In the 30-plus years since, Darger has become a well-known "outsider artist," a figure acknowledged for his contribution to the field despite having neither training nor contact with other artists. His work has been displayed around the country, and in 2000 it was the subject of a major exhibition. His studio, maintained intact by his landlords for years, was only recently dismantled. Before it was, filmmaker Jessica Yu had a look inside.
That visit was the inspiration for Yu's excellent new documentary about Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal. The winner of a 1997 Academy Award (for Breathing Lessons), Yu brings a startlingly fresh sensibility to the material, approaching Darger with both genuine curiosity and creative invention.
The film is narrated from two points of view, that of the young protagonist in the novel (voiced by the 10-year-old actress Dakota Fanning) and that of Darger himself (voiced by Larry Pine). Also, Darger's paintings are animated, a seemingly odd choice that works. In fact, it soars. When the figures in the paintings come to life, hinged at the joints like the paper dolls that inspired them, they bring an aching intimacy to the events of the novel and of Darger's life.
At a young age, Darger was sent to an asylum, where he passed a lonely seven years. After that, he was transferred to a state farm, working the fields for 10 hours a day. At 17, Darger escaped and began work as a janitor, a job he retained for the rest of his life. Of course, his vocation lay elsewhere, in the creation of an alternate universe peopled by brave little girls engaged in a war against an evil empire, known as Glandelinia and characterized chiefly by its enslavement of children.
Darger's techniques were small-c catholic. He used overlay, collage, copying and tracing; his little-girl heroines look exactly like the coloring-book figures of the era, and they convey all of the attendant innocence. (Oddly, they sometimes have penises, perhaps because Darger had never seen a female naked.) There is no irony here, but there is darkness and depravity shadowing everything. The whole world, it seems, is out to get the children. Considering Darger's own experience, this view makes perfect sense.
Darger scarcely existed in the material world, but the universe of his imagination was immense and very alive. The brilliance of Jessica Yu's documentary is to enter that world with respect and humility and to bring it to us untainted by either judgment or analysis.