Daniel in the lion's den

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The first time I heard Daniel Johnston’s music, I’d ordered a tape from K Records, having little idea what to expect. What arrived in the mail was something very different from Let’s Kiss and Let’s Together and other happy home- and handmade cassettes distributed by the label. Yip/Jump Music presented a more tortured brand of raw expression.

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Over the years Johnston has played solo and with bands, and recorded for a major label as well as several indies. He’s inspired an excellent tribute album (Dead Dog’s Eyeball, on Bar None) by Kathy McCarty, and now, Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a winner of the 2005 Director’s Award at the Sundance Film Festival. As Feuerzeig’s movie begins a local run at the Lumiere Theatre, producer Henry S. Rosenthal – who some may also know as the drummer of Crime -- agreed to talk about it.

Bay Guardian: The Devil and Daniel Johnston begins with some uncanny self-recorded footage of Johnston from 1985, in which he introduces himself as “the ghost” of Daniel Johnston and refers to “the other world.” How did you and [director] Jeff Feuerzeig get that footage?

Henry S. Rosenthal: Part of Daniel’s mania is his obsession with self-documentation, and as you can tell from his early Super-8 films he’s funny and creative. He loves comic books -- that’s his world. As for the footage, it’s as if Daniel was creating this voluminous archive knowing that someday someone would put it all together. Clearly that task is beyond him, but creating the source material is something he’s devoted much of his life to. Was he doing it consciously? Certainly -- but it’s part and parcel with his illness.
Daniel has a sense of posterity that is uncanny. He recorded all of his phone conversations with Radio Shack equipment. All of that was there for us to go through.
We didn’t understand the magnitude of the archive until we went to the house and found Hefty bags filled with hundreds of tapes. He’s kept a cassette recorder going for every second he was awake for 15 years.

BG: I was surprised at the wealth of early footage of Johnston – his home movies are a hoot. Did Feuerzeig do anything to treat or restore that footage? Also, is Johnston still as interested in self-documentation today as he was while growing up?

HR: All of the texture that you see in the early films -- the snowflakes as we call them – stems from mold eating the films. When we found the films they were in a shoebox in a closet being eaten by mold. We sent them to the same restoration facility that Martin Scorsese sends things to. We transferred them twice over two years, and when we went back to watch the footage, the snowflakes or mold had advanced considerably. Those films will eventually be consumed. The fact we could preserve [some of] them means they’ll exist in the future.
Daniel no longer walks around with a cassette recorder. That was part of his manic phase, and he isn’t theoretically having manic phases anymore -- he is under the influence of psychotropic medication. Now he puts that manic energy into his music and his art.

BG: His devotion to recording is very Warhol-like.

HR: It reminds me of Warhol’s filing system with the boxes. Warhol just kept those empty cardboard boxes that he’d put anything in. Then they’d be taped up, numbered, and sent to storage. Later, they found so many important documents mixed in with his junk mail. I can’t say it’s effective, but it’s good for posterity. At least you know things are chronological.

BG: Feuerzeig’s rock docs – both this and Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King – allow the parents of the “rock stars” to have their say. Is that something you like about his approach? Obviously in Johnston’s case it’s necessary to have his mom in the film since she plays such a major role in his early recordings.

HR: The Mabel of the movie is a mellowed Mabel. She’s not the Mabel of Daniel’s youth. She’s also not the Mabel of today because she’s unfortunately deteriorated considerably. She’s blind and has had hip replacements and has trouble walking. She’s in frail condition.
The parents are great. Both Jeff and I like old people. There aren’t enough old people on the screen in general. In Jeff’s films, the parents play a key role in the lives of the artists. Jad and David [Fair, of Half Japanese] lived at home during their early creative years. There’s that great scene in The Band That Would Be King where the parents talk about Half Japanese’s first record negotiations at the family home, and about Jad going downstairs and getting Coke – the drink, not the drug.
These people lived at home and the parents are a big part of the story. In Daniel’s case, they’re an even bigger part in terms of decisions they’ve made for him.
Different people view [Daniel’s parents in the movie] differently. We showed the film to an audience of psychologists, and many saw the parents as heroic for choosing not to institutionalize Daniel. Many others saw them as making a big mistake.

BG: The movie talks about aspects of Johnston’s art, such as the eyeball imagery that dominates his drawings. I’m wondering about his early identification with Joe Louis and also the recurrent references to Casper the Friendly Ghost in his lyrics. Has he said much about any of that?

HR: Casper’s always occupied a central role in Daniel’s life. You may recall the sequence [in the film] where Daniel is sent to Texas to live with his brother and he turns his brother’s weight bench into a recording studio. Sitting right next to that “recording studio” was a Casper glass. In one of Daniel’s audio letters he talked about how lonely he was in Texas and that his only friend in the world was his Casper glass.
We found an identical glass on eBay; [Daniel] helped us art direct many of the recreations in the film.
I liked Casper as a kid, but I never thought about it until Daniel asked -- “How did Casper die?”

BG: Can you tell me a bit about the decision to not have Johnston interviewed in the movie? It seems as if others talk about him, but he rarely directly addresses the viewer.

