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Dealing with demons

Jeff Feuerzeig tells of a tormented musician and artist in the documentary `The Devil and Daniel Johnston.'

April 02, 2006|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

THE devil has a thousand faces. Alongside hair-raising renditions by Renaissance painters stand the reasonable, even cordial Prince of Darkness of Jean-Paul Sartre's existential play "No Exit" and the aloof yet magnetic personage of Mark Twain's short story "The Mysterious Stranger"-- an angel named Satan who takes great pleasure in deriding man and his self-set standards of good and evil.

The new documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" adds another visage to the roster. Of the twin protagonists, Johnston is the lesser known, although he's become something of a cult hero over the last couple of decades. He's a West Virginia-bred musician and artist whose naive-sophisticate output ranges from lo-fi folk-punk ditties delivered in an adolescent croak, to album art and felt-tip pen drawings featuring his alter-egos (Casper the Friendly Ghost and Captain America) battling demonic forces.

Such was the pull of his early work that he came to be embraced by pop-culture icons such as Kurt Cobain and "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening even as Johnston's lifelong struggle with mental illness deepened and his creative engine sputtered.

To dramatize the arc of Johnston's journey, filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig created a documentary that blends reportage with storytelling devices usually found in feature films. "I conceived it as a three-act screenplay," he says. "The devil is the antagonist, and you meet him at the end of Act 1. The rest is Daniel's battle -- he calls it 'the eternal battle' -- with him."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Devil and Daniel Johnston": An article in Sunday's Calendar section about documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig said the hometown of film subject Daniel Johnston was Wallard, Texas. Johnston is from Waller, Texas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 09, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" -- An article last Sunday about documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig incorrectly said that Wallard, Texas, was the hometown of film subject Daniel Johnston. It's Waller.

Feuerzeig, 41, whose film won him the best documentary director honor at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, was drawn into Johnston's story by a radio special featuring songs and comedy skits that the musician staged from the ward of a mental hospital in 1990. "After that show was over, I said to myself, if I could make a film of it -- showing Johnston's songs, his highs, his lows, his manias, his obsession with fame, his obsession with the devil, his fragile beauty, his innocence.... If I could get all of that into a film -- I thought, wow, that would be one hell of a film!"

The project germinated for several years and took shape when Feuerzeig trekked to Wallard, Texas, in the middle of "God and fast-food" country, where Johnston, now 45, shares a home with his aging parents. In a moldy closet, the filmmaker found an oversized garbage bag filled with treasures: homemade films that Johnston had directed and starred in as a teenager and myriad cassette tapes on which, from early boyhood onward, Johnston had documented his life.

The audio vignettes ranged from domestic drama scenes featuring his mother scolding him to intimate audio journal entries and his own arrest, years later, for doodling hundreds of "Jesus fish" onto the walls of the Statue of Liberty. Feuerzeig spent 4 1/2 years transcribing and digitizing the material and used it to write a script that augments traditional documentary sources -- interview footage, photographs and memorabilia -- with re-creations of the past. The film is scored with Johnston's own inner monologue, and features cinema and audio verite moments, subjective camera point-of-view shots, comic-book drawings and animation.

"There's been great films made about mad artists before -- this isn't the first one," the filmmaker says. "But it is the first documentary where we get to go on the journey of a mad artist through their own self-documentation. You couldn't make a film about Vincent van Gogh like this, or even about John Lennon -- the material doesn't exist. They didn't document themselves; Daniel did."

Feuerzeig fished for inspiration in sources as disparate as Errol Morris' and Woody Allen's work (notably the latter's "Take the Money and Run" and "Zelig" faux-docs) and a 1993 book, "Touched With Fire," in which psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison builds a persuasive case for the preponderance of manic-depressive disorders among artists. Feuerzeig included an hommage to Jamison's thesis in his film: A scrapbook of stately photographs of noted troubled artists (Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and theater of cruelty godfather Antonin Artaud) concludes with a snapshot of Daniel Johnston dressed for work at McDonald's -- the only steady job he's ever been able to hold.

The filmmaker argues that his subject belongs in such company, a belief he says is based on the outpouring of enthusiasm for Johnston's work, especially among young Gen Y-ers.

"They're passing his tapes and his drawings around like a copy of 'The Catcher in the Rye' or 'On the Road,' " Feuerzeig says. "Daniel is Holden Caulfield and Sal Paradise -- he really did run away on a moped and joined the carnival and traveled through the Midwest. And kids -- the new generation -- are cherishing that. Daniel Johnston is their Bob Dylan."

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