Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Attended last night's Landmark Theatres calendar preview at the Shattuck in Berkeley. Trailers for the new calendar were shown for the first time. Among them was The Devil and Daniel Johnston and producer Henry S. Rosenthal provided the intro. The cool official website for the doc is at:

Rosenthal relayed that he produced the documentary simply because he really wanted to see it. And since no one else was making this movie, he paid for it out of pocket. It's been a rewarding experience for him to see it do so well and that it has helped many folks become aware of Daniel Johnston's artistry. I told him I got to see the film at last year's Indiefest and thanked him for exposing me to Daniel, who I had never heard of before. It was a pleasure to see Daniel's exhibition this last September in Paris and I was delighted that my friend Michael Hawley actually acquired one of Daniel's drawings for his collection. Since then, I've included Daniel in my cd collection.

Rosenthal was interested in knowing if the trailer intrigued people to see the documentary. It was the first time he himself had seen the trailer. Unfortunately, most folks said no. And I could understand why. The trailer is extremely grainy and nowhere approximates the visual clarity of the film. Rosenthal apologized for that and explained that these days trailers often are shot on video and then transferred to film and the fact that much of the documentary includes ravaged footage does not bode well for the trailer. But that Sony Pictures has taken up the gauntlet to promote the film is good news and he hopes folks will forgive the trailer and catch the film.

Some folks (naturally) were upset that he would film a documentary about a mentally ill subject, and one woman adamantly asserted she would not see the film precisely because of that, but Rosenthal calmly responded that there is no question Daniel is troubled. Part of his sickness is his obsession with his own notoriety, yes, but the most important thing for Rosenthal was that folks could see how incredibly gifted Daniel is as a musician and illustrator. He is a great fan of Daniel's artistry and his mental illness is a sad sidebar as well as a source of creativity.

Reaction to the documentary has been good so far and has helped engender interest in Daniel's drawings. Daniel has been selected to show his visual art at the 2006 Whitney Biennial in New York City!! Such belated recognition is timely since Daniel has also taken a turn for the worse health-wise. Apparently shortly after Thanksgiving he went into a coma for three weeks and is only now recovering.

When The Devil and Daniel Johnston first unspooled at Sundance, David Poland reported to Movie City News, boldly stating: "If there is a masterpiece at Sundance this year, it's Jeff Feuerzeig's The Devil and Daniel Johnston."

"Not only is this a great doc," Poland praised, "but it is fully capable of becoming one of the great college cult films of all time. Daniel Johnston is, after all, a kid from a small town who never gave up on his dreams and overcame not only his parents' disapproval, but the revolt of his own body and mind. Not only do you come to really respect his work in this film, you find a form of love for this damaged soul."

Though truth is Johnston didn't win me over as much as he did others. His illness was megalomaniacal and what he put his parents through, especially his father, vertiginously resembles karmic retribution. My heart leapt to my throat whenever his father spoke, because you could feel his concern, his fear, his pain. I guess to be honest I have a little trouble with outsider art. First there was the Darger doc (In the Realm of the Unreal) and now this one, adulating artists who were either reclusive and now deceased, or artists (like Daniel) who purposely go off their meds just to add an "edge" to their music; even when doing so meant he would be burdensome to his folks. Johnston has either achieved a pact with the devil, as he admits, or is graced by God, because despite himself, he seems to always be in the right place at the right time recognizing the right opportunity. There's a seductive charm to that but it concerns me that it's romanticized. In gist his lust for fame cut through his impairments and one has to somehow respect him for what he has accomplished, maybe not so much for being as great a musician as so many seem to think he is (I think he writes great music but I prefer others recording it), but, for being able to create his own legend in his own time. That's something I have to applaud him for. He lives his broken dreams.

My personal issues with Johnston aside, however, there is no question but that this is one of the most compelling documentaries ever. Largely due, I think, because of the opportunity Jeff Feuerzeig had to use Johnston's audio diaries so that filmviewers could cut through all of Johnston's mugging to hear who he was inside. Feuerzeig said that when the documentary premiered at Sundance, Daniel and his parents attended and were invited up to the stage afterwards for a Q&A. When asked what he thought about the documentary, Daniel complained that the film was heavy on the comic side, showing Daniel doing all his "funny" things. Oh there's Daniel crashing a plane. Oh there's Daniel going into a mental asylum. Ha ha.

Ha ha indeed. When his father was asked what advice he might give to a parent of an artistic but mentally challenged child, he responded, "You're on your own."

Here's Daniel Johnston's "Worried Shoes" website where you can sample his artwork:

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