Truly Bad Films

Monday, February 06, 2006

Movie Review

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)

Jessica Yu directed this interesting documentary about Henry Darger, a self-taught artist who was undoubtably autistic. Darger's life was terribly hard. At the age of eight he went into an orphanage and after a few years there, he was sent to a home for "feeble-minded" children. His true condition, Asperger's Syndrome, could not be diagnosed at the time, since this form of autism was not added to the DSM until 1994.

Even though the film was made in 2004, it doesn't speak of Darger's autism. Neighbors speculate on his "differentness" but can only come to the conclusion that he wasn't "crazy" and he wasn't like any schizophrenics they knew. His autobiographical writings tell the story - but only to those familiar with high-functioning autism. As a boy, Darger writes that he could watch a snowstorm all day long and even wept when the snow stopped. He was fascinated with the weather and kept a running log of weather observations in 3-hour increments for over ten years. Neighbors attest that he avoided eye contact. His social skills were so poor he could only qualify for menial jobs and he was a terrible conversationist.

His "real life" was the life he lived in his apartment in the evenings when he obsessively collaged, painted and drew on butcher paper canvases and added to his never-ending novel about a war between rebel girl-slaves and evil slave-owning generals who Darger fancifully dressed in morterboards and Confederate uniforms. No one other than Darger knew of the massive collection of art and writing until Darger died in poverty in 1973. His 15,000 page novel and 100s of paintings came to light when his landlords began clearing his rented room. As it happened, one of his landlords was connected with the art scene in Chicago, so he began promoting and selling the work after Darger's death.

The best thing about the documentary is that it animates Darger's drawings and presents complex, contextualized visuals for the story. It is a beautiful, and sometimes disturbing, film. The worst thing about the film is that many, many times you don't know who is speaking over these evocative visuals. You can't tell, initially, when you're getting readings from Darger's diary, his novel or comments from acquaintances. It takes awhile to sort it all out. And then, in the end, we don't get any sense of what happened to Darger's body of work. Is it being split up and sold piecemeal? Is there any gallery with a substantial collection? We're not told.

I enjoyed this film but it felt incomplete. As it is, it mostly serves as an artistic look at the artist's work. It isn't primarily a biographical documentary, though it hangs on a biographical framework. It avoided answering tough questions about Darger's life and it never bothered to explore his autism. This visually gorgeous film told me a little about Henry Darger, but overall it left me feeling curious and unsatisfied.


At 9:51 AM, Anonymous moze said...

awesome and insightful review. I havent seen it yet but you got me curious. how would you feel about maybe doing a review with me. no promises but im getting itchy to use garageband 3 with ichat and have guests.


At 10:48 AM, Blogger Chai-rista said...

Sounds interesting but I know NOTHING about chat - never chatted in my life - and I'm on a Dell.


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