HR: We filmed hours and hours of interviews with Daniel, and the sad fact is this: Daniel is not able to host his own film. He’s sick and he can’t tell these stories. He doesn’t remember them, and when he does, he doesn’t tell them right. You can’t draw Daniel out. He says what he wants to say when he wants to say it. He can’t host the movie like R. Crumb hosts Crumb.
When journalists travel all the way to Texas to interview Daniel, they are shocked and frustrated to discover that he’s a mental patient. People want to believe that it’s an act, or that he’s putting people on.
If we had relied on Daniel’s interviews to drive the film, there would be no film. It wasn’t until we unearthed the archive that we realized that Daniel narrated the film, but in real time, as it happened. We don’t have to have Daniel reminisce – [because of his self-documentation] we can be there during his manic phases and see him babbling to Gibby Haynes, or swimming in the creek while talking about baptizing people.

BG: How and when did you become a Daniel Johnston fan? Do you have a favorite song or album? I know you’ve referred to this movie as a 6-year labor of sorts, so could you also give me a bit of background in terms of its creation?

HR: I think I came to Daniel through Half Japanese, whom I met through my friendship with Bruce Conner. Bruce was on Jad [Fair]’s mailing list. Jad would send Bruce packages of records -- when you get something from Jad, it’s mail art. Then Bruce had a party in the late ‘70s and brought them [Half Japanese] out and I met them.
My favorite album of Daniel’s is the Jad Fair-Daniel collaboration, which has been reissued under the name It’s Spooky [originally on 50 Skidillion Watts records; now available on Jagjaguwar]. It just doesn’t get better.
Jeff and I met in Berlin [at the Berlin Film Festival] in 1993, when he was there with his film about Half Japanese. I felt like he had made that film just for me. I knew I was the only person in the room who knew who the band was. Everyone was convinced this was Spinal Tap. We talked about our love of Daniel and how there should be a Daniel Johnston film. It seemed impossible. He [Daniel] was dormant at the time. It wasn’t until 2000 that he began emerging again. That’s when we seized the moment.

BG: You are producing Bruce Conner’s sole feature-length film, a years-in-the-making documentary about the Soul Stirrers. Can you tell me a bit about that movie, and about your other involvements with Bruce via the film and his Mabuhay Gardens photos of your band Crime?

HR: We met during the punk rock years and became friends then. Bruce asked me if I could produce a reunion concert of the original Soul Stirrers. I knew nothing about filmmaking at that time. We decided the event was so important it should be documented. We looked for people to film, and that’s kind of how I got tricked into being a movie producer. Twenty years later, that movie is still the albatross around my neck. We are making slow progress on it, believe it or not. It’s not dormant and it’ll emerge one day.
It’s priceless archive footage that we’ve shot, because all of our protagonists are dead.
Bruce definitely got me started in this profession – though I hesitate to call it that, I don’t know what it is – and as I sharpen my skills with other filmmakers on other projects we’ve continued to collaborate.

BG: Do you see any links between Devil and Daniel Johnston and documentaries such as Tarnation and Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt?

HR: The movies that most often get mentioned in relation to ours are Capturing the Friedmans and Crumb. Those are either stylistic or content pairings that people are making. There’s validity to all of them.
Tarnation I enjoyed, though I didn’t think it was a great film. It bogged down, but it was interesting. The high point of the movie for me was the early footage where he [Jonathan Caouette] was impersonating his mother -- that’s what stands out in my mind. When Tarnation came out, we were done with this film, so Tarnation exerted no influence. We were curious to track it because it relied heavily on a person’s obsessive self-documentation. But I think that the materials are handled with a completely different sensibility.
Crumb deals with an artist who you could say has interesting personality disorders. I’m not going to say Crumb is mentally ill -- he’s nowhere near where Daniel is. But like Devil and Daniel Johnston, Crumb is a monograph about an artist.
Capturing the Friedmans will forever remain the most astounding archive of found footage ever stumbled across.

BG: A review of Devil and Daniel Johnston in Film Comment claims the movie makes a virtue of Johnston’s “self-defeating” eccentricity, and asserts that the movie fuels “mad genius” myths while ignoring Johnston’s influences. What do you think of that kind of criticism?
HR: I completely disagree. Daniel’s influences are discussed throughout the film. They’re all over the walls of his garage – comic books, Marilyn, the Beatles, he’s a sponge of pop culture and everything else. He has art books devoted to da Vinci and Van Gogh. He sucks from everything and it gets spewed out through his filter. He doesn’t assign value to things – to him, everything’s the greatest. He has the biggest collection of Beatles bootlegs I’ve ever seen. To Daniel, Ringo’s solo albums are as great as Sgt. Pepper’s. Wings albums are as great as Beatles albums.
He listens to Journey, Rush – whatever garbage, he processes it. And yet when you engage Daniel on a topic when he’s conversant and catch him in a lucid moment you can have the most erudite discussion. He can critique every panel Jack Kirby ever drew.
There’s that shot [in the film] when you’re in a basement and seeing his work materials, and you’re seeing Warhol’s Marilyns. I wonder how many other teenagers in Westchester at the time were cutting out Warhols – probably none. Daniel’s always been plugged in and sought out the most interesting things going on.

BG: What does Daniel think of the movie?

HR: You can imagine what this movie would mean to a narcissist of Daniel’s proportion. Of course, he likes the film -- but he’s very funny. He told Jeff when he saw it that he liked the colors.
We did take the time to shoot 16mm film and we took hours to light and compose shots.
The aesthetic of the film is a huge part of it. If we had this movie with a camcorder it wouldn’t have given the subject the weight it deserved. That’s why this movie cost a million dollars.

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