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IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL

Josh Bell

Yu's documentary on outsider artist Henry Darger, who left behind 300 paintings and a 15,000-page novel after his death in 1973, is alternately enlightening and frustrating. Darger was an intensely private man who lived in his own fantasy world (the Realms of the Unreal of the title), and no one had any clue about his artistic output until his one-room Chicago apartment was examined after he died. Consequently, there is maddeningly little information about his life, and most of Yu's account comes from Darger's own autobiography, another artifact he left behind.


Deliberately eschewing testimony from art or literary experts, Yu greatly limits the insights she is able to glean by only interviewing those who knew Darger personally—his neighbors. They offer what little information they can, but can't even agree on how tall he was or how to pronounce his name. Ultimately, Yu ends up with barely enough to fill her 80-minute film. She supplements the scant biographical material with readings from Darger's work and animations based on his paintings, which place the film at a strange halfway point between illuminating Darger's life and adapting his work.


There's a whole wealth of analysis and insight about Darger's work in the art community, but by choosing to ignore it, Yu paints only an incomplete portrait of this fascinating man.

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