted to show that in a film, because I think it’s too easy dismiss him as just “that old coot who stayed in his room.”
2. What do you think of the “outsider artist” label? A friend of mine said that outsider art is just anything from outside Manhattan! Darger is such a unique person that it seems funny to try to fit him in a category at all.
3. What do you think of young artists today who have been influenced by his style? The thing is they can’t truly imitate him, because they’re doing it with this kind of knowledge—they’re using irony. Something that really struck me when I saw his work for the first time was precisely a mix of perversion and innocence and lack of irony.
4. What made you think of animating Darger’s artwork in your film? There’s the sense that he was creating the elements of a film. He wrote the story, he did these big paintings, he even wrote the lyrics for songs. So it seemed natural to put these things together.
5. Here’s the question everyone really wants to know: Why do the little girls in his paintings have penises? Who the heck knows? The thing is, that the more you read his fiction and the more you know about his fantasy world, the less interesting the penises become. They’re not by any means the most interesting thing . . .