It’s funny: someone invites you to step into a room, and for
the next five years of your life you’re making a film about it.
Through a chance encounter, I had been permitted by Kiyoko Lerner,
Henry Darger’s last landlady, to see the apartment where the artist
had lived for over half his life.
While I was familiar with Darger’s startling artwork and his
thumbnail biography— (usually recited with a giddy snicker): reclusive
janitor who wrote a 15,000 page novel and illustrated it with paintings
of naked little girls with penises!— I was unprepared for
the emotional impact of standing in his room. It had been preserved
since his death in 1973, and the artist’s presence was palpable.
Everything was something he had foraged from the outside world, feathering
his nest with pictures of children, religious relics, old books and
newspapers, art supplies, knickknacks of every sort. Everything had
aged with the same burnt-gold patina. It was one of the most beautiful
rooms I had ever seen.
I knew in that moment that I wanted to make a film about Darger, to
find the pieces and put them together, to get a sense of who the man
was. On my next visit to the room, I snapped some pictures. There was
so much to take in, and I couldn’t get it all in one shot. Hence
the collage. It didn’t look like the room, but it felt like
the room. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, the
collage became emblematic of both the challenge and the goal of a film:
the challenge of taking everything in, and the goal of capturing the
essence of the thing, not the thing itself.
The research alone took almost two years. There was so much to see,
read, digest. Late nights I burrowed in my office, in Darger-like fashion.
I filled up stacks of binders, amassing my own 15,000 pages. Hours
of reading Darger’s novel on microfilm left me temporarily blind
and prostrate on the floor of the library. I found myself searching
on eBay for such obscurities as a postcard of
the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, where Darger spent half
his childhood, or a duplicate of Darger’s ancient Remington typewriter.
(To this day I’m not sure why I bought the latter; I think I found
its anchor-like presence reassuring.) I was in heaven.
People ask why I felt compelled to make a film about Henry Darger.
I’m still not sure, but I think it traces back to that initial
moment of wonder and the impulse to bottle it and share it. With every
film I find myself trying to re-create my own path of discovery, to
reconstruct what moved or
surprised me, or made it impossible to think of anything else. This
collage is a reminder of that journey’s first step: that still
afternoon on one man’s island, the dust in the air hanging weightlessly
undisturbed by my held breath.