In the Realms of the Unreal

Director: Jessica Yu

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

The documentary In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) is a biography & overview of outsider artist & reclusive writer Henry Darger, an impoverished hermit whose apartment was discovered, after his death in 1973, to be crammed with beautiful, primitive paintings & collages on long lengths of butcher paper, & an enormous manuscript that dwarfs the Lord of the Rings about the rebellion of a group of sisters struggling against the slavery of children in the Realm of the Unreal.

In the Realms of the UnrealFor the first twenty minutes or so this documentary is inescapably fascinating because the artist is so odd. Despite an innocence about his artwork, he seems most obsessive about drawing the heroism & the torture of naked little girls who have penises. His fantasy-fiction manuscript about heroic androgynous girls, & his autobiography alike, rant about children's exploitation, molestation, & general lack of safety, & he imagined himself an angelic protector of the innocent.

Yet was a protector of nothing but his own isolation. When not locked away in his room re-enacting scenes in multiple voices, he shuffled through the world an uncommunicative janitor who may have had one friend in his whole life, who he long outlived. He seems never to have helped nor hindered anyone, but lived haunted by the abuses of his own childhood.

Too soon the documentary bogs down under its attempt to disguise a lack of insight or even of plain facts about a man who lived obscurely to the end, & only by luck was salavaged as an American naive artist, rather than having the contents of his room dumpstered. To disguise the shallowness of the coverage, animators have scanned Darger's artworks to manipulate with software, & turned his artworks into computer animation.

At first this seems witty, but it is relentless, & it gets more elaborate as the film progresses. We scarsely get to see Darger's actual artwork unaltered by computer geek dickwads. Imagine a film about Dutch Masters in which no painting was shown without being computer-animated & sound effects added. The wholehearted disrespect for the subject matter seems to have grown out of the filmmaker's disbelief in the power of Darger's perverse vision, a subconscious disdain for the artwork in its own right.

The biography is also padded out with repetitious close-ups of sundry old, worn-out objects like paint tins & art supplies, old children's books, magazines, stacks of newspring. Though not explicitely promising really to be stuff Darger had personally accumulated, I presume that it wasn't merely trumped up approximation, for his room was kept intact as a veritable museum until the year 2000. Because close-ups of paint-tins weren't computer-animated they might be considered more authenticly Darger than the artworks spoilt by self-indulgent animators.

Having little real information to share about the artist, the film is further padded with interviews with people who lived in the same apartment building with him, who rarely or never talked to him, who couldn't even agree on how Darger pronounced his own name, & certainly have no insights about him. A little of this would've been appropriate. But a great wait of lame opinions of people of very little consequence is as close to substance as this poor documentary gets.

The fact that neighbors saw him coming & going & are willing to share the fact that they lived next door to someone they never realized was a lot more creative than they cared to find out during his life, well, that was worth maybe five minutes of screen time tops, to establish what cretinish boobs Darger never wanted to get to know.

Given the nature of Darger's artworks it was rather clever to have the little-girl voice of Dakota Fanning narrating part of the documentary. If only the documentarian had believed in the power of the subject & not turned it into an increasingly moronic animated cartoon, this film might really have been something. As it is, it's a slickly produced failure. It'd make a nice company advertisement for whoever designs computer animation software, but contributes far too little of value to either an understanding or a presentation of the artist or his works

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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