Outsiders, Visionaries and Madmen: The Eccentric Artist in Film


by Melanie Reed

To consider the question of eccentricity to is consider the question of connection vs apartness. One could make the case that all artists are eccentric, since to comment creatively on society is effectively to have to stand apart. But artists to which the term best applies are those who occupy a more extreme and unique place with regard to social context. Such individuals play special roles in the realm of human endeavor, and a good documentary filmmaker can elucidate these roles by presenting the artists as artfully, thoughtfully and fully as if they were fictional characters with symbolic meaning for the world.

In Jessica Yu’s Academy Award-winning documentary In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger, the now-deceased artist’s work is strange, his setting cloistered, and his connection to others almost nonexistent. We know a certain amount about Darger from his autobiography, although he is definitely an “unreliable narrator.” Born in Chicago in 1892, he was sent to a boys’ home at age eight when his father became too poor and sickly to look after him. Perceived as “strange” at school, he was eventually diagnosed as “feebleminded,” and sent to a home for like-types where he was made to work in the fields. When he came of age, he almost immediately established the routine that would last him most of his life: living in a rented apartment, working as a janitor to support himself, and developing an ongoing illustrated novel with accompanying paintings, lists and song lyrics, none of which was ever shown or published in his lifetime. At his death in 1973, his landlords discovered the work, recognized its distinctiveness, and arranged to have it archived and preserved.

Darger’s two influences–Christianity and popular print media–combined in an ever-dynamic battle saga between an army of heathen soldiers and a group of brave young Christians called “the Vivian girls.” The work likely enabled Darger to better process and tolerate the barrage of disparate energies he experienced as a sensitive person from a deprived background. Although his neighbors described him as almost completely reclusive, Darger describes himself as “willful” and “determined,” with “fire in my eyes.” This determination enabled him to create an entire world of his own making, and to see himself and the people he knew as active characters in it.

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In telling the story of someone who is not there to speak for himself (and would likely not have been willing to speak if he had been), Yu deploys deftly chosen and sequenced elements, including Darger’s own work and writings, historical photos, related pop print media images, and interviews with the people who knew him. These elements are mostly revealed chronologically, with the exception of the interviews, which serve more as punctuation. Two different voiceovers accompany the rest: a little girl’s voice narrating Darger’s history, and a man’s voice reading from his writings. In keeping with the surreal, whimsical and pastiched nature of his work, a number of animated versions of his paintings are presented; one complete with music, sound effects, dialogue and narrative, and a few of the “Vivian girls” also make their way into a tourist documentary about Darger’s hometown of Chicago. At the end of the film, we see before and after shots of his apartment: the first stacked with papers, books, artwork and supplies, the second totally bare.

The mystery of little-known, now-deceased artists continues to intrigue us. John Maloof’s 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier showcases a subject who is mysterious in another way. Although she worked in, and documented exclusively public settings, photographer Vivian Maier neither wrote about herself privately nor presented herself publicly as an artist. But Maloof’s 2007 auction acquisition of what he imagined to be possibly useful historical photos led to the discovery of her work by just the right person. Like the “sort of spy” she claimed to be, Maier left virtually no public paper trails, but her vast private collection of papers, works, and objects gave enough clues to track her through life. In the film, shots of these things, including Maier’s own home movies, are supplemented by interviews with those who knew her, and by Maloof speaking about and working on the preservation project.

Unlike Darger, Maier worked in the real world as a kind of undercover social realist journalist. The film moves more or less chronologically, taking advantage of her many self-portraits and following her own tracings of both herself and the people and places she witnessed. Maier was born in New York in 1926, but other family information is sketchy, as she never married or had children, and city records suggest that all her family members were estranged. Maier worked in a factory for a while, but quickly switched to nannying – a job that gave her both free room and board and the freedom to roam the city with her camera – her charges often in tow. With the exception of a solo world photo trip in 1959, this was the life she led until she became too infirm. At this point, a few of the boys she had taken care of paid for her upkeep in a small apartment, where she lived until her death in 2009.

