The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The Medicated Subject
There is absolutely nothing wrong with The Devil and Daniel Johnston if the viewer expects from documentary a chronologically told examination of a life with neither self-consciousness nor epistemological urgency. The film sets out to do no more than chronicle the life of Daniel Johnston, a singer and artist whose battles with the demons of the mind often curtailed the furtherance of his musical career.
But had the film incorporated the self-reflexive and the enquiring it would not so readily have assumed that Johnston's career was blighted by his mental problems, and might have mused over whether his mental problems gave him a musical career. We're not proposing here that old saw about genius and madness, but we would do well to ponder two things. One is the degree to which Johnston's cult reputation resided in his eccentric behaviour, and secondly whether what makes him seem such a quintessentially American artist is not so much the small town mentality, but the 'small town mental' - a form of Americana that gives to the American artist deviating from the norm an imbalance that means his work doesn't necessarily achieve aesthetic form, but arrives at a halfway house between creative purpose and mental illness. One of the pressing questions that hangs over the film, yet that isn't addressed, is the degree to which Johnston's work is aesthetic or symptomatic, and even whether at certain stages in his career it was one, and at another stage another.
Let us propose, then, that what the film deals with and yet paradoxically fails to tackle is not so much the battle between Christ and the Devil in Johnston's life and work that the film often focuses upon, but the aesthetic and symptomatic. That is, the degree to which some songs are works of art and others symptoms of imbalance; and that within a certain Americana the gap between the one and the other will sometimes seem hard to discern. For the sake of argument we'll call this look at creativity and emotional and mental chaos 'askew Americana', and suggest that we can find traces of it in other documentaries likeCrumb, Kurt and Courtney and American Movie. In all of them, hanging around the fringes of the first two films and central to the third is the all-American 'loser', a character who in documentary form often simply sinks into the failure of his life, and though of course Crumb and Kurt and Courtney concentrate on the 'winners' - on Robert and Cobain respectively - much of the film's texture comes from the failure that surrounds the success: in the films' askew Americana. In Crumb we see it especially in Robert's brother Charles, where Charles was clearly a gifted mind in his own right but whose lethargic life living with his mother and his years on medication leave him with very little except a laconic and dry sense of humour in relation to his own lack of achievement. He's barely been out in years, and as he gets older his handwriting becomes increasingly miniscule to the point that nobody can any longer read it. In Kurt and Courtney again it is the failure around the film's edges that seems to say a lot about the sociology of the United States. Here someone who used to know Kurt rails in his basement about his own lack of success. In American Movie the film puts failure right at its centre, as the film's subject is a budding horror film director whose efforts are decidedly limited, but the director Chris Smith, in consequence, tells us something about small town ambition.
It is this askew Americana The Devil and Daniel Johnston possesses as its subject, but it is perhaps too readily caught up in the rise and fall narrative so familiar to American film from anything like Body and Soul to Boogie Nights. If askew Americana suggests the complexity of sociological mise-en-scene; the latter indicates the determinations of narrative expectation. Is The Devil and Daniel Johnston finally uninteresting because it focuses too much on chronological narrative development to the detriment of filling out its visual spaces? Here it might be useful to call upon another American documentarist, Errol Morris, and especially his first feature Gates of Heaven. Here interviewing various people involved in a couple of Californian pet cemeteries, Morris seems finally less interested in what his subjects have to say about their careers and the success and failure of their pet graveyards, than in the space in which they and their clients offer their comments. One couple discuss their late dog, and Morris films them in a field of long grass, in medium close up, and allows what they're wearing to draw as much attention to them as what they are saying. She has bleach blonde hair and is dressed in a lime green blouse with red blue and yellow patches on it, while he's dressed in a white shirt with blue collar and cuffs, and a jacket that is made up of a swirl of blue and white. As with many of the characters in the film, we're as aware of what the space is telling us about the characters as the words that come out of their mouths.
