Monday, June 27, 2005

For somebody who eventually was sent to an institution “for the feeble-minded,” Henry Darger knew how to read before he began grammar school, skipped second grade & when, at the age of 15, he escaped with some fellow inmates, he managed to return from Lincoln, Illinois, to his hometown of Chicago, a distance of over 100 miles, by walking. Then of course there is the 15,000-page novel of about the Vivian girls, as he called his heroines, and the struggle between Christianity and the Glandelinians, which Darger illustrated with roughly 300 watercolor paintings & collages, many of them ten-feel wide, many of them painted on both sides of the paper. Naked girls, girls with guns, girls with horns, girls with butterfly wings & especially girls with penises. The novel itself reads like a Catholic hallucination as told by a Victorian imagination – as a universe, it’s a vision as complete & thorough as William Blake’s. And yet it is also – baldly – a vision of pedophilia as utter innocence. In a world of total terror & horror – there are disemboweled girls, girls on the gallows, girls being choked as well.

It is the contradictions in Darger’s imagination – and the almost unimaginable romance of his own personal story, the not-quite street person who dies a pauper (in the same poor house where his own father had died) only to become a world famous artist soon after, the janitor who went to mass several times a day, collected hundreds of balls of twine & emerged from nowhere with the most sophisticated use of colors since Matisse – that gives his work so much of its power.

Jessica Yu, an Academy-award winning documentarian who has gone on to direct episodes of ER & The West Wing, spent five years inside Darger’s universe to make In the Realms of the Unreal, an extraordinary documentary that has just become available on DVD. We got our copy from Netflix literally on the day it was released. Even if I had no interest in Darger or his work – the problem of Darger, really – this would be a wonderful way to spend an evening.

Yu has created an impressionistic work, every bit as much a collage of elements as Darger’s own paintings. It has not one, but three interwoven story lines: Darger’s own presentation of his life – from an unpublished autobiography that is among the 15,000 other pages of written material he left behind in addition to the novel – Darger’s life as seen by those around him, and narrative of the novel itself. I had not known about the other 15,000 pages, nor the autobiography, nor that he had skipped second grade. Nor had I heard the strange tale of the time Darger told his neighbors that a "beautiful 17-year-old Italian girl" had tried to rape him and that she stole his money. (Darger's definition of rape was that "you undress a girl and cut her open to see her insides.") His friends seem to have thought that any attempt to report this to the authorities would have led to Darger's institutionalization, and kept him from doing so. I had known about the early death of his mother & his younger sister’s disappearance through adoption – the twin tragedies that set so much of his life in motion (he claimed not even to have known his sister's name) – and of his obsession with the story of the strangling death of five-year-old Elsie Paroubek in 1911. Losing a newspaper photograph of Paroubek became so upsetting to the then-19-year-old Darger that she figures prominently in the novel, albeit under a pseudonym, Annie Aronburg. By 1911, Darger was already two years into the novel.

Yu doesn’t make use of any secondary materials concerning Darger at all. There are no art historians, psychiatrists or cultural critics at all floating around in the film. Indeed, beyond the voice of then-seven-year-old narrator Dakota Fanning – the young girl from I am Sam – and Larry Pine as the voice of Darger himself, the only people we hear are those who actually knew the man. Sort of. They cannot agree on how he pronounced his name, or where he sat every day in mass – tho they agree that he sat in the same place every day, and that he was short, 5’4” or 5’5”.

There are pluses & minuses in this approach. We don’t, for example, have to hear the salacious speculation that Darger himself might have killed Paroubek, as at least one critic has theorized.¹ Nor do we get to see exactly how Darger’s work & material transformed the lives of his landlords, photographer Nathan Lerner & his wife, now widow, Kiyoko, another tale that can be told more than one way. But at the same time, Yu glides right by one of the most salient details in Darger’s history – the why of his banishment to the home for the feeble-minded – without a second thought as to its implications.

Darger, already in a Catholic orphanage, proved unable to stop making odd vocal sounds that disrupted his classes. This is a classic symptom of Tourette Syndrome, the obsessive-compulsive disorder that is one of the least understood – and most socially stigmatized – of all psychiatric conditions. Obsessive-compulsive fits Darger to a T – this is a janitor who, for his entire career, washed floors with a hand brush because he felt mops were “sloppy.” Who wore the same army jacket for decades, giving the impression of being homeless, yet who mended all of his clothes and carefully stitched his name – first & last – into every item of clothing.

I had not known about the possibility of Tourette’s before, nor had I known that Darger for decades had had one close friend, a William Schroeder, with whom he spent a great deal of time before Schroeder moved to Texas before dying in 1956. Nor had I heard or read much of the writing at all. Yu’s film does an excellent job presenting the writing – you come away with a sense both of the style & the story’s outlines, and major details, such as naming the key bad guy, General John Manley of the Glandelinians, after a bully at the home for the feeble-minded. Nor that Darger himself shows up as a character, let alone some of the other details, such as Fort Thumbelina or General Gingersnap. Nor that the novel has not one, but two alternate endings, one in which the Christians triumph, and one in which the Glandelinians succeed. Or that, on occasion, Darger presented himself fictitiously as Henry Dargerus, born in Brazil. Think of how hard it must be to present yourself falsely in a world that barely notices you to begin with.

So I come away from the film with a far fuller sense of who Darger was, and I must say an even deeper sympathy with the completeness of his vision. It is the kind of motion picture that makes you ask yourself: well, what if Dickinson hadn’t written to Higginson? What if Blake had not had a spouse? Where does the role of audience fit into works such as these? It seems so clear that Billy Collins’ concept of accessible art is exactly the wrong way to envision what is going on in the creative process. When, as Darger lay dying in the poor house, one of his neighbors – who had by now all seen the paintings discovered by the Lerners when they started to clean Darger’s rented room – told him how beautiful the paintings were, Darger’s only comment was “It’s too late.”

Even with access to Darger’s acquaintances, and 30,000 pages of written material to work with, Yu had her work cut out for her. There are exactly three photographs of Darger in existence – and we get to see them all, more than once – the by-now-familiar image of the wizened, mustachioed man sitting apparently on a stoop, a photo late in life of him eating a meal, with his bald head bowed forward so that most of what we see is the top of his head, and a photo of a man in his 30s, still with the moustache, but looking perfectly ordinary sitting alongside his older friend Schroeder. Imagine Ken Burns trying to make his Civil War documentary with just three photos to work with. Yu’s solution has been to engage David Wigforss, an animator from SpongeBob SquarePants, no less, to animate Darger’s paintings. Without exception, Wigforss has done a careful, intelligent, sometimes brilliant job, never straying from what the painting itself is suggesting. In the image above, for example, the butterfly wings undulate & flap – nothing else is changed. The effect in the film is sort of a Sgt. Pepper Goes to Hell feel, as strange & beautiful as the paintings themselves.



¹ This is patent nonsense. Somebody as obsessive-compulsive as Darger would never have killed just one child. If he had a murderous streak in him, he would have killed hundreds, and there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that.