Behind Closed Doors

A brilliant new documentary examines the life and work of reclusive artist Henry Darger

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Films about artists and their art are too often consumed with explaining their subjects, an approach that frequently achieves exactly the opposite of its intended effect. The catch-22 of any art worth talking about is that the harder we try to grasp the basic mystery of the thing, the muddier it often gets. And even if all that explaining actually did allow us to absorb the mystery entirely, would we be left with something more interesting or merely a desiccated, picked-over shell?

It's a slippery slope that has gotten the better of many a brave soul, making the achievement of Jessica Yu's In the Realms of the Unreal all the more remarkable. Yu's film begins by simply acknowledging the fundamental mystery being addressed - the life and work of outsider artist Henry Darger - and then steps back and luxuriates in its contradictions. The result is one of the most hypnotic and, in its way, most satisfying movies you may ever experience about that curious process by which human beings are compelled to create what we call art.

Henry Darger, the subject of Yu's film, was a nearly-invisible man who spent most of his adult life sitting alone in his tiny apartment churning out reams of astonishing words and pictures that no one even knew about until after his death. His childhood, by his own account, was not a particularly happy one. After his father died in the poorhouse - the same poorhouse where Henry would eventually spend his own final days - the young, orphaned Darger found himself shuttled between various institutions, eventually enduring seven long years at the quaintly named Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. He was a solitary child who did not make friends easily, and he became a solitary man, working menial jobs, attending mass three times a day, living the life of a recluse.

In 1909, at the age of 17, Darger began secretly and single-mindedly devoting himself to the project that would occupy him until the end of his life. With no formal training but with boundless imagination and obsessions aplenty, Henry Darger began what would in time become a massive collection of intertwined writings, paintings and drawings that he called The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

The Work, as Darger's magnum opus is referred to in Yu's film, would eventually encompass over 15,000 pages (making it the world's longest novel), as well as hundreds of elaborate paintings covering both sides of long sheets of butcher paper measuring up to 12 feet in length. The Work took up most of the space in Henry's little hole-in-the-wall apartment, where it was discovered after his death in 1973. Its discovery transformed Darger, in death, into something this private and most unworldly of individuals would almost certainly never have been able to deal with while he was alive - a famous artist.

Little is known about Henry Darger outside of these few scraps of information. In the Realms of the Unreal doesn't attempt to fill in the blanks by explaining the man or analyzing his art, but rather lets both speak for themselves. We get a handful of interviews with Henry's neighbors and his longtime landlady, but Yu's film mostly chooses to simply immerse us in Darger's world as seen through The Work - a brightly colored landscape populated by eerily perfect little girls (many of whom inexplicably sprout male genitalia), ferocious twisters with human faces, strange chimerical creatures who fly through the air or cavort in the fields, and horrifying apocalyptic battles flowing with the blood of child martyrs and the all-consuming Glory of God. It's a place both innocently beautiful and utterly terrifying, filled with ridiculous contradictions and, as the film seems to indicate, most likely a mirror reflection of Henry Darger's mind.

Accompanying the images are excerpts from Henry's autobiographical notes (read by character actor Larry Pine, with an able assistance from Dakota Fanning) that, thanks to Yu's skillful editing, more than hint at the rich connections between Darger's cloistered life and the fantastic mythology of The Work. The effect is both teasing and mesmerizing, providing a fascinating sort of connect-the-dots that allows us to essentially piece together our very own personalized portrait of this most curious of artists.

Yu takes a few liberties with Darger's art, but it's all in the service of drawing us deeper into The Work. In its effort to bring Henry's world to life, In the Realms of the Unreal is perhaps a little over-zealous about creating motion where none technically exists, panning across paintings or gliding into their surfaces in order to punch up the static imagery. Sometimes Yu even dares to unfreeze Darger's figures and move them around within their landscapes - something sure to drive art historians and purists crazy - making clever use of a primitive form of cut-out animation not too far removed from Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam or even South Park. Composer Jeff Beal's strange, sad, sometimes oddly lilting music provides an evocative counterpoint, driving home the narrative momentum that pulses through Darger's art. (Even at their most bizarre, there is nothing abstract or remotely self-conscious about Darger's images; these pictures tell a story, albeit an extremely enigmatic and unusual one.)

In the Realms of the Unreal ends pretty much as it begins, swept away in a chorus of confusion and Rashomon-like mystery. The words "I don't know" are repeated by the handful of interviewees who actually knew Darger, none of whom can seem to agree even on such basics as his height or where he sat during mass, or even on how to pronounce his name (soft "g" or hard?). In the Realms of the Unreal doesn't sweat the details. Yu's film succeeds by reveling in an enigma where, in many ways, the deeper you go, the less you know. But in In The Realms of the Unreal, less is often more, and anything is possible.

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