Capturing an Artist’s Aura


Jessica Yu’s elegant doc is a spry, creative response to Henry Darger’s oceanic talent and claustrophobic life. Clocking in at 82 minutes, the film should feel insufficient, but Yu deftly compresses, interleaving the miseries of the legendary Chicago outsider artist’s life (such as a stay at the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children) with the florid imaginings of his magnum opus, the 15,000-plus-page novel that consumed him and that inspired his brilliant, sometimes gruesome painting-collages. These horizontal compositions (double-sided, on butcher paper) are well suited to slow pans, which can seem ponderous in other docs. Animating his artwork could have been disastrous, but the result is a triumph, particularly in Darger’s bread-and-butter battle scenes. Yu also locates Darger’s aura by dwelling on the sheer stuff that he accumulated, the watercolor sets, 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 Realms isn’t completely sanitized, it does have some convenient elisions. For example, after Darger’s attempts to adopt a child were rebuffed, Dakota Fanning’s voice-over concludes, “He continued to save children through the pictures he found”—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 na 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 emphasize this. The more Dargerites there are, the more questions we can ask ourselves, before the inevitable Hollywood biopic.

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