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This week:
The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Filthy says:
"Art or nuts? I don't know."

I wish I were a tortured soul. I want to have inner demons that confuse me, make me unsure and unpredictable, and cause others to see my rantings as that of some hidden genius that even I didn't know existed. For one thing, the chicks dig it. For another, it has the ability to turn an otherwise nondescript talent into a superstar. The status of your art is enhanced. As badly as I have wanted it, though, the tortured thing was never to be for me. I had too much confidence and was too self-aware. I've never for a moment doubted my abilities, and I have always been lucidly focused on one thing: being a massive disappointment.

It turns out that being a huge failure does not impress the ladies. It doesn't matter how many schools you flunk out of, or why you don't have a driver's license or that you don't have a steady job because you drink too much. I have yet to meet a lady who gets turned on when I ask her for five bucks. And only one girl ever got aroused when she found me puking in her planters. And, Jesus Christ, was she nuts.

Having a tortured souls is easy to fake, and a million jerks act like they have one. They mope along as though life's unfair and that they're underappreciated. That's easier to do that than face the reality of being dull and stupid, or that their life is shitty by their own doing. That's why I envy people with mental illnesses and debilitating diseases. They have a built in excuse for every failure. Like Lou Gehrig said, they're the luckiest people on the face of the earth.

Daniel Johnston, a lonely, nutjob singer-songwriter who made a splash on the college radio scene in the 80s is a lucky son of a bitch. Imagine being so manic-depressive that nobody can really blame you for anything. Sure, you piss people off, break hearts, disappear for days at a time, and occasionally crack open a skull with a pipe. But, come on, how long can people stay mad at you if you have medical documentation showing you can't help yourself? It's every man's second favorite fantasy, man. The first, being, of course, the Double Dip.

Daniel Johnston wrote and sang loopy, innocent songs full of pain and loss in a high-pitched atonal voice. He played a dumpy old organ, or an out-of-tune piano or guitar, and recorded on scratchy monophonic tape players in a bedroom, basement or garage. He didn't know how the music business worked and believed that if he just kept recording and passing out homemade tapes he would eventually become famous.

He was right. He showed up in the right places at the right times and his music was eventually discovered by indie scenesters, who embraced him half because they thought he was a Chauncy-Gardiner-like genius, and half because they thought it was cool to be into the ultimate outsider. Kurt Cobain wore his T-shirt, MTV embraced him as an oddity and the college kids played him whether they understood him or not.

Plus, he got a movie made about how brilliant he is, and how he was sabotaged by his mental illness, not by the wavering quality of what he did. Hell, nobody ever made a movie about a man sabotaged by his own mediocrity, but if anyone wants to, give me a call. I have a hell of an average story to tell. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a documentary about the singer that follows him from his teen years, through his time of underground fame and on to his current fat, confused middle age. It includes his Christian upbringing and how he was different from the rest of his conservative, industrious family. It covers his years in Austin when, on the edge of superstardom he succumbed to manic-depression and was convinced there were devils everywhere, including in his manager and the major label that wanted to sign him to a lucrative contract. It talks about the time he was in his father's plane and took the controls in an attempt to crash and kill them both. And, finally, it ends with him now, in a fragile mental state, still creating, but also living in his elderly and loving parent's home, under their supervision as a permanent child.

Throughout his life, Johnston was driven to create and, apparently, record. There are reams of home movies, video tapes, and audio tapes of him acting and revealing his thoughts and arguments. Some are barely audible, some are old Super 8 film that is badly deteriorated. Worse, some of it repeats points the movie has already made, or makes no point at all.

I believe the purpose of The Devil and Daniel Johnston is to paint a portrait of tortured genius and it captures the tortured part fine. But it starts out with the assumption that the audience already believes Johnston is a musical savant and gives little reason for doubters to agree. There are snippets of his music; some is corny, some is brilliant. There isn't enough of it, though. I've listened to his music and even have some, but I never thought ofhim as a coulda-been Bob Dylan or Lou Reed so much as he seems a sweet oddity. Songs like "Walking the Cow" and "Rocketship" are naive and touching, but also simple and awkward. The people who raved about him to mewere mostly phonies who had to mention very early in a conversation that he was nuts, as though that made the art better, or at least their appreciation of it more important. Like with Wesely Willis, a fog of self-satisfaction hangs over the music by people who are proud of themselves for listening to a crazy person. It's hard to cut thruogh to find out who really loves it and who just says he does.

I would have preferred more depth into Johnston's process and his music, and less of an attempt at validation from indie scene talking heads declaring their love for him. I don't trust them because I think they are in the fog. Rather than them make up my mind, I'd rather do it myself.

If Johnston is a misunderstood genius, the movie doesn't convince me. Instead, it shows that he's a cartoonist not quite as weird as Henry Darger, but also obsessed with a narrow range of confused and simple imagery that would look cool on a Pee-chee. There is almost no focus on the music he makes now or what he personally believes in. Even though he is alive, he says less than probably any of the people trying to speak for him in the movie.

The result is muddled. The Devil and Daniel Johnston will appeal to those already convinced of his genius, and it won't change the hearts or minds of anyone else. The guy's a lucky bastard, though, getting that free ride at his parents' sweet pad. Three Fingers.

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Pete Hammond of Maxim

Failure to Launch is "A great date movie! Loaded with alughter-a great date movie!"

Hard Candy is "Beyond intense! Hard Candy takes us to a place most films don't dare to go... It's Fatal Attraction for a new generation!"

The Notorious Bettie Page is "Sultry, sexy and smart! Perfectly captures a time and place where wearing less meant so much more!"

American Dreamz is "An outrageously funny film that goes for big laughs and nails themevery time!"

Filthy's Reading
Raymond Chandler - Collected Stories

Listening to
Dnail Johnston - Yip/Jump Music


Howls' Moving Castle