The film opens with shots of people looking bemused when asked to talk about Maier. The contrasts between her private nature, her drive to work as a creative documentarian, and her mixed feelings about people made her a complex person. This complexity might best be shown simply through Maier’s technique of dressing unobtrusively and shooting with a virtually invisible waist-level Rolleiflex camera, which enabled her to sneak up on her subjects without their awareness. Her employers remember her as hardworking, assertive, and private, but her now-adult nannying charges remember her as controlling, touchy, insensitive (to them), and sometimes violent. These charges now see her as lonely and likely damaged by some sort of early abuse. But the observations of photographer Joel Meyerowitz give a deeper and more balanced view. Meyerowitz characterizes her work as revealing a “real savvy about human nature,” “human understanding, warmth and playfulness,” and a sense of “tenderness, instant alertness to human tragedies.” He points to her photos as “moments of generosity and sweetness,” indicative of someone who was “watchful, observant and caring.” Photographer Mary Ellen Mark compares Maier’s beautifully composed naturalistic work to that of Diane Arbus, Lisette Model and Robert Frank, particularly with regard to her eye for the bizarre, the grotesque and the incongruous. Elusive, yes. But Maier’s unique combination of qualities and techniques allowed her to connect knowingly and deeply with her subjects. In Meyerowitz’s words, she could “get close into the space of a total stranger and get them to accommodate her by being themselves,” and thereby “generate a moment where two presences were vibrating together and then she’s gone.”

Like the work of Darger, Maier’s work was likely a private way to process human pain and disconnection – her own and her identification of it in others. But the Maier film is also about the importance of preservation: the street photographer recognizes and preserves important moments in time, and the documentary filmmaker preserves her legacy. The film ends with a gallery of people looking at themselves in her photos – a fitting reminder that we might all be symbolic subjects living in the world.

Interior of the Amargosa Opera House Death Valley Junction, CA
In Todd Robinson’s 2000 film Amargosa, we meet an artist who worked openly in public for decades, but in an area so remote that the work constituted more private path than public offering. Born in New York in 1924, dancer and artist Marta Becket grew up the only child of parents who presented her with arts opportunities but had mixed responses to her involvement with them. Captivated by the shows her journalist father took her to, she quickly accumulated her own music, painting and dance skills, but her parents were dubious about the practicality and appropriateness of such endeavors, and in her mother’s case, manipulated her successes for her own ends.

At age 43, the years of performing professionally took their toll, and she was ready to “light out for the territory.” On a road trip with her husband, she stumbled across the former mining town of Death Valley Junction, California, a tiny Mojave Desert community with a population of 10. While there, she noticed an abandoned theater, and became obsessed with the mission to singlehandedly restore, re-open, and perform in it. This theater, later dubbed the Amargosa Opera House after the town’s original name, became the setting for the next 40+ decades of her life and work. At the time of this writing, Becket is 91, and gave her last performance only three years ago.

Like Maloof with Meyerowitz, filmmaker Robinson had the wit to enlist a more respected artist as pundit – in this case, writer Ray Bradbury. For Bradbury, Becket “represents the spirit of the individual, theater, and creativity.” She does more than simply restore the theater: she reimagines it, painting its walls and ceilings with designs and actual audience members from all eras and cultures so that as she performs she can feel directly aligned with art and community across both time and space. Completely unfazed by the evidence of “spirit” presences in the town, Becket finds it easy to see beyond the realm of the ordinary, and admits to her desire to “live in the world of dance, which is a world of illusion.” But the world of dance illusion provided by the limited and judgmental professional dance scene in New York failed to connect Becket sufficiently with either a general spirit or a quest for new parts of herself. Like Darger and Maier, Becket is driven and persistent in pursuit of complete artistic freedom and maintains that this sense of freedom is worth the isolation, stating: “My talents are my best friends; my imagination is my company,” and likely continuing to be spurred on by what Bradbury refers to as “the excitement of the new – maybe today or tomorrow I can be the real me I always wanted to be.”

