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Henry Darger would have hated the attention. The subject of Jessica Yu’s documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, the Chicagoan was a lifelong recluse and likely schizophrenic who died in a poorhouse in 1973. Previously, Darger had spent 40 years living in a rented room, holing himself up after shifts as a janitor or dishwasher in local hospitals and rarely interacting with people, though other residents reported hearing what seemed to be conversations through his door.
After Darger’s former landlords cleaned out his room and discovered the volumes of drawings and writing that had apparently been serving as his social outlet, Saturday-night entertainment, and entire universe, Darger suddenly became of interest to the world he shunned. His work is now displayed in museums and outsider-art galleries across the country, and in Realms of the Unreal, Yu takes ballsy liberties with Darger’s unwitting legacy, animating his illustrations and having an actor read from his journals. Neither his landlords nor this filmmaker seems to care about Darger’s most frequent request to those around him: “Leave me alone.”
Yu’s film, 81 minutes of PBS-ian reverence, is a sometimes fascinating but often tedious mix of biography, art, and interviews with anyone who ever knew Darger, however peripherally. These accounts, mostly from neighbors and parishioners who saw the artist at the Catholic services he attended daily, prove how little Darger mattered to anyone while he was alive: No one can agree on the pronunciation of his last name, for example, or whether he always sat in the front, middle, or back of the church. By the time he was 13, Darger had no family—both of his parents had died, and the whereabouts of a younger sister were unknown—and only one known friend, who died 25 years after he and Darger last spoke.
Dakota Fanning, the movie’s young narrator, begins Darger’s life story by mythopoetically intoning, “Once upon a time, a little boy was born.” Realms of the Unreal then shadows Darger from the years he spent in the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in rural Illinois to his escape at age 17 to the big city, where he remained until his death at 81. Though he always managed to keep a job, Darger was pretty much considered crazy, frequently seen digging through the garbage for pictures of little girls and dodging personal questions with details of the weather forecasts he obsessively tracked—and recorded in notebooks next to the twine he collected.
It was the discovery of Darger’s creative pursuits that changed his label from “crazy” to “eccentric”—specifically, a 15,000-page illustrated novel titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger’s epic narrative focuses, for lack of a better word, on the battles of the seven preadolescent Vivian Girls, angel-faced and masculinely genitaled warriors who fought against child slavery and other injustices perpetrated by adults. Frequently naked, the girls often sported not only penises but also ram’s horns or wings; painted onto untold yards of butcher’s paper, they were placed in settings ranging from pastoral to blood-soaked. Accompanying the illustrations are the Vivian Girls’ incredibly detailed adventures, the text of which includes meticulous lists of war costs, casualties, and battle plans.
Yu doesn’t include any expert opinions about the quality of Darger’s work, so the audience is expected to be awed solely by the volume and intricacy of his output—both of which are inarguably mind-boggling. But not as much as some of Darger’s extraliterary pursuits: The garbage-can pictures he collected were mostly of barely dressed children, such as the famously bareassed Coppertone toddler. And though children are the heroes of Darger’s work, his frequent depiction of gutted and even crucified kids seems even more troubling in light of his obsession with a murdered 5-year-old named Elsie Paroubek, whose newspaper photo was one of his prized possessions.
The girl was fictionalized as a martyr in Darger’s novel, but Realms of the Unreal, besides making no judgments about Darger’s fixations, fails to reveal much about his creative process. His life and work are both presented as subjects to be marveled at rather than examined. Symptomatic of that approach is Fanning’s narration, an odd combination of little-girl preciousness and dry biography that merely accents the freakiness of Darger’s work. Even worse, Yu rarely shows the paintings in their original stretched-out glory, instead depending on context-free close-ups or, more dangerously, animating the scenes and adding sound to inappropriately Monty Python–esque effect.
Neither quirkiness nor quantity seems reason enough to hold Darger’s work in regard, and the evidence that his mind was not only unhinged but also possibly dangerous makes his life’s project seem less like art than pathology. Yu, hands-off to a fault, doesn’t really argue the case either way. But perhaps that’s for the best: After hearing her film’s numerous testaments to Darger’s desire for solitude, even this shallow, well-intentioned probe of his deeply personal creation will feel like an intrusion.
You can’t imagine that the real nursing-home residents who appear in the mostly fictionalized Assisted Living are too happy about being documented for posterity, either. Then again, it seems as if a few weren’t even aware that there were any cameras around. First-time writer-director Elliot Greenebaum filmed his story about a slacker janitor’s last day on the job in three operating Louisville, Ky., adult-care centers, blending his actors in with real people who are wheelchair-bound, bedridden, or simply forgotten by their families. The conceit is manipulative to the extreme, but it succeeds in making the movie’s central relationship even more devastating.
Todd (Michael Bonsignore) is the charismatic but fuckup-prone custodian who sometimes helps out with the residents even though he can barely take care of himself. Living with a couple of slovenly guys who settle in for a day of TV-watching as he leaves for work, Todd gets dressed in the car and sparks up before his shift. He’s perpetually late and largely goofs off once he does arrive, riding in empty wheelchairs and talking to residents on the phone, pretending to be their dead relatives calling from heaven.
The leeway that the staff gives the well-liked Todd narrows, however, when his antics become detrimental to Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), a proud, impeccably groomed resident in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She becomes attached to Todd, waiting for him to take her to bingo and occasionally mistaking him for her estranged son. But when one of Todd’s pretend calls leaves the worsening Mrs. Pearlman sobbing as she collapses to the floor, even he knows that his game has gone too far.
For much of Assisted Living’s 77 minutes, we simply see the home through Todd’s bloodshot eyes as he walks around with his mop and bucket: an exercise room in which techno music thumps as a circle of hunched old ladies toss around a beach ball, a folk singer warbling “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to a group of invalids, a staffer using a condescending singsong to respond to a shriveled man’s report that there’s a dead squirrel outside. Throughout, Greenebaum keeps the dialogue to a minimum; this is a script as quiet as a roomful of seniors watching their stories.
Riley is the only one of Assisted Living’s professional actors who plays a resident, though the heart attack and two strokes she’s said to have suffered during filming probably contributed to the realism of her character’s increasing weariness. Bonsignore is fascinating as the well-meaning but shortsighted Todd, whose demeanor convincingly goes from cocksure (during those usually joyfully received phone calls) to little-boy scared (when he has to retrieve a bucket from a room reserved for the especially infirm).
Greenebaum’s un-self-conscious camera, documenting the drone that is the residents’ daily existence, editorializes where his script doesn’t. Left in the hands of employees who are just there for a paycheck, these people, alone or too burdensome for their families to care for, clearly aren’t being treated as “historical treasures,” as Assisted Living’s fictional facility administrator calls them. Though most viewers will probably relate to Todd’s obvious discomfort around the seniors, Mrs. Pearlman’s palpable pain will make them wish they didn’t. CP