The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Friday, April 7, 2006
opens with a 1985 home video of a man stating that he's the ghost of Daniel Johnston, and that he's going to tell us about his "condition" and the "other world." Then the film cuts to a concert announcer in 2001 introducing Daniel Johnston, an overweight, gray haired man, as the "best singer songwriter alive today."
Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig spent four years culling together interviews, family photos, 8mm movies and archive footage to create a portrait of Daniel Johnston. Johnston's parents recall his childhood and what a clever child he was. Friends and colleagues tell us what a genius he is. And Johnston himself appears in numerous movies he shot and on a multitude of audiotapes he recorded. The portrait that develops is sometimes fascinating and occasionally disturbing. Johnston reveals bipolar tendencies and at a couple points in his life is actually committed to a mental institution. His drawings and music reveal flashes of brilliance and honesty but sometimes seem painfully awkward and embarrassingly personal. He lacks social skills and comes across as a kind of idiot savant. In some ways, the film recalls Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb , about artist R. Crumb. Zwigoff's film is far better made and Crumb is a superior artist to Johnston, but there's a side story about Crumb's brother (who revealed talent but was troubled by mental illness) that touches on some of the same themes, emotions and discomfort as The Devil and Daniel Johnston .
The film arrives on the immediate heels of the faux documentary The Confederate States of America . And Feuerzeig's film sometimes feels more like a mock documentary than a real one. Johnston documented so much of his life'photos and movies of every stage of his life, and audiotapes of his ramblings as well as recordings of conversations and even arrest. So there is so much material that it feels manufactured. Plus the way Feuerzeig films the new interviews and cuts the archive footage, it makes everything sounds scripted in the way a fake documentary plays out. People say things that seem too perfect and that just happen to have exactly the visual material to illustrate what they are talking about'be it photos of a plane crash Johnston and his dad were in or audio of Johnston being reprimanded by a New York cop for painting graffiti on the Statue of Liberty. The end result is that you start to wonder if what you're watching is true or fabricated.
What also contributes to this effect is that Johnston's genius may not be obvious to everyone. Johnston definitely has an odd appeal but that seems to come more from the rawness of his art than from genius. The praise heaped on him seems out of proportion to the work we see, and that makes the tone of the film seem tongue in cheek, as if Johnston is some idiot savant comic creation like the "outsider" artist character in Junebug , and Feuerzeig is poking fun at him.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (rated PG-13) is a novelty piece. Whether you like it or not will depend on whether you buy into Johnston as a genius. As for Feuerzeig's filmmaking, it reveals more dogged dedication than artistry. His film is sometimes compellingly watchable but in a reality TV sort of way.
Companion viewing: Crumb, Half-Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, Capturing the Friedmans, Junebug -----
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