Although Becket is poised and personable in her interviews, and delighted to perform for a large reunion of dance colleagues, she has clearly opted further out than any other female ballet dancer ever has, and like Darger, has created her own world, surrounded by painted companions and mining her own mixed energies in a former mining town.

In Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 film Crumb, we meet an artist whose outsider mentality arose at possibly just the right time and in the right way to make him acclaimed early on as a kind of visionary. Comics artist Robert Crumb was born in 1943 and grew up in the Philadelphia projects. Interviews with Crumb and his two brothers bluntly reveal their brutal father and drug-addicted mother to be the likely origin of all three brothers’ extreme emotional darkness. The comics outlet was discovered in their early boyhood, and all five children were enlisted in comics production by oldest son Charles, including the two sisters who declined to be in the film. In an almost textbook case of nature vs nurture, the film traces the paths of three brothers, all with distinctive visual arts skills and all mentally disturbed, but only one who became a cultural icon.

The film skips around chronologically, including interviews, scene shots, historic photos and footage, and relevant shots of Crumb’s own work, periodically accompanied by the kind of ragtime music he favored. An evocative series of shots shows Crumb walking the street noticing people — all of whom we now see as potential characters for his comics. By drawing from life, Crumb’s inward psychic torment is transformed into creating scenes that reflect a deep cynicism with the culture of his day, and, like Vivian Maier, observing and realistically documenting people of all stripes, not even sparing the hippie culture who embraced him for his outspokenness and whose drugs inspired his work.

Like Maloof and Robinson, filmmaker Zwigoff looks to the experts to explain the Crumb phenomenon. Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes characterizes Crumb as “the Breugel of the last half of the 20th century,” depicting “lusting, suffering, crazed humanity in all sorts of bizarre, gargoyle-like allegorical forms,” and adds that the material comes from “a deep sense of the absurd,” with “no heroes and no villains,” “graphic art as social criticism,” comparable to Goya’s. We also hear from gallery owner Martin Muller, who sees Crumb as “the Daumier of our time,” creating “the most pertinent social portraits of an era, touching on issues related to politics, to sex, to drugs, to religion, to the fine arts.”

The film gives plenty of screen time to Crumb’s obsession with sex, including graphic depiction of his controversial Devil Girl and Joe Blow comix stories. Though even Crumb concedes that such “harsh realities” may not be for kids or even for everybody, the film’s general consensus seems to side with Hughes, who states that “culture isn’t there to have a normative effect,” and that it’s also healthier for Crumb to get these feelings out.

Although both Crumb and his family members characterize him as being emotionally rather cold with everyone except his daughter Sophie, his ability to release some of his darker feelings through his work is no doubt part of what saved him from the fate of his brother Maxon, who sits on a bed of nails, and his brother Charles who committed suicide the year after the film made. In one disturbing and revealing scene, we see Charles, Crumb and their mother all sitting around laughing at some painfully personal topics. But while Charles is barely able to connect his pain with a source, Crumb processes his through a combination of courageous subconscious delving and satire, and connects himself with what he sees as a more genuine form of culture: the early folk and blues music in which he hears “the best part of the soul of the common people: their way of expressing their connection to eternity.” These kinds of nostalgic sentiments are echoed by the film’s poignant sequence of shots from his Short History of America comic, wherein a rural setting slowly transforms into the travesty of a modern car-culture street.

Like Darger and Becket, Crumb identifies with a culture of innocence and idealism and attempts to insulate himself from the crassness of the modern world. At the end of the film, we see Crumb and his comics artist wife Aline preparing to move to a remote village in France, which Crumb perceives to be “less evil” than America, and where they live to this day.

Why look at eccentric artists? Because they sometimes see more clearly and because sometimes they are brave.

Melanie Reed is a writer, artist, dedicated Scarecrow volunteer and devoted fan of all forms of visual and literary stories.

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