Tuesday, August 22, 2006
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
I managed, at last, to see The Devil and Daniel Johnston after work today. There was no nightclub-type party at the cinema, nor was there a mighty hailstorm/rainstorm to send water pouring through the roof. Everything was fine. The place was almost empty and dry. There were about a dozen of us in the theatre. A man and woman came in after me and sat in front of me and to the right. They looked to be interesting characters, with wild hay-like hair, and appeared to be in their fifties. The woman pointed at me and suggested they not sit right in front beacuse it might obstruct my view. I assured them they could by all means sit right in front since I could see the screen clearly, but they smiled and said they would be fine over to the right a little.
Anyway, to the feature presentation!
Daniel Johnston grew up in West Virginia (that must be in the Bible Belt because his mother often argued with him about his art, saying that he was serving the Devil since he drew cartoons of disembodied eyeballs). His best friend at that time, David Thornberry, admitted that he was persecuted by his mother during those teenage years but he often fueled the fire in that regard, so that he could tape record his mother's rants. He made thousands of audiotape recordings, as audio diaries. He also drew cartoons of such things as eyeballs and men with the tops of their heads sliced off. His main passion was music and he played the piano and sang and made tape recordings of his songs. Later he switched to acoustic guitar in emulation of his heroes. Problem was, he couldn't play guitar. Even in later times he appeared to play one chord with only minor variations, but his voice tone made up for it. Hearing Daniel Johnston sing, it was suddenly obvious to me where the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev got their vocal style.
The documentary examines Johnston's psychological problems and raises the fascinating connection between genius and madness, and the corresponding obsession that people have with such characters all the way through history. David Stratton on At The Movies a few weeks ago was saying that even after watching this documentary he had no evidence of Daniel Johnston's 'genius' or whatever you want to call it. It was certainly clear to me. Sure he can't play guitar very well, and sure you could say his voice isn't technically great - he's no Russell Watson that's for sure (ha ha) yet the evidence was plain to me (and obviously to many others, not least of which was the guy who made the documentary, Jeff Fuerzeig, who was inspired to make it after listening to a radio show where Johnston phoned in from the mental hospital where he was confined at the time to do an hour-long monologue, in different voices and characters.)
'The Devil' in the title refers to Johnston's obsession with fighting the Devil. It's unsurprising when you consider his childhood environment and battles with mental illness, which can easily feel like battles with demons or the Devil at times.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston was excellent and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Strangely enough, that couple I mentioned at the beginning got up and left halfway through, which really surprised me. Why the hell did they get up and walk out? I'll be wondering about that for a week!