11 May 2007

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Written & Directed by: Jeff Feuerzeig

Grade: A-

Evidenced by the affection espoused for Daniel Johnston's songwriting in The Devil and Daniel Johnston by a congeries of assorted journalists and fellow musicians, I think it would be safe to say that he's what you'd call an "artist's artist", akin to the comedian who makes his fellow stand-ups fall over backstage, but can hardly bring an average audience to chuckle. Not knowing much about Mr. Johnston coming into this film, I'd always had the impression that he was something of an ironic hipster joke, an eccentric who made strange music that you had to at least pretend to like and/or respect in order to maintain an acceptable level of indie-cred; but while that may be what he's become, a fact that the film somewhat suffers for at the end, to hear Johnston's early work—and to see his films and drawings, as he is an artist of multimedia talents—is to bear witness to ineffable raw emotion. I was impressed, but like many first-timers to Daniel Johnston I didn't know what to make of it or how to explain it. A friend of Daniel's avers that he was such a natural artist, he had no real influences; that's of course not entirely true (he adored, for one, the Beatles), but a good attempt at an explanation. A gallery owner says later, "Daniel Johnston is his own movement," which is a little better. I guess what strikes one when listening to those early tapes and live performances is the purity of expression that comes across. I wouldn't call him a genius; perhaps the most accurate description, by comparison, would be to say that he's an unpretentious, manic-depressive, Generation X Bob Dylan—whatever that means. He is either an unprofitable servant, as his mother would say, or, as he preferred, an unserviceable prophet.

But I'm getting a little carried away; The Devil and Daniel Johnston doesn't require one to have an appreciation, though it helps, of Johnston's art, only the capacity for believeing that other people do. (Which shouldn't be hard, given the on-screen gushing from fans, friends and former associates.) More than just a standard portrait of the artist, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a portrait of an artist gone sincerely insane, and the toll that the madness takes on those around him, without the romanticism history usually affords the tales of such deranged men of talent (eg. van Gogh).

Johnston was born into what a friend calls "a Christian fundamentalist Glass family" within which he didn't quite fit, and the story of his childhood to the present is told mostly by making use of his own Super 8 footage and audio recordings—he was quite the prolific documentarian—narrated by recounting friends and family. When of age, and after dropping out of college, Daniel shuffled around his siblings' homes until joining a carnival—seriously, apparently—and winding up in Austin, where he settles for a bit and becomes a controversial darling of the local music scene.

Daniel, however, suffers from manic-depression, and soon his grip on reality begins to loosen; he becomes progressively dangerous and unpredictably violent. His friends of the time, the types to chastise the ignorant figures of history who committed the great and mad artists to mental instituions, are soon confronted with the reality of how difficult is it to care for someone who's genuinely ill. Daniel only gets worse, and spends most of the rest of the film bouncing between hospitals and his parents' care, going on and off his meds. (He also has a brief stint in New York that parallels his time in Austin: he makes friends with the prominent local musicians—in this case, Sonic Youth—becomes popular, and then descends into a madness that his friends can't handle, and which ultimately gets him shipped back to his parents' house in West Virginia after a brief stint in Bellevue.) Comparisons to Brian Wilson are obvious, though imperfect, not least of all in the pronounced weight gain.

Though for the bulk of its running time The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fascinating depiction of a descent into utter lunacy, given the reality of Daniel's present circumstances there's just no good ending for the film, and it winds up at a sort of anticlimax. Daniel's not in a mental institution anymore, he's actually doing pretty OK; nor has he faded into obscurity, as his notoreity grows in tandem with a fiercely loyal cult following. "In terms of creating a legend," a friend observes, "he's done everything right."

When, occassionally, the filmmakers are at a lack for archival footage, they resort to dramatization; their constructed recreations are always from a subjective point of view, lost within abandoned, depopulated spaces. It reflects that Daniel Johnston, in his madness, is a self-absorbed artist who sees himself as irredeemably detached from ordinary society, but tellingly, the film ends with Daniel in the company of his loving parents—the only reason he's survived thus far, and made it to where he is, is the sacrifice of the people who loved him. (Much credit is especially due to his Broadway Danny Rose style manager.) Daniel Johnston, like many other artists, regular Joes, and psychopaths, is only as strong as the people holding him up.

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