In many ways, the treatment of the mentally ill has made great strides over the years, resulting in scientific breakthroughs and enlightened attitudes that have genuinely improved lives. And yet, despite understanding much more than we ever have regarding the human brain, we have reversed course once again and threaten to move into a new barbarism, though one that avoids stigma, physical abuse, and grotesque warehousing. Instead, we have reached a critical new low, where in fact we so romanticize the mentally ill that they become objects of amusement, rather than desperately sick human beings in need of care. In our desire to remove the pain that comes with diagnosis, we believe that these people are no different than anyone else, and are simply in possession of “quirks” or “eccentricities” rather than deep, and often dangerous afflictions. It’s a bizarre cultural turn than once had good intentions, but now does far more harm to the patients themselves, as they are encouraged to so indulge their sickness that it becomes confused with “brilliance”. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is, in fact, one of the most vile symbols of this new course, as it takes a sad, demented individual (likely a schizophrenic, but surely a severe manic depressive) and rather than pull him aside for hospitalization, turns him into a hip rock star; a cult hero whose music and drawings reveal a genius that hasn’t been seen since Dylan’s basement tapes. Or so his former manager would have us believe.
Daniel Johnston’s problems started early, what with growing up in a twisted home full of hellfire and instability, but at some point, the illness began to take hold, only no one in his vicinity had the intelligence or compassion to do anything about it. They knew that Daniel loved to sing, write pages of lyrics, and draw hour after hour. He was a little high-strung, yes, but no one seemed to guess that there were deeper problems at work. As such, he continued to live as if perfectly normal, even giving college a try at one point. But he was obsessive, moody, and unpredictable; not necessarily signs of doom, but strong enough signals that someone should have sought help. At a branch of Kent State University in Ohio, he fell in love with a woman named Laurie Allen, which is no big deal in the life of a young man, but fatal in the diseased brain of a psychopath. While they never had a relationship of any kind (and she was likely just being kind, as pretty girls often are towards zit-ridden weirdos who wander around campus screaming incoherently), he took a coerced declaration of love (caught on audio tape, as everything in Daniel’s life was) as a sign of something more, and as such, he never wavered in his obsession. In fact, Daniel wrote over 1,000 songs about Laurie, which of course is creepy and insane, but for the film and its participants, romantic and inspiring.
And while this is an interesting portrait of a man whose life has always been off the rails, the fundamental problem with the documentary is that for the director, he is anything but a nutcase. The alleged evidence of his brilliance — the music itself — plays throughout the film, and if an obsessively pounded keyboard accompanied by a high-pitched wail is your idea of art, then you might send away for his tapes (his manager sells them through mail order to this very day). He drones on about Casper the Friendly Ghost, comic books, himself, lost loves (read: Laurie), and of course, himself. Because he is full-tilt crazy, he is abnormally, pathologically narcissistic, which means that every waking second of his existence has been logged and chronicled. There are the audio tapes, pictures, crude home movies, and drawings, all so vast and mind-numbing that it would take decades to wade through them all. And again, only the maniacally self-absorbed document their lives in this fashion, as each moment becomes another opportunity to push their perspective on the rest of us. Since the entirety of his life is perceived to be of value, there is literally no down time. Every thought, every idea, and every beat of the heart is so packed with meaning that it becomes of the highest importance to preserve it for a posterity that will no doubt see the worth of it all. And throughout his life, Daniel always believed he would be famous; more than that, he believed fame was his birth right, and anyone standing in his way was an agent of evil.
Here, of course, is where Daniel becomes even more intolerable, as his rages and periods of even deeper psychosis involve unending rants against Satan and the forces of darkness. Clips of his “concerts” (freak shows, if they’re labeled correctly) show a man totally over the edge; weeping, wide-eyed, and lost in a religious passion from which there is no return. He’s obsessed with numerology and “signs”, and his behavior proves conclusively that mental illness is synonymous with godly fervor, forever and always. He hears voices, commands, and instructions for his life, and I’m sure he does, but whereas Daniel takes pills to make these things go away, others — deemed “Christian” or “Muslim” or whatever — are given tax exempt status and flattered as “devout” and somehow worthy of a seat at the table. But Daniel is as intolerable and maddening as any fool for Christ, because he has managed to trick simpering sycophants and pretentious knuckleheads across the spectrum into promoting his ramblings as noble incarnations of the artistic spirit. Sure, Daniel is annoying, pitiful, and so self-involved as to be a parody of naked vanity, but those who push him along from recording studios to festivals deserve far more of the blame. In addition to using and exploiting a sick man, they have further diminished the very use of “art”, and have once again demonstrated that anything, anywhere can be declared such so long as it has someone of influence standing behind it.
