Conversation on THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON

Justin: The problem with this film, from my perspective, is that it failed to convince me that Daniel Johnston was a genius.



I know that that isn't a requirement for the film to be great. There have been plenty of great documentaries about seemingly less-than-noteworthy figures. But when roughly a third of this film is comprised of family, friends, managers, and acquaintances declaiming on how Johnston is a better songwriter than Brian Wilson and some kind of visionary that THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW, the trouble is that I need proof of this, proof that Johnston is actually a guy with something to say that hasn't been said before or hasn't been said as well. And I just wasn't getting this. Johnston's artwork is creative and interesting, but nothing I hadn't already seen done by similarly talented people at least as far back as high school. The incorporation of eyeballs, cartoon characters, Satan, and other iconography isn't new, nor is it technically interesting enough to seem distinct. Some of his music (at least the excerpts presented in the film) is interesting, but not something that seems like it would stand up to repeat listening. Hell, didn't Wesley Willis sing about Casper the Friendly Ghost too? How many of these mental-illness singer-songwriters do we really need?

As for Johnston's family and friends...well, the term "enablers" springs to mind. Johnston's ex-manager Jeff Tartakov seems borderline in love with Johnston, stockpiling his artwork and recordings long after Johnston has dismissed him. His parents are well-meaning but clueless, allowing him to hop on and off his medication courses at will and not taking institutionalization seriously. It's interesting to contrast this film with something like Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's documentary about the life of comic-book legend R. Crumb. That film had at least twice as much insanity (example: Crumb's heavily psychotic brothers molesting women, dressing up like pirates, and getting off on Bugs Bunny) but also showed Crumb as a man with a sense of humor, an individual who, while hating the world, was at least able to engage with it enough to produce recognizeable caricatures. Johnston never gets out of his own Sunday School-on-acid headspace long enough to make the effort; he comes off as a cipher, and not a particularly likable one at that. The little quirks of phrasing and Christian homilies of his songs conceal a vast self-promoter, a man by his own admission obsessed with fame and wilfully ignoring his medication so as to appear more 'crazy' for live performances. Throughout the film, he manifestly doesn't care about anyone but himself, and as his behavior puts his friends and family in danger numerous times (such as crashing a plane flown by his father by throwing its key out the window, or breaking into an elderly woman's house and terrifying her into jumping out the window and breaking her ankles); you begin to think: they should have kept him in the mental ward. The moments of humor, such as Johnston penning a song about Mountain Dew and trying to become a spokesman for Pepsi, or ranting at audiences about the numerical symbolism of the Bible, feel more than a little exploitational, as if the intended audience, both for his music and this film, is a bunch of hipster kids getting off on Johnston's 'outsider art' chic. The whole time he was fucking over Sonic Youth in NYC, I thought, does being a dick to famous people qualify to make you an artist? So, what I got from this film is that Daniel Johnston is a schizophrenic egomaniac with religious delusions who can pull off cool high school-notebook-esque drawings (which look good on T-shirts - of course) and novelty records. This puts him beneath Weird Al Yankovic, a little to the right of Henry Darger, and roughly in line with Tiny Tim. Does the world need to know? Not really.

Swifty: To me, one scene in the film stood out. It was present-day Daniel Johnston reminiscing Laurie Allen with a wistful smile, she was the love of his life and the one who inspired a thousand songs, his muse, his source of endless creativity and inspiration, whom he lost forever after she married an undertaker. His memories of Laurie forever revisited via the videos he shot with his Super 8 camera, a pretty young woman with a beautiful smile, reacting candidly whenever Daniel's camera was pointed at her. It was poetic, it was heartwrenching, it was bittersweet.

It may have been twenty years ago, but how could one forget the pains of first love? The agony of unrequited love? The yearning of imagined perfect love? The whole thing hit a bit too close to home, making it difficult for me to not relate a little bit to Daniel Johnston.

"My god! Daniel Johnston reminds me of... me!" I exclaimed after Justin and I finished watching the film and walked out of the cinema, to his wild befuddlement.

All right, just that part about pining for a lost love. And dabbling in many different art forms at once.

Like Justin, I was never convinced that Daniel Johnston is a genius. He reminded me of a Jean Cocteau (a French filmmaker/ essayist/ dramatist/ poet/ novelist/ boxing promoter/ artist etc etc) biography I read on Senses of the Cinema recently. There are some gifted artists whose talent fell short of genius, but were drawn towards more than one kind of art form. In Daniel Johnston's case, he was a singer songwriter, home video maker and visual artist. Despite the lofty praises heaped at him by his ex-manager, family members and friends in the interviews featured in the documentary, with claims of his works sounding like Beatles + Symphonies + all kinds of musical masterpiece in history, better than Brian Wilson, rivaling Bob Dylan, I never took them seriously as they were just, well, opinions of people close to him and in awe of him.

(I mean, if a documentary about me is made, and my doting parents are nice enough to tell the world that I am Orson Welles' equal, I would be happy too! ... while the rest of the world are crying for my blood.)

The scene I mentioned in the first paragraph was also important because it was the one and only time when the present day Daniel Johnston was ever interviewed throughout the film. Unlike Robert Crumb in his documentary Crumb mentioned by Justin, Daniel Johnston remained too medicated to actually host his own documentary, we could only know him through old video footages of him, through the audio diaries he recorded himself in the past, and through the words of his family and friends. It's not a documentary of Daniel Johnston, more like a documentary of Daniel Johnston to other people, or Daniel Johnston's influence, or Daniel Johnston's memories (either of his own, or what people remember of him). Thus before my eyes, I saw the actual Daniel Johnston disappearing beneath his own myth. And ended up seemingly getting to know the people who spoke about him more than the actual him.

I liked the film. His fall from grace was painful to watch, and many times, he looked like a jerk for the things he did. But come on, was he deliberately being a jerk, or was he so affected by his condition that everything was unintentional? Does he even know what is it like to NOT be a jerk? But for me, I gradually felt that it was those who looked after him that were actually admirable. His family for example, and the devoted manager he fired. Oh, and Sonic Youth.

But then, I AM fascinated with Daniel Johnston after the film, going through one article after another about him for the past few days, checking out his videos on Youtube, curious to know what had happened to him since the events of the documentary, curious to know the blank spaces that were not filled in by the film. I could've written much more about Daniel Johnston, but this is supposed to be just a review of The Devil And Daniel Johnston, so I'll leave it at that.

But here's what I found:

Other blog reviews of 'The Devil And Daniel Johnston':
The Reeler | Celluloid Eye

Trailer of The Devil and Daniel Johnston:



Some Daniel Johnston videos: