Henry Darger (1892-1973) lived most of his life as a reclusive janitor in Chicago. Only at the end of his life did his long-time neighbors discover that his small rented room contained hundreds of watercolors he had painted and the autobiographical and fictional writings (including a 15,000-page novel in typescript) he had produced over the span of five decades.
Filmmaker Jessica Yu tells Darger’s life story and explores the strange, naively surreal world of his paintings and writings in a dazzlingly interwoven documentary. Named after Darger’s magnum opus, Yu’s film documents the sketchy details of his quasi-Dickensian childhood, assembles interviews with his surviving acquaintances and quotes liberally from the art and writings.
But the mysterious, multi-layered portrait that emerges is made even more vivid by Yu’s deployment of brief animated versions of Darger’s fantastical paintings and by a brilliant intertwining of voiceovers—the autobiographical writings (read by actor Larry Pine), Yu’s commentary (read by child actor Dakota Fanning), the sometimes baffled remarks of his Chicago neighbors and brief passages from his mammoth novel about the seven rebellious child-heroines he called the Vivian sisters (read by assorted adult actors).
Darger’s work, much celebrated by now, is “outsider art” of exceptional interest. The paintings resemble uncensored surrealist variations on vintage children’s book illustrations, and Yu brings out both the inspired innocence and the inchoate torment of Darger’s imaginary world without seeking to psychoanalyze or pass judgment. The picture that springs forth is both troubling and awe-inspiring.