In the Realms of the Unreal(Wellspring, 6.21.2005)
Henry Darger spent the majority of his life alone in a one room Chicago apartment. He was a recluse and most would assume that he led a very lonely life. In fact, Darger had numerous conversations with himself every day, many of which were overheard by his neighbors. He also spent much of his idle time creating a whimsical alternate reality, which he clearly preferred to his own life. When he was eventually hospitalized in old age, his landlady made a startling discovery. She found 300 paintings -- some 10 feet long -- stories, lyrics, and a behemoth, 60 years in the making (since 1909), 15,000 page illustrated novel called The Story of the Vivian Girls, now known as The Realms of the Unreal.
Adapted from Darger's autobiography -- written shortly before his death in 1973 -- Oscar winner Jessica Yu's (Breathing Lessons) unique film is a dazzling and haunting account of the life and art one of the 20th century's most prolific, enigmatic, self-taught artists. What's most interesting about this film is the lack of concrete information surrounding Darger. He had no family or friends and very few acquaintances. Yu solves this dilemma by embracing the mystery and never implying validity to anything we hear.
There's also a welcome minimum of artistic interpretation. I've read several readings of Darger's work and it's clear that nothing is conclusive. Thankfully, Yu doesn't waste time trying to solve an unsolvable puzzle and this is a respectful, tactful approach. By only using Darger's autobiography, illustrated novel, and several neighbors' accounts, Yu gives us objective, inconclusive information that we must interpret for ourselves.
The majority of Darger's paintings have been animated for our viewing (dis)pleasure. While I don't entirely dislike this effect, it offers a compromised and incomplete perspective of the art. I would've preferred to see at least some paintings in their static entirety.
The film is presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. Luckily, this isn't the kind of film that requires a state of the art video transfer. Plus, on the whole, the video does look sharp and the paintings' attractive colors come across quite well. The DVD also contains a 5.1 mix that sounds fine. Audio is crisp and clear without any noticeable defects. The Tom Waits music sounds great and is quite appropriate.
In terms of extras, the disc's main attraction is a 30 minute interview with writer/director Yu. She discusses how she discovered Darger's work many years ago and also talks about her approach to the subject matter. She avoided reading anything on the artist and, instead, opted to go into Darger's head through his work.
Yu also discusses how she spent five grueling years making the film and even found parallels between her situation and Darger's in terms of being a social recluse and non-stop workaholic. She even makes an interesting reference to John Donne's famous "no man is an island" quote and observes that Darger truly defies this notion.
Also included are multiple storyboards for the film, a much appreciated photo gallery of Darger's work, a director's filmography, the film's theatrical trailer, a trailer gallery for 3 other Wellspring DVD releases, and an insert featuring a Q&A with the curator and director of The Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum and Yu.
Minor stylistic quibbles aside, this is an enormously rich and fascinating story with a refreshing biographical approach. In addition, the DVD supplements the film nicely. If you appreciate good art and have never heard of Henry Darger, this is an excellent starting point. -- Neil Karassik