The crucial release for Daniel — 1983’s “Hi, How Are You” — is, if you believe the talking heads in this film (some of whom work for actual record companies) a seminal release worthy of the term “classic”. It deserves to be remembered they say, without any evidence save their voices crying out for recognition. Instead, what played on the soundtrack was so dreadfully pathetic that I couldn’t even laugh at how bad it was. Instead, I sat shocked and stupefied. Daniel is so lost in the crippling pain of his own mind that anything that springs from it cannot be put forth as artistic expression. Art should have intent; the notion that its creator set out to achieve a desired result, even if that result breaks the rules and challenges expectations. Especially when it does so. But Daniel is not in control of his thoughts, let alone what he speaks, and merely because others want to translate such words into art does not mean that we should agree to the terms. His drawings of Captain America, for example, are basic and unremarkable, but because they have come from a man like Daniel, they are reinvented as “masterpieces” worthy of a gallery showing. If a sane, middle class man produced the same piece of paper, it would be dismissed as kitsch at best. But because Daniel has that special nobility and “angelic” quality granted to the insane, it is given credit for that which the creator never intended. He simply was incapable of putting any rational thought behind his scribblings.
But never mind all that — Kurt Cobain wore a Johnston drawing t-shirt on the MTV Video Awards, so he’s “in”. Daniel opened for fIREHOSE at the CBGB, so he’s “relevant”. He was featured on MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” in 1985, so he’s “acceptable”. Hell, he even managed a standing room only gig at Austin’s SXSW festival, after which he tried to take command of an airplane’s controls because Casper the Friendly Ghost wanted him to bail out sans parachute. The plane pitched into a dive, but the pilot — also his father — managed to avoid a stall and glide the plane into a controlled crash-landing. But the fans of Daniel probably wouldn’t care anyway, believing his suicidal action was “cool” or just another “performance”, like he’s another Andy Kaufman or something. About this time, Daniel also started taking LSD rather heavily, which is exactly what a severely manic depressive man needs, of course. The drug deepens the madness, and more than ever before, he becomes convinced that Satan wants to take over the world. Daniel can talk about little else during this period, and at one point breaks into an old woman’s apartment and chases her out the window, as she, in his mind, had been “captured by demons”. He’s briefly institutionalized, but not nearly long enough to do any good. The delusions continue unabated, and all the while, his fame inexplicably grows.
He’s courted by Elektra, but eventually signs with Atlantic records, though his maiden effort only sells 5,800 copies. Soon after the release of this bomb, he is dropped by his label. Still, that this certifiably crazy man, who would be homeless or dead were it not for his parents and the kindness of strangers, even had a record contract to begin with should send all struggling musicians to the nearest tall building for a midnight leap to oblivion. During this entire stretch of film, Daniel never uttered a single thing that made a lick of sense, and with his music an affront to human ears everywhere, it becomes even more depressing to consider his popularity, as limited as it is in the larger scheme of things. He’s always been a fringe dweller, but people outside of mental hospitals still know who he is, and that’s more than most of us can say. Sure, hundreds of untalented nitwits make millions of dollars exploiting our need for mediocrity, but these hacks — from Paris Hilton to Britney Spears — have few champions in the critical world, and are usually the butt of jokes among serious music lovers. Johnston is no joke; and he’s got the comparisons to the Beatles, Brian Wilson, and Robert Johnson to prove it.
Daniel eventually makes his way back to Waller, Texas, where he lives today and “sings” with the garage band Daniel and the Nightmares. He’s even let himself go; so puffy and walrus-like that he’s closer to the Jackass staple Don Vito than anything resembling his former glory. At an exhibition of his crude artwork, a gallery owner says of him, “Daniel Johnston is his own movement”. In other words, when future generations look back at key moments in art history, they will point to Daniel Johnston as a figure of god-like significance. He’s believed to have changed the culture forever, despite failing to have a backer who doesn’t resemble an aging hippy or stoned rocker running a low-budget label in his basement. His mom and dad are still alive, continue to feed and bathe the lad, and presumably, he’s waiting for yet another rediscovery, perhaps one prompted by the release of this film. But the movie fails to make a case for his relevance, and assumes we all agree because we are in the viewing audience. No one’s gotten rich from anything Daniel’s done, but everyone — from the filmmakers to the exhibitors of his work — are nasty, shameful vultures of the worst kind, and they should leave this man alone and stop feeding into his pathological need to feel important. He’s not an icon, or anyone we should bring out from the shadows in any capacity. His music may keep him alive, but it’s for him alone; a therapy not meant for public consumption or debate. Get him a good doctor, a good hospital, and enough meds to chase away the demons. The last thing he needs is another delusion.