Rec Set

List of Misfit Artists – “In the Realms of the Unreal” (2004)

In the Realms of the Unreal 2004 film

This is the second installment of the Misfit Artists list, which examines documentaries about unique artists who worked outside of the mainstream.

In the Realms of the Unreal is the name of a documentary as well as a 15,000-page illustrated epic created by Henry Darger. A poor and reclusive janitor, Darger labored in secret on works that boggle the imagination and provide a fascinating window into his soul.

The documentary by Jessica Yu examines the life of Darger through readings from his autobiography and interviews with neighbors who knew him. Intertwined and juxtaposed with Darger’s story are dramatic animated passages from his magnum opus.

Three reasons to watch:

  • The enigma of the man: Darger is a study in contradictions: at once fascinating and prosaic, empathetic and distant, outspoken and taciturn, mentally tortured and perfectly sane.  The artist’s writings and murals reveal as much about him as they confuse the issue. It’s telling how often the people who knew him best completely contradict each other on basic details of his life. It seems impossible to watch the film and not want to know more.
  • The voicework: Dakota Fanning provides narration for the film, while Larry Pine gives voice to Darger’s autobiographical musings and fictional portrayals of himself. Fanning’s innocent delivery fits perfectly with the themes and mood of the film, while Pine imbues Darger’s words with a crusty attitude that sounds exactly how you would expect the man to talk.
  • The animation: Darger’s works are filled with extremely distinctive amateur artwork comprising collages of photograph tracings and watercolors. As the documentary rolls forward, it starts animating a number of scenes to make the Realms of the Unreal come alive in all their strange and grotesque beauty. Not all of it is pleasant, but there’s really nothing quite like it.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you that:

  • It can be creepy: Full disclosure, Darger’s works primarily focus on prepubescent girls who fight in a violent fantasy war. He almost always depicts them in the nude, and for some unknown reason, he drew them all with penises. Scared off yet? Well, don’t run away for the sake of mistaking Darger for a pedophile, because he almost certainly wasn’t. That said, the content of his work can be off-putting to many viewers, so be warned.


Hungry for more? Check out the first installment of this list.

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