In the realms of Henry Darger
by Roberto Friedman
In Darger's Resources, a new Duke University Press paperback, Emory University professor Michael Moon explores the work of Henry Darger (1892-1973), the prolific "outsider artist" and writer who created a whole fictive universe populated by phalanxes of little girls perpetually endangered by marauding armies. In his down time from his lifelong work as a janitor, Darger wrote a 15,145-page epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, then went on to illustrate it in drawings and watercolors he created with collaged images from comic books and advertising circulars. Moon's thesis is that, far from the deranged and possibly pedophilic loner he is often taken for, Darger was a uniquely gifted artist quite in touch with the popular culture of his time. The fantastic, violent images in his works may not be pathological wish-fulfillment, but an authentic artistic response to the increasingly apocalyptic century in which he lived.
Moon, also the author of Displacing Homophobia, finds instances in Darger's work of "stories in which the girls eventually discover that a longtime boy ally is actually a girl." For instance, there is "James Radcliffe, the dashing Rattlesnake Boy. Through many volumes of the narrative, Radcliffe is simply an ace boy scout and a champion boxer and wrestler, but at least a few times the narrator drops hints that suggest that young James may be even more interesting than he already appears to be ('there was something queer about Radcliffe'). Finally, it is revealed that the Rattlesnake Boy is a girl disguised as a boy."
Moon shows that Darger was greatly influenced by pulp fiction, mass-produced religious art, comics, illustrated children's books, and specifically in this case, the Oz chronicles by L. Frank Baum. A similar event to the Rattlesnake Boy's sex change "occurs in a key moment in a book that Darger most likely knew well, Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), the first sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). In it the boy hero, Tip, is a girl called Princess Ozma, who had been turned into a boy by the sorceress Mombi." At book's end, "Tip is changed back into Princess Ozma so that she can take her place as the rightful successor to her father as ruler of Oz."
Another odd feature of Darger's illustrated universe is that he often drew "schematic little male genitals on his legions of (as he put it) 'nuded' girl warriors." Moon raises the interesting question, "If everyone in Darger's world has male genitals and no one has female ones, what is it that is supposed to mark true gender" in their bodies? The work also offers the radical notion that "being successfully 'masculine' in Darger's world in the most obvious and unchallengeable ways (by being a champion athlete and a courageous soldier) is a role that can be played exceedingly well by a child, especially by a little girl."
Moon comes to the conclusion that "the spectacularization of girlish bravado in In the Realms may be reparative in a somewhat displaced way: if little girls can not only show valor on the battlefield but can also outwit and even outmaneuver gangs of male bullies, maybe sissy boys have a chance in the battle of life, too." A nice moral to the story, no?
Frameline36 is coming up, June 14-24 at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theatres in San Francisco. This year's LGBT film festival will feature a retrospective of 1990's New Queer Cinema, celebrating 20 years since film critic and academic B. Ruby Rich coined the term in 1992. Featured films in the series will include Gregg Araki 's The Living End, Cheryl Dunye 's Watermelon Woman, Alex Sichel 's All Over Me, and Ana Kokkinos ' Head On. In conjunction with the focus on New Queer Cinema, Frameline will present the annual Frameline Award to the deserving B. Ruby Rich.
The opening-night film will be Vito, Jeffrey Schwartz's documentary about one of the most influential people in the history of LGBT cinema, late gay activist, film historian and author Vito Russo. Watch this space for more festival details, coming soon.
Happy anniversary, Sasha
Just room for a brief mention of the San Francisco Symphony's subscription concerts this weekend (through May 19). This season is concertmaster Alexander Barantschik 's 10th Anniversary with the SFS, and the concerts this week are their "Happy Anniversary" celebration for him, as he's performing the Schnittke Violin Concerto No. 4 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The Beethoven Symphony No. 6, Pastoral – aka the best Fantasia vignette of all time! – is also on the program.
Barantschik joined the SFS as Concertmaster in 2001. He made his solo debut with the SFS in 2002 in performances of Mendelssohn 's Violin Concerto in D minor, and most recently soloed with the orchestra in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor (2011). Through an arrangement with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco , Barantschik has the exclusive use of the 1742 Guarnerius del Ges violin bequeathed to the museums by Jascha Heifetz and once owned by the virtuoso Ferdinand David, who is believed to have played it in the world premiere of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor in 1845. Go to www.sfsymphony.org for tickets and more information.
HBO, director Philip Kaufman and the San Francisco Film Society will present the West Coast premiere of Hemingway & Gellhorn on Sun., May 27, 5 p.m. at the Castro Theatre as a thank you to the city for serving as its shooting locale. Though the movie's story takes place in nine different countries, the film was shot over 40 days entirely on location in San Francisco and the Bay Area, which stood in for Spain, Finland, Cuba, New York, Shanghai, Key West and Idaho.
Hemingway & Gellhorn recounts one of the greatest romances of the last century, the passionate love affair and tumultuous marriage of literary master Ernest Hemingway and trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. The story follows the two writers through the Spanish Civil War and beyond. The screening will be free to the public, but there's limited seating, so RSVP to (888) 560-5856. Hemingway & Gellhorn will have its broadcast premiere on HBO on Mon., May 28, at 9 p.m.
Finally, everybody has some quirky little hobby that brings him or her pleasure. Ours is perusing other newspapers' corrections boxes. So sue us. Here's a cute one from The New York Times: "A picture caption on Tuesday with an article about mysterious dolphin and seabird deaths in Peru misidentified the dead bird shown. It was a blue-footed booby, not a cormorant." Booby: got it.