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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

'The Devil and Daniel Johnston': Madness in the Key of Genius

Early in the new documentary based on his life, the musician and artist Daniel Johnston can be heard on tape matter-of-factly declaring, “I’m a manic depressive with grand illusions.” The Devil and Daniel Johnston teems with such epiphanies, yet few echo with this one’s dueling sense of entitlement and vulnerability–a sort of motto for the delusion that has attended so many of modern culture’s greatest minds.
And make no mistake: Director Jeff Feuerzeig’s exquisite portrait of Johnston absolutely addresses a great mind.

Daniel Johnston at home, c. 2004 (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

“Obviously his music and his art had a profound, deep effect on me, and I think it’s very moving,” Feuerzeig told The Reeler Monday afternoon. “His songs of unrequited love just bring you to tears, and I think he’s a singular artist. But that’s not the reason I made the film. I believe it’s a great story to tell, and I think he had an incredible journey, and I think it’s very inspirational to go on that journey with him. And I think we can learn a lot about madness and creativity and perhaps genius from going on this journey with this artist who, as we now have seen, documented his entire life.”
Indeed, the film anchors itself in decades of personal history that Johnston recorded on audio cassettes, 8 mm film, video, notepads, scrap paper, you name it. Benign rebellion against a religious upbringing in West Virginia threads into romantic obsession in Ohio, which gives way to the twist of fate that lands Johnston in Austin, Texas. The city would become his adopted home and the center of a creative surge that defined his legacy in the late 1980s.
But the prodigious scale of his output only reflected the pace at which he sought to outrun the devil–that eternally cosmic foil whose haunting came to symbolize the source of Johnston’s mental decline. He was institutionalized, medicated, sprung by a surrogate family of Austin artists whom he threatened as easily as he loved. Feuerzeig channels their expansive memories into his narrative; Glass Eye vocalist Kathy McCarty’s modest insights bounce off the myth-making of Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes, at whose concert Johnston once consumed a brain-exploding dose of acid from which neither friends nor viewers are sure he ever recovered. (It is worth noting that Feuerzeig humorously depicts Haynes submitting to an interview and a dentist’s drill simultaneously; the singer seems only slightly more comfortable answering questions about Johnston.)
Feuerzeig’s interweaving of those present-day conversations with Johnston’s archives showcases splendid technique. The jump cuts of a slide show clear years of background in seconds. Close-up cassette playbacks reveal illustrations and comments splattered over tape labels. “(Daniel) is medicated,” Feuerzeig said. “He wasn’t able to host his own film, which I think makes the film so much better. He’s not able to host his own film like R. Crumb, or like Isaac Mizrahi in Unzipped or like Mark Borchardt in American Movie. Those are all good movies, but those people were able to host their own films. Daniel cannot do that. His contemporary interviews are useless. There’s nothing to be learned from them.”

That said, The Devil and Daniel Johnston also flirts with the limited scope of hagiography, from which few–if any–personal documentaries have ever emerged uncompromised. In the moments the film overplays its subject’s legend–his experience stalking MTV, for example–the calculated power of Johnston’s brilliance comes off as the spoils of destiny and myth. On the other hand, as Feuerzeig makes explicitly clear, the very real illness on display in Johnston’s life resembles none of the romantic, idealized danger that informs the popular conception of The Insane Artist. At his most emotionally destructive, he fires his devoted manager and signs a doomed contract with Atlantic Records; at his most physically destructive, Johnston and his father survive a plane crash of his own making.
Both episodes are devastating, as is an extended section revisiting Johnston’s journey to New York in the late ’80s. His goal on that trip was “to become famous,” the film tells us–to spring from the squalid urban stage, out of the self-aware fringe and into a consciousness more attuned to his music’s fluid pop undercurrent. His chaos was spirited and spiritual, a duality best demonstrated in an audiotaped interlude with police who plan to arrest him for drawing thousands of Christian fish on the inside of the Statue of Liberty. When he goes missing at one point, his devoted acolytes in Sonic Youth find him wandering the wastelands of New Jersey; their instinct is not to seek more institutional help, but rather to return him to Austin. For all of his striving and ambition, Johnston’s appeal could not survive the superior will of his madness.
And for Feuerzeig, who found the magic in both over a 20-year love affair with Johnston’s work, the time was finally right to explore that dynamic in depth. “No one ever thought he would live,” Feuerzeig said. “He was in and out of the hospital and had so many brushes with death, and not only did he live, but he was still creating. I thought that was incredible, and I thought that now his life had an Act III, where he got to see thousands of people all over the world appreciating this music and art that he created when he was so young. And I wanted to celebrate that period of time when he made those tapes. Those are the tapes that people keep covering. Those are the songs.”
As for Johnston’s artwork–alternately crude, hallucinatory and elegant ink-on-paper designs that sell for upwards of $2,000 each–Chelsea’s Clementine Gallery features a thorough showing through April 15. Think of it as a serendipitous double feature: one town, two venues and a pair artists near the top of their games.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon