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Cheap Flicks: In the Realms of the Unreal

by on August 6, 2011
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A couple of years ago, I took a class on hybrid documentaries. Hybrid documentaries are a mix of fact and fiction, a true story told in a sometimes-not-100%-true way. Take “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” which is told entirely in the voice of legendary Hollywood bigwig Robert Evans. Evans’ industry anecdotes may or may not be true, but they are entertaining and, in their own twisted way, authentic.

Another film I discovered in this eye-opening course remains one of my favorites. Jessica Yu’s “In the Realms of the Unreal” chronicles the secret life of Chicago janitor Henry Darger. Through interviews with neighbors, haunting narration by young Dakota Fanning (the best-known individual attached to this project) and the late Darger’s writing and artwork, Yu crafts an exquisite portrait of a closet dreamer who led a fairly depressing existence in the outside world — but one of creative genius inside his own apartment and mind.

After a youth spent in orphanages and children’s homes, Darger worked menial jobs and had no surviving family and perhaps one friend. He was quiet, awkward and devoutly Catholic. However, within Darger’s small apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood was a whimsical world of his own making. Entirely self-taught and often misinformed about the anatomy of females, Darger composed large paintings and worked on two books: the first, an autobiography, and the second, a children’s fantasy entitled “In the Realms of the Unreal.” The latter was an otherwordly battle of good versus evil centering on the Vivian Girls, a cadre of adventurous sisters ready to take on a world notoriously unkind to children. Influenced by classic and children’s literature, “In the Realms of the Unreal” numbered 15,145 single-spaced pages.

Darger’s landlords discovered his work shortly before his death in 1973 and eventually took charge of his estate, exhibiting his writing and artwork worldwide and even keeping Darger’s apartment intact until 2000. Darger has now become one of the most important figures in the “outsider art” movement, influencing paintings, literature and music. Darger’s work is now part of a permanent installation at Chicago’s Intuit Gallery.

I’m sure most of the budget for the film “In the Realms of the Unreal” was devoted to procuring rights to show the art and for Dakota Fanning’s voiceovers. That meager money was well spent. “In the Realms of the Unreal” maintains a quiet dignity and respect for an eccentric laborer who would one day rock the art world. As Darger lived just blocks from where I work, it made me wonder — and marvel — about the secret lives of everyone I run into on a daily basis. You never know what’s happening inside.