In director Jessica Yu’s wonderfully in-depth 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, the life and uncovered writings and art works of hermit-like artist Henry Darger were put on display after being discovered in his Chicago apartment following his death in 1973. His collection—drawings, collages, paintings, an autobiography, and a 15-volume novel—were discovered by his landlord, who also happened to be an artist-photographer, named Nathan Lerner. Now with director Mark Stokes’ new film, Revolutions of the Night, we get a more detailed look at Darger’s day-to-day life, as well as clues into his deeper history to find out exactly what the inspirations were for his interwoven stories and paintings.
Interviewing neighbors who lived in Darger’s building on West Webster Ave. and others who lived nearby and frequently saw him skulking around the streets, plus going to and from his favorite restaurant and other haunts, the filmmakers manage to uncover a few details about his comings and goings. But true to his reclusive status, none of these folks really add anything to an understanding of what was going on in his head as he created these fantasy worlds, populated by a family of sisters living on an alien planet where children are slaves and often brutalized. These were tales of revolution that seemed tied to Darger’s treatment as a child, and it’s fascinating watching art historians who have gone through his writings make connections to both the art work and the artist’s life.
Revolutions of the Night also features somewhat unnerving footage of Darger’s apartment when it was first discovered, with scrapbooks and other collected trinkets arranged just so on every horizontal surface in the dark and ill-lit rooms. Everything about the dwelling seems geared toward the greater fantasy that Darger created in his works, and it’s rather incredible to think how quickly his fame skyrocketed in the outsider art world after his death. Before landlord Lerner really understood what he had, there were already those standing at the ready to simply take what they could, hoping it would accrue in value in the years to come (which much of it did).
While the film’s research and attention to detail is exceptional; it’s a scrappy-looking thing that doesn’t rely much on clean edits, expressive lighting or bright sound. Instead, and I’m sure Darger would approve, the work concentrates on the story. Granted, it’s a story that’s been told for decades now, but director Stokes finds new angles and details to keep things interesting. For art enthusiasts, it’s a must see. But even if you only have a passing interest in the work, the story of Darger’s life and creations and rise to fame has an appeal for the ages.
Presented in cooperation with Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago, the film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Saturday, Oct. 28, director Mark Stokes will be present for an audience Q&A after the 8:15pm screening.