Strange fantasies of childhood

Gwen and I recently saw two movies that make a surprisingly apt pair: both about adult men obsessed with fantasies of childhood.

First, Finding Neverland. This is a fictionalized account of JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, and the writing of that play. It’s either very affecting or very schmaltzy, depending on what mood you’re in when you walk into the theater. I was initially in the former camp, but part of the movie’s power derives from the fact that it purports to tell a story of real people. When I later learned that it had taken considerable artistic license the facts of their lives, I felt cheated. Still, on its own merits, it’s a good movie. Not really for kids.

Second, In the Realms of the Unreal. This is a documentary about Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago janitor who died in the 1970s, leaving behind an astounding 15,000-page saga, with 23 mural-sized illustrations that are masterpieces of outsider art. The man was so little known to his neighbors that there isn’t even a consensus among them on how to pronounce his last name. Darger’s story in itself is compelling, but the movie adds little to one’s understanding once you already know the basics of it. Although the murals get plenty of screen time, the treatment isn’t as deep as it could be–we never get a full view of them, what some of the stranger aspects of them might mean, etc. And in some spots, the filmmakers animated them (need to liven up the movie, I guess), which is a questionable artistic decision. As an introduction to Darger’s story and work, it’s not bad.

Barrie was fascinated with boyhood because boys haven’t lost the potential for imagination, or gained the burdens of responsibility. Darger, after enduring a very difficult childhood, created a fantasy world that recapitulated many of the worst aspects of it, perhaps initially as a way of working through difficult memories. But it clearly consumed him, to the point where it was not only more important than his everyday reality, it may not have been entirely distinct.