This dimension seems almost completely missing from Jeff Feuerzeig's film. Certainly there are a few shots that would lend themselves to this exploration: when we see for example Daniel's father and mother interviewed in their living room and surrounded by mementoes of their own and their children's lives. But where Morris often frames his subjects from the point of view of assuming that whatever they have to say might be of less significance than what we see, and thus turns backdrop into vital information, Feuerzeig very much sees the mise-en-scene as little more than back-projection: it possesses no background purpose.
We could say much the same of the film's use of archival footage and photos. Even in moments where many viewers will question the sheer perversity of the footage's existence, the film simply gets on with telling its story. At one moment, in the mid-stage of Johnston's career, he goes to New York and hangs out and works with Sonic Youth. All the members of the band agree Johnston's behaviour is dangerously erratic, and believe he should be sent back to his family. Johnston however just walks out, and a couple of members of the band, who drive around the streets of New York and the surrounding areas looking for him, find him in New Jersey. This is footage and sound that was presumably shot at the time, for we see members of Sonic Youth sitting in the car wandering around the city, and hear Johnston when they finally find him. But whatever narrative revelation we're responding too in Sonic Youth's quest to find Johnston, we're more likely to muse over the greater revelation of this band looking for a relatively unknown singer somewhere in and around New York and feeling the moment is worth recording.
We might have much the same sense of inexplicable absurdity after Daniel's father relates a story of how he and Daniel were up in a plane Daniel's father piloted, when Daniel successfully wrestled it out of his father's control, and his father luckily managed an emergency landing that nevertheless mangled the plane. As we're informed of this strange incident, no less strange are the pictures accompanying the telling, where we see father and son proudly standing next to the sign of where the plane crash landed. We might think that if this was simply an emergency landing after a horrible engine failure, then the proud gesture would make sense, but if the crash came about because of the son's derangement?
These are examples of the film refusing to think beyond its narrative demands, and we might find ourselves then wondering what the film's point might be. This raises an important question perhaps about contemporary story driven documentaries, from the enquiring and engaging (Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings and Capturing the Friedmans) to the less interesting (Touching the Void, Super Size Me and Spellbound). And the question is whether the film possesses an epistemology, a sense of complex urgency that wants to make sense of the events it purports to depict, or does it want to find the most persuasive narrative through-line no matter the complexity of the material unearthed? Taking the three films we think are reasonably respectful of the complex reality they tackle, we can see in Hoop Dreams the filmmaker Steve James undeniably wants a story to hang his exploration of two black kids on, and what better a subject than basketball? When Paul Arthur and Janet Cutler attack the film in Cineaste, they do so with the irritation of cinema verit devotees looking for a bit of micro-observation. They make many a good point, but compared to numerous dramatic documentaries that have come after it, Hoop Dreams remains a reasonably enquiring account of two boys determined to make good at sport, believing their other options are limited. The press kit may have, according to Arthur and Cutler, asked reviewers not to give away the ending, suggesting fictional devices over documented observations, but when we look at the sport or rise and fall documentaries that have arrived since (films like Inside Deep Throat or Once in a Lifetime), we can see at least that fictional devices and observation are still fighting for precedence. Now, so often, the fictional devices have won.
This respect for the tension between found footage and cobbling it together is also central to the tension in both When We Were Kings and Capturing the Friedmans, as if both films wanted to take a welter of footage, and perspectives on an event in the past (the Ali/Foreman fight in the first instance, Mr Friedman's arrest for child abuse in the latter) and weld them together to reveal a moment in time and investigate the complexities surrounding that moment. Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings and Capturing the Friedmans may not adhere to the demands of those great cinematic movements of observations and ethics in sixties documentary - cinema verit and Direct Cinema - but neither do you feel they're only interested in telling a story that happens to be based on fact.
