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Edvard Munch / In the Realms of the Unreal
The border between madness and genius is unconscionably narrow"--anonymous quotation from the film Edvard Munch
Chicago audiences have a rare chance this week to compare two strikingly dissimilar bio-pics about two relatively comparable figures. Edvard Munch, a 1974 bio-pic about the famous expressionist artist, opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a one-week engagement, while In the Realms of the Unreal, a bio-pic about the famous outsider artist Henry Darger, opens at the Music Box theater. Both films are fascinating for their subject matter and how they attempt to portray art and its creation.

In the Realms of the Unreal, directed by Jessica Yu, is the more traditional movie of the two, though that's not saying much. Darger was a Chicago native and spent much of his life in a small section of Lincoln Park. Orphaned at the age of eight, he was sent to a boy's home and later to a home for "feeble-minded children." He escaped from there and ended up working in a Catholic hospital, where he went to Mass every day and rarely communicated with anyone. He was such a recluse that his only acquaintances don't even agree on how to pronounce his last name. But in his small apartment, he created a whole other universe. At his death in 1973, his landlords Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner discovered Darger's lifework: a 15,000-page novel about the seven "Vivian Girls" accompanied by hundreds of bizarrely compelling drawings, paintings, and collages.

Edvard Munch was better known in his lifetime. He was born in 1863 in Oslo (known then as Christiana) Norway and began painting at the age of 17. Munch was one of six children born to a fiercely Christian doctor and a mother who died when Munch was young. He left the severity of his family home for the freedom of the bohemians who met in Christiana and were committed to doing away with bourgeois society, especially the restrictions on sex and marriage. Munch's first affair was with a married woman named Fru Heiberg, and the film presents it and its aftermath as formative influence on Munch and his work. He may be best known in today's postmodern society for his painting "The Shriek" (aka The Scream), but the film focuses much more on "The Vampire," a striking painting of what appears to be a woman either kissing or biting a slumped-over man's neck.

British director Peter Watkins came to fame in the mid-'60s with a series of documentaries that re-created famous events and then filmed them in a newsreel format as if they were happening right now. Doc Films showed Culloden and The War Game last fall, both of which were revelations. The immediacy of his approach--in one famous sequence, a tv journalist is standing on the Culloden battlefield explaining the battle as it happens and interviewing various soldiers--broke down the ostensible objectivity of documentaries and revealed the difficulties of portraying history. Edvard Munch isn't as radical as Watkins's earlier work, but it undercuts the bio-pic genre with startling intensity.

Most importantly, Watkins largely abandons any attempt to explain the great artist. Instead, he presents the various aspects of Munch's life as a contradictory mixture. He accomplishes this through razor-sharp editing that recalls Eisenstein in its unorthodox juxtaposition of scenes. A family Christmas carol suddenly cuts to a shot of Munch's sister Sophie dying of consumption. A sequence of Munch painting is intercut with a philosophical argument at a tavern. Late in the film, Watkins repeatedly moves between shots of Munch painting, the paintings themselves, the bohemians discussing bourgeois society, and Munch's memories of his family and early love affair. By refusing to connect one with the other and instead presenting them all in what seems to be a random pattern, Watkins admits the difficulty (impossibility?) of truly understanding either a person or a work of art. He rejects the common bio-pic approach of using one central event, figure, or theme as an explanation for the subject's entire life, but rather recognizes that the whole soup of our childhood and adolescence impact and create who we become.

Watkins also uses a soundtrack that layers sounds, dialogue, and music in provocative ways. A scene in which Munch's mother is shown dying of consumption is accompanied by the laughter and singing of bohemians. When Munch and Heiberg are shown walking in an idyllic forest, the narrator is instead talking about the world events of the time, including the birth of Adolph Hitler. This sharp contrast raises the question of how much our personal lives are affected by the major world events that history usually concerns itself with.

Director Jessica Yu also attempts to situate Darger in his milieu by using old photographs, drawings, and manuscripts. But that common motif begins to warp as the movie continues. On three different occasions, Yu utilizes an odd newsreel of Chicago architecture accompanied by a stylized narrator explaining what the city was like at that particular time. In the first instance, the newsreel seems like a standard introduction to Darger's hometown. But in the second, Yu inserts parts of Darger's work into the image, as if the artist's fantastic vision was becoming real. And in the third example, Darger's art almost overwhelms the city.

Yu also makes the provocative decision to animate Darger's paintings and drawings. In certain ways, this makes the movie more captivating, but it also seems like a betrayal of Darger's art, as if his art can't stand on its own but must be infantilized like a children's animated storybook. This is reinforced by the dual narration of child actor Dakota Fanning and adult actor Larry Pine. Fanning's recognizable voice sounds exactly like a storybook narrator, while Pine provides the voice of authority. But before we criticize Yu unfairly, this contrast also points to Darger's own internal contradictions: a child-like man obsessed with saving children from what he saw as the ravages of adults, but a man whose obsessions might strike contemporary audiences as verging on pedophilia.

Watkins's use of Munch's art is both thrilling and respectful. The film's objective cinematography captures the paintings in stunning light, while Watkins uses jarring editing to remind us of their power. Yu, on the other hand, rarely shows Darger's work in its fullness, in part because the drawings often measure 12' x 2', a tricky aspect ratio to capture properly on film. It's an understandable if regrettable choice. But the result will be that audiences may not quite grasp why Darger is so celebrated in the art world, and so focus on his madness but not his genius.   

J. Robert Parks  1/20/2005

Edvard Munch,    In the Realms of the Unreal,      


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