The Imagined Universe of an Outsider Artist Par Excellence


What will it be?—” So runs the last, lonely entry in Henry Darger’s diary, penned on New Year’s Day 1972. He would die the next year at 81, a reclusive Chicago janitor with more than the usual allotment of demons. But he also created a secret alternate universe, the Realms of the Unreal, which he mapped out in an immense novel of 15,145 pages and scores of paintings populated with girl warriors, mortarboarded malefactors, assorted chimeras, and amazing storm patterns. In the subsequent decades, his private world has captured the imagination of the public. He’s the outsider artist par excellence, but to be such a creature means the outside has come inside. “What will it be?—” Darger’s terminal dash now seems fraught with drama—as if he knew, all along, that his time would come.

Jessica Yu’s elegant new doc In the Realms of the Unreal is a spry, creative response to his oceanic talent and claustrophobic life. Clocking in at under an hour and a half, the film should feel insufficient—doesn’t such a book as the Realms (to say nothing of his voluminous other writings) demand something on the order of Berlin Henrydargerplatz?—but Yu does a deft job of compression. She interleaves the miseries of his life (including but not limited to a stay at the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children) with the florid imaginings of his magnum opus. Larry Pine reads from the autobiographical texts; marquee tyke Dakota Fanning provides the overarching voice-over with a stuffed-nose intensity.

Other voices, other rooms: Some of Darger’s neighbors speak here, including an altar boy who remembers the multi-mass-attending man and a woman who lived in the same building when she was a girl. Kiyoko Lerner, widow of Darger’s landlord and posthumous artistic savior Nathan Lerner, also provides insight (and one of the film’s flashes of humor—Darger’s account of being “raped” by a gorgeous 17-year-old Italian girl). Part of Yu’s project is to reiterate Darger’s hermetic existence, and the voices of others, sometimes swirling unattributed, are deliberately arrayed to emphasize how little is known about him. There’s mild debate as to the pronunciation of his name, finally siding with the soft G. (You say Darzher, I say Dargger, let’s call the whole thing outsider art.) One churchgoer remembers Darger as always being in the front row; another says he stuck to the rear pews; a third—of course—insists he sat somewhere in the middle.

Darger’s horizontal paintings (double-sided, on butcher paper) are perfectly suited for long pans, which can seem ponderous in other docs. The decision to animate his artwork could have been disastrous, but the result is a triumph, particularly in Darger’s bread-and-butter battle scenes. Cannons recoil, shells explode in pencil-gray bursts, banners flap—all the elements generating a sense of chaotic combat. Yu also locates Darger’s aura by dwelling on the sheer stuff that he accumulated, the cracked watercolors, worn picture books, and Catholic ephemera that all contributed, in some way, to his art.

The danger here is that such a beautiful film downplays the more disturbing aspects about Darger. Though In the Realms of the Unreal isn’t completely sanitized, it does have some convenient elisions. For example, after Darger’s attempts to adopt a child were rebuffed, Fanning’s voice-over concludes, “He continued to save children through the pictures he found,” a sweet sentiment, and true to a degree, but perhaps not the only way of thinking about why someone should collect news photos of little girls, particularly those in a semi-unclad state. To divorce the towering flowers and butterfly-winged naïfs from the (literally) gut-wrenching violence is to see only part of the picture.

But it’s the strange beauty of Darger’s work that first attracts us, and it makes sense that Yu should want to emphasize this. The more Dargerites there are, the better—and the more questions we can ask ourselves, before the inevitable Hollywood biopic. Is it just me, or does that TNT movie with William H. Macy as a mute janitor hanging out with a young girl look a little like a dry run? What will it be?—