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Henry Darger was a janitor who
lived in Chicago. He died in 1973, and in his small apartment thousands of
pages of writing and hundreds of pictures were discovered, including the 15,000
page illustrated fantasy novel, In the Realms of the Unreal. Now some
of his pictures sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He is one of the
best known "outsider artists," whose work was created without any
tutoring from professional artists and whose work stands outside the usual
categories of the artistic cannon. Much of his work tells the story of the
Vivian girls, who are in a war for justice against the forces of evil. Jessica
Yu's 82-minute documentary, which she wrote, edited, directed and produced, is
a wonderful introduction to Darger's work.
In the half-hour interview with Yu
on the DVD, she explains how the information about Darger made a conventional
documentary difficult and inappropriate. There are only three existing
photographs of Darger, and he never talked to anyone about his art. In
conversations with others, he would generally talk about the weather, no matter
what questions he was asked. So apart from the conflicting recollections of
the people saw him everyday in church, at work, or in his apartment building,
the only source of information remaining about him is what was found in his
one-room apartment. Fortunately, he wrote an autobiography, but as with any such
account, his version of events may have been highly idiosyncratic. Yu explains
that she did not want to have an authoritative narrator, so she was thrilled to
get the 7-year-old Dakota Fanning to do the voice-over telling the viewer about
Darger's work and life. Fanning's outstanding reading helps bring the viewer
into Darger's world and adds to the eerie sense one gets on viewing his
obsessive creativity. Larry Pine and others perform many of Darger's own words
from his fiction and other writings. Yu also includes some short extracts of
interviews with people who knew Darger on a daily basis; the most extended one
is with his last landlord, Kiyoko Lerner, who with her husband Nathan came into
possession of all Darger's belongings after his death. These interviews are
fascinating, yet they tell us only about Darger's outward behavior and
virtually nothing about his inner life.
The most remarkable aspect of Yu's
documentary is its animation of Darger's paintings and use of other children's
illustrations to bring to life the events of his autobiography. Many of the
battles between good and evil and the sad events in the lives of the Vivian
girls are shown through his pictures, and the characters move. The movement is
a little awkward, but it works very well as a way to hold the viewer's
attention and to highlight how Darger's inner world was very real to him.
Yu spent five years making this
documentary, and it is beautifully done. It is especially helpful in showing
how some of the events in Darger's novel were related to his own life as an
orphan living in institutions as he grew up. Anyone interested in Darger's
work will benefit from seeing this film. Highly recommended.
© 2006 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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