Say you have a neighbor – a “very poor ordinary man” who works as a janitor and is possibly schizophrenic, who has conversations with himself all day in different personae but barely manages eye contact with you. Now let’s say that when he dies penniless at the age of 81, you’re tasked with cleaning out his rented room. What do you expect to find inside? If your neighbor were Henry Darger, you’d find an extensive, immaculately preserved collection of string and twine. You’d find his World War I Army coat, which he always wore. And you’d find what is likely the longest novel in the English language (at 15,000 pages of manuscript) and the accompanying illustrations, otherworldly images of fantastic creatures and epic battles painted, drawn, collaged, and overlaid on tapestry-like paper “canvases” 12 feet long – on both sides. This is Henry Darger’s world, as painstakingly reproduced by documentarian Yu, whom you may recall for her breathless acceptance speech for the short subject Breathing Lessons
at the 1996 Academy Awards. Darger’s opus depicts a war between child slaves and their oppressors – all adult men who wear academic regalia and Confederate uniforms – and a universe populated with cloud people, jellyfish flowers, and the “Vivian girls,” seven little sisters who are the living embodiment of God’s grace. Like her subject, Yu uses pastiche to immerse the viewer, transposing Darger’s animated images atop stock films and other settings to breathe life into his creations. The result is a million miles away from your standard-issue talking-heads format (though Yu does interview the few people who remember Darger). Creatively, the film is a landmark. In its best moments, Darger’s inner struggles – with God, with himself, against reality, with his supposed enemies, against the nuns and teachers and institutions that raised and educated him after he was orphaned and declared “feebleminded” – feel absolutely real and immediate, though Darger has been dead since 1973. Yu never makes Darger into a curiosity, and the intensity of his visions of apocalypse and innocence lost resonate gravely throughout the film. There are two problems with her approach, potentially: It lacks the objectivity of a more distanced examination and takes for granted the artistic merit of Darger’s work, and it lays great responsibility at the feet of its narrators, Fanning and Pine, who read in character. The cast is fine, actually, but less venturesome viewers may rankle at the combination of drama and fact. Certainly this is a film for the brave; its animated crucifixions and child mutilations are unsettling, not in the least because they represent battling concepts of purest good and deepest evil in the mind of a devout man with a tenuous grasp on reality, one who repeatedly tried to adopt children of his own and was obsessed with vaguely sexualized little-girl iconography from advertisements and storybook illustrations. However, one need not necessarily appreciate Darger’s art to enjoy Yu’s sympathetic, intimate, and often breathtaking journey into the workings of his mind.