In films like Touching the Void, Spellbound and Super Size Me we feel the story doesn't allow a reality to be told, but that that the story allows reality to be superimposed upon by the story. While watching Super Size Me, do we really believe that McDonald's will have so appalling an effect on guinea pig Spurlock as he claims, or is this part of documentary's new found dramatic license? Touching the Void might not go in for the same exaggeration, but its story of two climbers, one of whom was left stranded by the other after cutting the rope to save his own life and almost sacrificing his colleague, nevertheless tells it story for maximum suspense over maximum enquiry. The purpose of the film is really to explore the miracle of survival over the complexity of climbing ethics. In Spellbound, the film resembles the recent fictional Little Miss Sunshine, but if anything contains a higher degree of suspense. Where in Little Miss Sunshine the singing and dancing competition the family's daughter enters comes at the end of the film and almost as a coda; in Spellbound it's the film's raison d'etre.
What we've been proposing here then is the degree to which many recent documentaries have moved away from cinema verit and Direct Cinema, and increasingly aligned themselves to narrative through-lines. The problem for a film like The Devil and Daniel Johnston is that it actually doesn't have much of a story to tell (unlike Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, Spellbound and Touching the Void) as narrative but has a great story to tell as enquiry. It is indeed closer to Capturing the Friedmans, Crumb or Gates of Heaven in its complex familial history and so any rise to the top aspect of the tale becomes insignificant next to an exploration of family. This is why we question the film's point, because it is as if it has a story to explore rather than a narrative to accelerate, so any deviation from complexity for the purposes of careerist progress seems irrelevant next to the film's real subject. Thus there is a moment in the film where it looks like Daniel Johnston has secured a really great contract with a major record firm, only for Johnston's erratic decision-making to torpedo the project. This is a contract like no other his long-term manager and friend insists, with all sorts of clauses taking into account Johnston's mental imbalance. But Johnston foregoes the contract, and his manager, who's worked for years towards this goal, then gets dismissed before Johnston later signs a contract for Atlantic that proves a disaster. After one album and minimal sales, Johnston gets dropped. Later on, the manager returns to work for Johnston.
The two through-lines the film concerns itself with are really the musical and the sentimental. There is Johnston's precariously placed musical career, and Johnston's precariously placed emotional life, and of course the two are interlinked. But though they are interlinked complexly, it would seem the film wants to interlink them simplistically: it wants us by the end of the film to muse over the career Johnston might have had if his mental health had held, and the sadness of his emotional life in that it didn't. The film ends on a Johnston song on the soundtrack as Johnston, very far from his slender young self, twirls round in a room in his parent's house, and he's presented as a tender tragedy to behold. One might wonder though whether the film has earned this image, whether we feel we know enough about Johnston's inner life to justify this ending. If we feel we don't, then the scene comes across as an act of grotesque pathos; we don't know enough about the interior existence to justify this exposure of the outer form. As Johnston spins around the room, we might find ourselves thinking less of the tragic evolution of the slenderly built teenager with a vivid inner life to the medication ridden middle-aged man that we see in front of us, than the lost opportunity that happens to be the film itself.
This returns us to the thrust of this article, and the point the film could have had. To what degree was Johnston's work symptomatic or aesthetic? In pursuing the line of enquiry around Johnston's talent, and by interviewing various bands, music critics and the people who knew him, could the film have explored this problematic perhaps central to all art? Antonin Artaud talks in 'Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society' of Gerard de Nerval and Vincent Van Gogh as offering, in the former instance, "important revelations about society that society didn't want to hear", and in the latter's insists, "Van Gogh did not die of a state of delirium properly speaking, but of having been the battlefield of a problem around which the evil spirit of humanity had been struggling from the beginning. The predominance of flesh over spirit, or of body over the flesh, or of spirit over both." What, we may ask, did society not want to hear from Daniel Johnston, and what battlefield of a problem was he dealing with? Are these not really the questions the film could have asked if it wanted to produce a fresh work of enquiry rather than a stale work of hagiography? When we proposed at the beginning of this piece that Johnston was an intriguing combination of the aesthetic and the symptomatic, it concerned the degree to which his problems were aesthetically contained or symptomatically leaked. These are of course not mutually incompatible categories, and Artaud seems as good an example as any artist of the two working in conjunction.
