Reclusive artists are always good subjects for documentaries. In the cases of Jandek (the subject of Chad Freidrichs’ Jandek on Corwood) and Henry Darger (the subject of Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal) one releases his music from a hiding place while the other never showed his art to the public.
The intrigue of Jandek on Corwood by Chad Freidrichs is the prolific nature of the artist (he’s put out 34 albums in 25 years, but chances are you’ve never heard of him) along with his mysterious existence. Because Jandek seems to just make music for himself, and only started playing live in 2006, the doc tells his story through interviews with fans, journalists and people in the independent music industry who each have their own theory about the Jandek myth. Some assume their is loneliness in his life, not just his art. Others think he might be more than a loner; he may be a sociopath.
Jandek’s music is a mix between noise-rock and folk, but Angela Sawyer of Twisted Village Music describes it best when she muses in the film: “I usually tell people that it’s someone who has a completely untuned guitar and is just sort of meandering and yelling over it.” Its for a select audience, that’s for sure. And without the interest created by his anonymity, his already small following could be cut in half. All the speculation in the film is interesting and amusing, particularly the deep examinations of each album cover and the meaning behind the very basic, sometimes blurry, photographs.
In the Realms of the Unreal is the story of Henry Darger, another mysterious artist who, in this case, was known by a select group of neighbors and coworkers, but created his art in solitude. Darger wrote a 15,000 page story complete with artwork that was only found by his landlady when he was in the hospital, near to death. Narrated by Dakota Fanning, the doc is told through his illustrations, pieces of his huge text, his autobiography and interviews with the few people who knew him. Like many great artists, Darger doesn’t get his due until he dies. Since the discovery of his work and his death in 1973 Darger has been noted as an influence to many contemporary artists and a Chicago gallery called Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art has set up a permanent recreation of his bedroom.
Of the two, Darger’s story is ultimately more compelling. Albeit Jessica Yu is blessed with an infinitely complex and fascinating story, both that of Darger and more so of his text — the story of a group of young sisters leading the fight against against child slavery — but it’s her treatment of the subject and her ability to tell the story with limited images by animating his own art that really give the film life. Also, being able to sum up a 15,000 page text is a feat in itself.