Friday, June 02, 2006

The Devil and the Daniels

Here is the thing. I saw The Devil and Daniel Johnston at Sundance last year. It was toward the end of the festival and after seeing 40+ movies, I was exhausted and couldn't really tell the difference between one moving image and another. My eyes were blurry from countless midnight movies, early mornings of VIP ticketing (my job and reason for being at Sundance), long hours of being badgered by needy Guest Services, Sales IO and Press people and 4+ movies/day. Still, when I saw The Devil and Daniel Johnston (we called it The Devil and Daniel Day because we were in love with Daniel Day Lewis who was there pushing his also very good film The Ballad of Jack and Rose), I was blown away.

Oddly enough, the Sundance people I worked with thought this film sucked. "Why would you make a movie about such a freak?!" complained the bejeweled, Japanese princess with bland tastes.

"I know," agreed the adored Southern belle with the tiny waistline, "What was so special about him? I don't get it."

Did we watch the same movie? I was confused. Maybe I loved this film so much because I am an artist, outsider, weirdo freak and I found bits of myself and my family in Daniel Johnston. But more than anything, it is a well told tale, sometimes more odd than can be believed. Could fiction make something this trippy up? An odd nerdy boy who does not want to take out the trash because he is staying up late and making movies which parody his annoying religious mother who eventually grows up to be an underground music icon in Austin, Texas and maneuvers his way onto Mtv where he makes all his dreams come true - if only for a second.

As far as dreams go, he also manages to dash them all as he slips further and further away into the depths of insanity. The film takes a look at the myth of the crazy artist: Sylvia Plath, Vincent Van Gogh, F Scott Fitzgerald, Keats, Byron, Shelley...etc. This film asks the never fully answered question: Do you have to be mad to be artistically talented? As Johnston reads off the definition for "manic depressive" into his ghetto ass tape recorder, light bulbs go off in my head, "Why that sounds just like me!"

For instance, can you relate to these bi-polar symptoms, cause I sure can!?

  • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
  • Decreased need for sleep (insomnia)
  • More talkative than usual or pressured speech
  • Flight of ideas or racing thoughts
  • Distractibility
  • Increased activity or agitation
  • Reckless involvement in pleasurable activities
Yeah, I know...who doesn't have these symptoms? It is hard not to relate to Daniel. He has music, drawings, thoughts and ideas just bursting out of him. And when his family try to get him to be normal, get a job and play by the rules, he rebels - who knows if his madness is one more facet of his rebellion or entirely genetic but it does keep him safe from the normal world of day jobs, water cooler chit chat and data entry. Perhaps crazy is the way to go?

The Collection de l’Art Brut is quite a unique collection devoted to what’s been called “outsider art”, the creative output of ordinary people with no artistic training at all – often loners, psychotics or the criminally insane – who for some reason suddenly began making their own art, on many occasions in middle or old age. What results is art entirely free from any conception of formal artistic rules or conventions, which challenges both how we tend to view such “outsiders” in our own communities, and our expectations of what art should be about.

There is a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland called The Collection of L'Art Brut. My cousin Mirabelle took me there and it blew my mind. Much like Daniel Johnston's songs which were created in his garage and basement in a fervent burst of creativity which he could not stifle, the art in this museum is alive with the fever of its creators. Highly detailed pen drawings by an isolated nun, collages created by an orphan who spent his life in an insane asylum, and puppets made by warped child molesters.

The art in this museum is almost throbbing with the inspiration and energy of its creators. It is an overflowing fountain coming from some dark, secret place inside them that they could not possibly suppress. Daniel Johnston's music is like that, pure and fresh, neurotic and frantic, like a bursting volcano that cannot be contained - it explodes out and flows forth into your ears. It's impossible not to feel it, smell it and taste its rawness and honesty. But no matter how "outside" these artists may be, they manage to pull you in to their secret inner world and make you never want to go home to the land of water coolers and casual office Fridays ever, ever, never again...

DBC, Tortured Artists, Part 1 and Part 2
DBC, Babes of the Month, Schiele and Kafka

PS As an aside, Tanner and I have been having our own Daniel Day Lewis film marathon with screenings of: A Room with a View, Age of Innocence and The Last of the Mohicans. We agree that he is not only the most versatile actor of all time but the hottest and the best dresser. At Sundance this was the one thing that I agreed on with the Southern belle. We decorated our little ticketing area with Daniel's pictures and finally, his Guest Services rep took pity on us and got us as close to him as she could. She stood us behind him when he was sitting in a theater watching a movie and believe you me, we could feel his heat from 5 feet away. That man has it and then some!


ecstaticbird said...

I wouldn't mind being in a padded room making art.....

Eva the Deadbeat said...

tell me about it. maybe the crazy people have this all figured out. after all, if i am considered crazy (i am afraid this has already come to pass), i don't have to work a day job, right? arts and crafts in my padded cell, as long as i can have my mac and my final cut, that is ok with me...