Friday, July 06, 2007

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

All art is subjective, so I think it says something for Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary about famed outsider artist Johnston that it kept my attention even as the appeal of Johnston's music eluded me. Any man who writes and sings the line, "In my head there is a negative Superman," probably has a compelling life story; what impresses about Feuerzeig's film is that it doesn't shy away from the ugly parts of Johnston the man even as it seems reverential towards his music. Time and again, we see that the art which issues forth from Johnston is spurred by some deeply disturbing mental difficulties, the most harrowing of which is a story related by his father about an encounter with Casper the Friendly Ghost on a small commuter airplane; this story ends on a note of irony so perfect that it had to be true. Feuerzeig is also helped out by Johnston's own inexhaustible urge to document himself, as a good deal of the film is filled with archived audio tapes and old film wherein Johnston sings, rants and does whatever. Artists like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Vincent Van Gogh are cited in comparison, and the last one seems especially appropriate given the examination of where the line between genius and insanity begin to blur. The film occasionally tries too hard to be as offbeat as its subject (why is the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes interviewed while in a dentist's chair?), but overall it's genuinely sad and worthy stuff.

Grade: B


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