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Review: In the Realms of the Unreal

The animated sequences represent merely the most questionable formal tactic of a deeply cagey and secretive film.

In the Realms of the Unreal
Photo: Wellspring

The cinematic equivalent of flipping your TV set onto PBS and discovering, say, Tucker Carlson snipping out some of the genuflecting throngs in Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi, taping them to pencil tops, and having them run around shrieking “talk to the hand, bitch,” the corny (and artistically destructive) animated sequences of Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal represent merely the most questionable formal tactic of a deeply cagey and secretive film. Unreal is a specious title for a documentary, especially one as stylistically prosaic as Yu’s pan-and-dissolve, pan-and-dissolve Museum of Natural History throwback, but it’s still appropriate. The willfully elliptical presentation of the life and art of one Henry Darger, author of what could very well be the world’s longest novel (the titular tome comes in at 15,000 pages…though to be fair to all other prospective record-holders, Darger’s hand-written font is about as tall on the page as a thumbnail, and the text is interspersed with a number of illustrations), begins on a note of forced mystery, with the roll call of interview subjects responding to an unheard question with a chorus of “I don’t know.” Then again, given the terrifying evidence on display throughout this Cliffs Notes version of the life and art of Darger, perhaps the ignorance wasn’t selective but a means of social self-defense in the face of the fairly obvious notion that the poor man spent his entire life deflecting off the sort of mental glitches that would inspire him to invent and develop a war-based alternate universe where frequently naked underage girls with penises do battle in the name of God against the heathens called Glandelinians, who are prone to strangling and eviscerating the tots. While clearly too preternaturally prepubescent to be considered borderline pedophiliac, Darger’s art (at least, as it’s portrayed by Yu, deliberately muddying the line between his work and his poverty-stricken and disillusioned ersatz Peter Pan Syndrome waking reality) is an undisciplined amalgamation of blow-up copies of 1930s advertising visions of distaff cherubim, slaughterhouse piety, and watercolored, butterfly-winged apocalypse. If Yu was aiming to portray the schizoid hermit as a four-alarm sex offender in the making, she sold it when she recruited the voiceover “talents” of Satan’s own Dakota Fanning…who, come to think of it, fits right into Darger’s milieu of impossibly self-satisfied baby hermaphrodites fighting in the Name of Our Lord. Amen.

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine Director: Jessica Yu Screenwriter: Jessica Yu Distributor: Wellspring Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2004 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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