Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (and the role of the artist in consumer capitalist society and other stuff that I thought about tonight)

There are questions people ask themselves privately all the time, as they experience the disconnect between their public lives and their private experiences, that are seldom made a matter of record, seldom publicly discussed, difficult even to articulate in the current milieu, since they interfere too much with the daily business of getting up and going to work; questions that deeply resonate with the way most of us live: for instance, what value does any of it have, to stuff away the most personal aspects of your life, to deny or ignore your authentic experience of things, your deepest feelings, so you can strap yourself into a suit and go shake people’s hands and try to make money? What is the worth of “growing up and getting a job” – or, once you’re there, of “being an adult” – if it means spending most of your day not being yourself, not even needing to be yourself; not needing to feel or think about the things that matter most to you, that reach the very ground of your being, that most personally speak to your experience, so that you can do “productive,” money making, but ultimately impersonal WORK, to which the majority of your time needs to be devoted? Thoreau, in Walden, says: “Actually, the labouring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labour would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance – which his growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge?” Given the boring, impersonal realities of functioning in capitalist society, selling your very self for the price of shelter and “comfort” and entertainment – wondering every day if the trade is worth it – wouldn’t it be better to just burrow into your fear, confusion, loneliness, and private obsessions, and seek self-respect (and the love and attention and respect of others) not through knowing that you are regarded as a productive member of a community that you feel no personal connection to whatsoever, but by making your soul public, by producing art that DOES speak of your private experience? If you could fulfill your need for love and attention and esteem in the community that way – if you could somehow produce work that got their attention and won you the acclaim and notice you need -- wouldn’t that be better than a day-to-day life as a drone?

I wonder how Daniel Johnston would respond to these questions? (The Q&A after the film I just saw certainly didn’t do them justice -- not that he was in attendance, and not that anyone asked anything very challenging). It remains unknown at the end of the film how much insight Johnston has into his own career; it seems possible his talk of Satan could productively be attached to my rants about consumer capitalism - he does at one point assert that Satan drinks Mountain Dew in the film -- and that maybe we're getting at the same thing (the religious formulation of the above questions asks what it profits a man to gain the world but lose his soul, and one imagines Johnston has pondered the quote). All the same, there is an aspect of uncontrolled spiralling in his impassioned metaphoric experience of the world -- a condition commonly described as "religious delusion" -- that makes it hard to know how objective he is capable of being about himself. In any event, The Devil and Daniel Johnston just played to a sold out and appreciative audience at Vancouver's Pacific Cinematheque, as a Big Smash/ Frames of Mind - affiliated sneak preview before it opens next week at Cinemark Tinseltown. It’s a fascinating film, but it raises far larger questions than it could possibly hope to deal with, and it’s these questions that are interesting – the film is only the springboard. I could toss off a few more, since it pleases me to frame them: what is the function of the art of a man like Johnston in a consumer capitalist society? How would we describe it? If only Rainer Werner Fassbinder were alive to make a film about Johnston, he could maybe do it justice – making sort of a black comedy of it all: a mentally ill man, as part of his illness, is inwardly compelled to produce art; the rest of the community around him at first despise and reject him as a freak, but somehow he develops a huge following of young people who, ambivalent about losing their own identity to their jobs and social roles, seize on his “authentic expression” of emotion as a passport to connecting with their own personal, private, but publicly unspeakable selves (we could drop references to the Pied Piper into the mix, perhaps, and have parents expressing dismay about their children's taste in music). The man personally cannot be dealt with – he is deeply mentally disturbed and needs to be institutionalized and medicated and controlled by others, and in his daily life is treated as an object, a patient, an inferior; but he is periodically let out into the world to perform his songs, which his fans so need. He is loved by them (tho’ they’d rather be spared the details of what his personal life is like); and to him, all is right with the world -- he is happy to be a star, and that's how he thinks of himself. (Though it's an unkind analogy, I remember Brian Fawcett writing somewhere, perhaps apocryphally, that Zip the Pinhead -- not to be confused with the cartoon character -- believed he was in charge of the circus he was a part of and would occasionally bark orders from his cage to people around him, which P.T. Barnum encouraged them to indulge, since it made him more manageable). After soaking up their love, at the end of the tour, he is driven back to the institution, medicated, and kept quiet. What a relationship of the artist to society…! And what a society, to produce and support it!

(Note: Daniel actually seems to live most of the time with his parents, who obviously love him deeply, though he has caused them much worry and fear and anxiety. The above is a sort of "fictionalized" scenario -- one which does resonate against tonight's documentary, tho').

On some level, tho' I liked the film far more than I suspect she did, I think Penelope Mulligan is absolutely right in her Discorder column; this film fails to really ask the important questions about Daniel Johnston. It contents itself with participating as enthusiastically as possible in the adulation of the man, while “objectively” (and creatively – Gibby Haynes is interviewed while receiving dental surgery) documenting the details of his illness, which is given second place. It's certainly an entertaining ride -- in a more superficial way than a "serious" treatment of the subject matter would be. At one point, for instance, we are shown footage shot, apparently, by Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, as they drive around NY looking for Daniel, who has gone off his meds and is wandering the streets in the grips of religious delusion and ambitions to be famous. They believe he gets on a bus to go back to his parents, but awhile later, he is seen again in NY, and eventually ends up in Bellevue, institutionalized. He gets out after a few days and, as the story goes, ends up opening for fIREHOSE that night at CBGBs. That this is the punchline to the story got a hearty laugh from the audience, which is a testament to just how "entertaining" the film manages to be, but maybe just a few people were, like me, left just a little uncomfortable about what we were laughing at. It didn't seem cruel, exactly -- I think most of the audience love Johnston and his music and see bits of themselves in him -- but there are definitely questions of "exploitation" that come up, and of voyeurism, and of the entire nature of this transaction -- questions which Johnston himself is inclined to occasionally voice, tho' not in this film, where he is mostly spoken about (or represented through his tapes and songs), rather than being given a chance to express his own views for the camera. Still, I remember him singing on one of the tapes of his I had, back in the 1980's, about how it's easy for us to come and listen to his songs, but he has to live with his problems all the time...

I can’t wait to see how tomorrow’s screening of Watkins’ Privilege -- which posits the pop-star as the manipulated messiah of a totalitarian state, controlled by the powers that be to help fans conform – resonates against tonight’s show. Daniel Johnston as Christ? Why not? I wonder if he's seen the film...?

Artists occupy a privileged place in North American life: they connect us to the real emotions and private experiences that we, by taking the path most taken, have forsaken. All the better if the artists are insane – all the more “authentic” their expressions. Anyone concerned about these issues, whether they care about pop music or not, is strongly urged to see The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It’s an amazing, bizarre experience. And it's bound to sell the man a few CDs -- he apparently has a new "greatest hits" thing out this week -- which doesn't seem like a bad way for people to spend their hard-earned money, I suppose.

Speaking of which, I now must curtail my writing and go to bed, that I may get up for work in the morning. Be free, Daniel! ...because many of us aren't...

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