Revolutions of the Night: The Enigma of Henry Darger, is a documentary that, in its elegant compositional structure, evokes the world of the film’s subject: the ‘outsider’ artist, with a history of psychiatric institutionalisations, who lived ‘out’ his entire life, literally, on the ‘outside of’ the everyday, taken-for-granted world of lived-experience that most of us take as a ‘given’. Thus, in a unique paradox, he was, to a certain degree, invisible in plain sight. ‘Entering’ the film (the only way to put it) is not so easily accomplished, but inevitable. Most of us resist loosing ourselves from the moorings of the everyday which inhabits us, authors us, and gives us a pretence that we are self-conscious, reflective, and aware; speaking and authoring a self that is the model of free will and rational choice. But, Mr Stokes’s composition seduces us – like all great film – in believing that our perspective as voyeur inoculates us from vacating our removed position. Darger’s disquieting, surreal life and work is so disorienting that, without one’s willing it, the viewer is ineluctably drawn ever down the rabbit hole of this remarkable artist’s legacy.
Resisting the temptation of romanticizing, over-interpreting, pathologising, and, especially, speculating, Mr Stokes sagely has Darger speak for himself – drawing upon Darger’s auto-biography, as well as his 15,000-page novel, In the Realms of the Unreal. This, in combination with his skilful suturing of scenes, images, ambient sounds/recordings (with editor/composer Wayne Balmer), increasingly [dis]locates the viewer from the privileged place of (paradoxically) ‘outside[r]’ – to that approximating a more alarming one of ‘inside’ the subject matter and the matter of the subject. Through the de-centering of the viewer, some modicum of identification with, and empathy for, the ever-absent, but ever-real man of Darger is approached. The paintings of hermaphroditic children; the pictorial depictions of abuse, war, and end-of-the-world disaster; lyrical collage; the voluminous ledgers of writings and newspaper clippings are set against the panoramic profile of modern Chicago, gleaming on the azure shores of Lake Michigan; juxtaposed with rides along the ‘el’ – little changed in many neighborhoods since Darger’s early years; down to the insects in the fields in which he toiled as an institutionalised patient before his escape from the asylum; and the detritus on the close-up, gritty streets of a not-so-gleaming Chicago, that, in Darger’s eyes and capable hands, were art – all stand as signifiers; mute and powerful.
The absence of the man looms heavily and lugubriously in the film – filled as it is with images that were created by Darger; what he inspired in others; and, especially, in the one room [true] asylum of the man for the last decades of his life – of which nothing was known until his death. This is, again, a master-stroke of the film – powerfully visioning Darger’s invisible life, at last, with something of his evanescent presence. The film makes no claim to a tidy resolution, and, thankfully, does not – cannot – provide one. Reminiscent of the words of André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, the film instead seems to offer, fittingly, in parting homage to its subject, further ENIGMA: ‘When all is finished, I enter, invisible, through the arch’.
David L Downing, PsyD, ABPP, is a board-certified diplomate in psychoanalysis. He is the Director of Graduate Programs and Professor, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Indianapolis. He is a current and past-president of several psychoanalytical societies. Dr Downing has presented at numerous regional, national, and international psychoanalytical congresses. His interests include the psychoanalytical treatment of severe psychopathology; as well as diverse applications of psychoanalytical theory to the cultural domain, including art, film, literature, and organisational life. Dr Downing lives and practices in Chicago and Indianapolis.