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Artful Darger: Jessica Yu Finds Herself 'In The Realms of the Unreal'

By Kevin Lewis

Jessica Yu (center), director of In the 'Realms of the Unreal,' with cinematographer Russ Harper (right).

Henry Darger's life was made for the movies, which is why it is important that esteemed documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu is the first to explore it in her documentary In the Realms of the Unreal (Susan West, prod.); the film is being released theatrically in December through Wellspring Media. Darger, who was considered to be a mentally ill man throughout his 80 odd years, was at once Dickensian, Zolaesque and Proustian. After his death in 1973, and his burial by the Little Sisters of the Poor in a pauper's grave, it was discovered that he had his James M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll aspects as well. Quite a lot baggage for a little janitor in Chicago.

Darger, who spent his youth in a series of Chicago-area orphanages and mental institutions before beginning his 60-year career as a janitor, spent his nights from 1909 on composing what became a 15,000 word, 12-volume epic novel called The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco Angelinnian War Storm as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. This was a secret endeavor; his neighbors recall that he was deeply religious, and that he talked to himself, rummaged through garbage and attended Mass on an obsessive level.

His book, which was discovered after his death by his landlord and landlady, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, contained hundreds of water color paintings, many traced or cut out from children's books and comic strips over the years. What Darger added, and which has disturbed critics since the book's discovery, were nude girls complete with penises. What do the penises signify? That has never been answered, but the fact that the theme of the book is the child enslavement of these girls by the lecherous Glandelinnians, and their rescue through hundreds of battles by the angelic Vivian Girls--Abeliennian princesses who evoke the Furies of Greek mythology or the Children's Crusade in the medieval era--has caused controversy. The watercolors, which sell in the $25,000 range, are officially classified as Outsider Art.

What's remarkable is that Darger was able to create his drawings on ten by four-foot scrolls in a cramped space without layout tables. It is believed that he created the art in a forward-scroll typewriting fashion, drawing one narrative detail after another, from left to right. Evoking both Medieval painting and Bayeaux tapestries, the scrolls depict dragons, battles and landscapes in elaborate and complex ways, predating by decades the artwork for the game Dungeons and Dragons. In his comic book way, Darger created a mythology that rivaled that of Ancient Greece and Arthurian legends.

Yu, an Academy Award-winner for her short documentary Breathing Lessons (1997), was inspired to make In the Realms of the Unreal after attending an exhibition of Darger's work at the Los Angeles Museum of Art in the late 1980s. His art intrigued her, perhaps because of what she admits was "the seeming perversity, but incredible innocence" of the work. She later visited his room, which was kept intact by the Lerners, and discovered enough of the answer to the contradiction in his art to make the film. "I was really struck by the sense that this was a person who really tried to test that quote by John Donne that 'No man in an island'," says Yu. "I think he really was trying to see if he could live his life with a world created out of his imagination. There is something very poignant to me in that attempt. "

Yu transcends the established parameters of documentary by animating Darger's art to expand its narrative themes--"A big liberty to take," she admits. "Rather than using it as a jumping-off point to go nuts and say whatever I wanted, I was trying to use it as a way to bring together the elements that were already there to tell the story and bring his world to life."

She also resisted the urge to psychoanalyze Darger, opting to incorporate the reflections and recollections of his neighbors, rather than the opinions of art critics and psychologists. The poetic dramatic arc is maintained by initially using only the voices of these neighbors, then introducing them later on camera as fully dramatic figures. Because the large gaps in Darger's life have never been answered, the temptation was there to speculate and re-create. Instead, Yu illuminates the naive theme of Darger, which is innocence triumphing over evil. She strove to make "the theme of the film include this idea of the unanswered question. The few people in the film who are interviewed are actually people who had encounters with Darger." Yu presents the conflicting memories of those people to show that "no one really knew this person."

The filmmaker also transcends the potentially sensational aspects of the story. Darger has been accused of being a child molester or serial killer by some unscrupulous observers because of the violence that is central to his art. Yu rejects this, not by explicit statement, but by recreating Darger's mind. His universe is akin to James M. Barrie's Never Never Land or even Lewis Carroll's Wonderland.

The shooting formats for Yu's film were "all over the map," she admits. Darger's room and some of his artwork were shot in 35mm; the animation was shot digitally and some of the transparencies were shot on BetaCam. To create the animation of Darger's sketches, the images were scanned into a computer and animated by a team of seven animators, using Adobe After Effects. The transparencies were then made from those scanned images. The interviews with Darger's neighbors were shot on DV.

"The only reason I thought I could get away with it is that these different strands are strands of parallel stories," Yu explains. "Each narrative had its own look. There wasn't a certain uniformity that blocked us in terms of doing all these things." Format decisions, such as shooting the interviews on DV, "were financially driven," she adds. For the segments shot on 35mm, she credits "amazing crew people who volunteered their time and donated stock." Shooting Darger's room in 35mm was important to her because it created a beautiful, elegiac image.

Yu speculates what Darger would have thought of her interpretation of his life. Though he preferred to keep his secret garden to himself, Yu points out that Darger, in his writings and notes "would often address this sort of 'unseen audience.' Darger used the 18th and 19th century literary convention of 'Well, dear reader, you may wonder what happened to the Vivian girls next.' So he had some awareness that this material may be read someday."

Asked whether Darger was really a narcissist, or an exhibitionist with inhibitions, Yu recalls an anecdote that did not make it into the finished film. Kiyoko Lerner told Yu that when the neighbors gave him a birthday party, replete with cake and hoopla, "He just soaked in the attention. He was singing these songs to them and was holding court, not necessarily chatting with everybody, but he really liked the idea that the day was about him."