When Chicago custodian Henry Joseph Darger died in 1973, he left behind an apartment full of bric-a-brac - like newspaper clippings, personal diaries and balls of twine - that was in some ways typical of lonely eccentrics. But his landlords also discovered something far more precious: a treasure trove of fanciful watercolor paintings and one original manuscript, In the Realms of the Unreal, that at more than 15,000 pages qualifies as the longest book in the English language.
Having devoted much of his life to working on Realms and its attendant paintings while shunning most nonprofessional human contact, the reclusive Darger was the ultimate outsider artist. Self-taught, he appropriated ideas he liked from newspaper advertisements and the writings of others and plugged them into an expansive, frequently disturbing fantasy about warring armies and child slavery. But the drop-dead-enthralling documentary that takes its name from Darger's book shows that his own sad life may have been the greatest influence on Realms. The details of his dreary non-odyssey - which took him from soul-crushing children's homes to military service to a career in menial labor - informed the flow of his text, in which a virtuous Christian nation looks to some high-spirited little girls for moral leadership as it fights an enemy whose evil ventures into the supernatural.
Darger "had issues," as the saying goes; for all the extolling of innocence he gets up to in his work, images of child mutilation are also rife in it, and he painted his girl characters as possessing male genitalia. Extreme naiveté is one explanation the film offers for this bizarre substitution, but the beauty of Jessica Yu's film is that it doesn't force connections on us. Watching the film, I felt it likely that Darger was a pedophile tormented by his contradictory impulses to protect and defile the young. Yet my certainty withered every time Yu cranked up one of the delightful animated segments that bring the artist's painted scenarios to life. (Narration is supplied by Dakota Fanning, for that extra dose of surreality.) Instead of stooping to armchair psychology, this marvelous movie trusts its fascinating subject matter to spin its own web of mystery and melancholia, showing that there could be a wonderland of creativity inside any stranger's head - and then raising the heartbreaking possibility that we might never know it was there.