However, if we respond to some of the early music here and wonder about the quality of some of the later pieces, does it not touch upon this problem of symptoms versus aesthetics, and bring to mind such notions as aesthetic distance, the objective correlative and negative capability, all terms to help explain the degree to which an artist doesn't produce out of his own subjectivity, but fits into some tradition greater than the individual artist? What often produces great art is really the tension between the subjective desires of the artist and the objective demands of the form; if the former are too present we can say it produces symptoms, if the latter foremost, dull art. When Keats suggested Shakespeare's greatness resided in his negative capability, in his capacity for voiding his personality and transmuting it into great theatre and poetry as the self becomes curiously open to the world, others might argue that his greatness equally resided in his gift for creating not just great characters, but great Shakespearean characters, as the subjective desire and objective form weld.
With a musician like Daniel Johnston it is as if much of that very subjectivity found itself not transmuted into form, but vitiated by medication. By the end of the film as we see him twirling around in his basement with the camera trained on his wide-girth, to what degree are we expected to see his musical talent destroyed and his body deformed by the anti-depressants he's no doubt been taking for years? However as the film has focused on Johnston's recent relative successes, like a sell-out exhibition of his art work, and a European tour, then what is it trying to convey in this closing scene? Because it hasn't really addressed the difference between art and symptom it seems to be saying that despite his problems, Johnston has come out a winner in the end. There have been tragedies along the way, but he's now on good terms with his aging parents, back with his faithful manager, both his art and his music are being appreciated, so where's the problem?
But surely anybody can see that it is one thing to be a success for being Daniel Johnston and quite another to be a success for assuming the role of Daniel Johnston when he's all but vacated the stage of his own life. As Johnston comes across as a burnt-out has been musician, the film is hagiographic not just about his talent but also his mediocrity. Those early songs and the early art works suggest respectively a budding Bob Dylan and Robert Crumb, someone whose intense subjectivity could collide with musical and artistic form and produce a fresh perspective. But if the early work showed promise unfulfilled; the later work illustrates talent dissipated, and this is something the film seems unwilling to address, just as it seems unwilling to address its own approach to form.
If there are films that we often call self-reflexive; might we propose the unreflexive, a film that seems to take much that it shows us for granted, and hopes that we don't ask the sort of questions that could make the film fall apart in front of our eyes. Whether that be the aforementioned Sonic Youth footage of the band wandering around looking for Johnston, or another moment near the end of the film where The Simpsons' Matt Groening turns up backstage at a Johnston concert, and seems keen to meet him but happier still to make quick exit, there is a sense that the film is less keen-eyed than the viewer. The film appears less concerned with why Sonic Youth were filming looking for Johnston, or how Groening reacts to him, than that a couple of Sonic Youth members found the singer, and happened to film it, and Groening wanted to meet Johnston, and managed to do so. Most great documentarians' work contains a capacity for self-reflection: they ask the viewer to think either about the process itself (as in Chris Marker's work for example where he'll ask us so often to think about the very images he's presenting to us, insisting we muse over them) or they film the images in such a way that they demand observation from the viewer, as we've suggested happens to be the case in Morris's Gates of Heaven.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston then comes across as a failure on several levels. It fails to address the difference between the symptomatic and the aesthetic in relation to Johnston's work, refuses to confront the many images and where they've come from, and appears unwilling to create a broader mise-en-scene that speaks louder than the characters' words. It is an unthinkingly engaging film about Daniel Johnston, but maybe shares something of the character's own final sense of obliviousness. It finally seems to possess in its dulled feeling for the events that it shows us the blurry, almost medicated thinking that is central to Johnston's very intellectual and creative demise.
© Tony McKibbin