Henry Darger was a reclusive Chicago janitor who secretly filled his small, lonely boarding-house room with In the Realms of the Unreal, an epic consisting of both a 15,000-page novel and a series of Darger's own enormous, crudely beautiful illustrations. The story chronicles the adventures of the Vivian Girls, hermaphroditic children who wage perpetual war against a race of malevolent men in mortarboard hats. Jessica Yu's new documentary, also entitled In the Realms of the Unreal, brings us into the lonesome, grungy world of Darger's daily existence and the crowded, endlessly wondrous world of his imagination. (I reviewed—and recommended—the doc before it played at last year's Newport Beach Film Festival ["Eight Must-Sees," April 16, 2004].)
Yu spoke with the Weekly more recently from her home in Los Angeles.
OC Weekly: How did you first discover Darger?
Jessica Yu: I stumbled across his work at an exhibit of outsider artists at the LA County Museum of Art in 1992. There were a lot of interesting artists there, but Darger was the one whose work really stuck with me. There was something so striking about the contrast between the surface of his work—which is so perverse, with the naked little girls fighting battles with rifles—and the underlying innocence of it all, the beauty of its presentation.
Darger's a potentially controversial subject, and you certainly tell his story in an unusual way. Was this a hard film to get funded?
It was very challenging. Most documentaries are more about social issues, which I completely understand, and we were trying to get funding after 9/11, when people were looking for projects that were more political. There was a lot of interest, but also a lot of hesitation. A lot of people balked when they found out about the more shocking aspects, the little girls with penises and all of that. There was some concern over how we'd get the film distributed.
Have you encountered similar problems with distribution? America's in the middle of this crazy, conservative backlash.
I think we would have had problems if we'd focused solely on the shocking aspects, but we didn't make that the central thing. And we were fortunate to get such a classy distributor; they haven't tried to sensationalize this story at all.
Yu: "It's hilarious, Darger's
really hot right now!"
There are those who say that since Darger kept his work secret while he was alive, it's wrong to make it public now that he's dead. What do you say to that?
Well, I had plenty of discussions with myself over that, and what I finally decided—and I don't think this is just a rationalization—was that Darger was working in isolation, but he wasn't ashamed. There's a difference there. In the film we talk to a woman who knew Darger in the '50s, and she says that he would work with his door open. You could say that Darger and the rest of the world regarded each other with mutual indifference. He didn't want people to come in and mess with his stuff, but he wasn't ashamed of what he was doing. In Darger's writing, there are certainly times when it's clear he was thinking of possible readers in the abstract, at least [when] he'll say, "Dear reader . . ." And, of course, there's that tantalizing comment he made shortly before he died, when his work was discovered. He said it was "too late." That suggests he had some purpose in mind for the work.
There was some controversy a while back when a writer named John MacGregor suggested that Darger could have actually been a child killer. What did you make of all that?
Well, when I took on this project, I put on blinders and deliberately didn't read what other people had written about Darger. I wanted to discover it all for myself, and I enjoyed that process. I have been asked why I didn't include that sort of speculation in the film, and it's because as far as I could tell, speculation is all it was. I didn't find any evidence to support that idea. We're talking about a man who sometimes went to mass five times a day and who kept journals so complete that he would note whether he'd had a sandwich or a hot dog for lunch. If he'd ever killed anybody, I'm sure we'd know.
Sometimes when I describe Darger's work to people, they're completely horrified. They hear about his paintings of children being tortured, and they think he must have been a monster . . .
Well, you can't take his work out of context. Actually, those really dark paintings are just a tiny fraction of his work. His stories were about a battle between good and evil, and I think he needed to depict those scenes so it would be clear what the girls were fighting against. This world he created was sort of his substitute for the real world, and mostly he painted idyllic scenes of the girls frolicking in these fantastic forests. The dark side of this world was not a place he wanted to go every day.
I understand that after he died, Darger's landlords left his room untouched for something like 30 years. Why did they do that?
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It was 27 years. I think they recognized it was something important. They were unusually good people, and during his life they really took care of Darger. That's something I realized as the filming went on: At first, I thought Darger was just a completely tragic character, but in some ways he was lucky. He was able to do what he wanted, and there were people in his life who protected him and looked out for him.
In the last few years, Darger's work has really exploded in popularity. Why do you think that is?
It's hilarious: Darger's really hot right now! When I first heard of him, he was this very underground thing, and now I think most people under 30 who know about art have probably heard of him. I think the fact that he did not seek out an audience is the very thing that's attractive. There's a purity there. He was striving for a clarity of vision. You could say his life was very sad in some ways, but he was also unwavering and persistent. It was a bold move to turn his back on the real world and create a whole new world of his own. He's inspiring, in his own way.
IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL IS REVIEWED IN TODAY'S FILM CALENDAR AND OPENS FRIDAY AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY IN IRVINE.