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The Reporter and Daniel Johnston

We all come from families and spend the rest of our lives embracing and escaping them and creating new ones. Art breeds its own family.
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Singer/songwriter/artist Daniel Johnston is somewhere between two and three hundred pounds. A mop of gray hair crowns his face. Like many mentally ill people, his eyes reflexively veer away when one looks at him. He alternates between a cigarette and a straw, sucking on the gas station speedball of Kool Menthols and Mountain Dew. He's in his mid-forties but looks twenty years older. It's January 24th, 2005 and we're at Sundance in Park City, Utah, the annual indie film marketing sell-fest and yuppie circus.

Daniel and his family have just watched the premiere of The Devil And Daniel Johnston, a documentary that meticulously details the major events of his life as an artist whose work embraces, was challenged by, and transcends manic depression. The director Jeff Feuerzeig -- a/k/a Fearless -- is standing with Johnston in the theater's crowded lobby as the locusts of media snap photos and shout questions. Fearless states that since 1990, he'd wanted to make a film about "one of the greatest artists who's ever lived." The glare of lights cause Daniel to repeatedly blink as he instinctively avoids eye contact with these creatures who dwell in the real world.

"It was funny, wasn't it?" Daniel asks in response to questions from the press. "They told my whole life story. There's nothing left for anybody to know. 'Danny slugs his manager. Danny throws the old lady out the window. Danny goes to the mental hospital. Danny crashes the airplane.'"

The crowd howls. Fearless reminds him that "It's all true."

"A lot of the things in the story I don't recall," Johnston admits. "But if you got 'em on tape, they must be true."

Someone asks Daniel how the limelight feels.

"I've already been in the limelight," he says. "It's just a bunch of light bulbs."

The film's Los Angeles crew is staying in a huge mansion that functions as a ski lodge most of the year. Besides director Fearless, there's producer Henry Rosenthal, editor Tyler Hubby, cinematographer Fortunato Procopio and various wives, girlfriends, and Johnston managers and mythologists. The crew has brought along their own embedded reporter who -- like all embedded reporters -- has no pretense of impartiality. The Reporter is equal parts observer, cheerleader, publicist, and freeloader.

In addition to the Hollywood contingent are the hosts, Jeff and Jeryl Brivic. Jeff owns the world's largest collection of Daniel Johnston art. His wife Jeryl borrowed the mansion from a wealthy uncle. She has a thick Noo Yawk accent that makes The Reporter nostalgic for his hometown as she repeatedly offers to procure things. "Ya need a bee-uh? Ya need somethin' to eat? Whadda ya need?" asks Jeryl every ten minutes. The Reporter declines the offerings but is so rattled by her incessant questioning that he bums several packs of cigarettes off the gracious hostess, even though he'd been off the nasty sticks for a month.

The third group dwelling in the manse is the Johnston family: Daniel, his elderly parents Bill and Mabel, his brother Dick, and sisters Margie and Sally.

A temporary macro-family has been created from the threads of a crew bonded by art, a fundamentalist Christian blood family, and the fluttering creatures who magically appear whenever the limelight beckons.

The night of the premiere, the guests returned to the mansion to celebrate. Sitting around a long oak table, Johnston and Fearless had a one-on-one rap about the screening while others lounged about. The only minor disagreement Daniel had with the movie was when lifelong friend Dave Thornberry stated that during Daniel's youth, "He'd go to church with [the family], but he wouldn't participate. He'd go to church so he could stare at the girls."

"I think he got the wrong idea," Johnston told Fearless. "Of course I liked the girls, but I believed in the Bible." The director suggested he discuss it with Dave. Older brother Dick Johnston abruptly interrupted, saying "Dave didn't know what he was talking about. That was stated as fact. Dan is telling you it wasn't true."

"That's Dan's side and that's cool, "Fearless calmly agreed. "The true side," countered Dick. Fearless pointed out that "Dave was his best friend at the time and he might remember some things. I don't remember every moment of my own life. You don't either and neither does Daniel."

Dick was fuming, his eyes aflame with Old Testament fury. "That's your view, Jeff!" he lashed out. "We don't have a 'view,'" the ever-gentlemanly Rosenthal reasoned, while Daniel meekly tried to defuse his brother. "Don't worry about it," he said to Dick, as the issue was clearly more Dick's than Daniel's.

"LIARS!" thundered Dick Johnston. "LIARS! LIARS! LIARS!" His family sat near-by, saying little.

The Reporter chuckled to himself, sucked down a beer brought to him by the
hovering Hebrew homegirl hostess Jeryl and silently mused over this contretemps. Hadn't Daniel stated at the press conference that he didn't recall "a lot of the things in the story" and "if you got 'em on tape, they must be true"? Don't we all bring agendas to our memories?

Later, a handful of the nocturnal gathered around a smaller table in a den. Daniel sat with a sketchbook and churned out drawing after drawing. Procopio's girlfriend, the beauteous Tall Melinda, asked him if he would draw her. Johnston looked up and examined the long, lithe and lovely young woman before him. "I will if you pose nude," he answered. Mel smiled. "I don't think so, but thank you anyway," she affably declined.

Certain questions of veracity and Christian politesse suddenly seemed moot, thought The Reporter.

The Reporter is an insomniac and was awake at 5 am, nestled on his blow-up mat, reading Edgar Allen Poe by flashlight in the dark, just as he had throughout his childhood. "Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night," wrote the great Poe. As the words sunk in, The Reporter heard the sound of walking, looked up, and saw a Ghost. Between dwelling in this cavernous mansion and the pervasive context of madness, the atmosphere was already hallucinatory. But this was a fucking Ghost.

The Ghost was all-white and white-haired and wearing a white nightgown. It was barefoot and shuffling in the dark. The Reporter got up and carefully approached the spirit's path. It looked at him."

"Are you Daniel?" it asked.

"No," he replied.

"Where's Daniel?"

"I don't know."

"Bill!" the Ghost yelled. "BILL!"

Out of the ether, the two Johnston sisters appeared and helped their sleepwalking mother back to bed. The Reporter returned to his mat and took a Xanax so that he could dream by night.

The next day, Rosenthal and Fearless invited sister Sally Johnston-Reid to join them and The Reporter for a seminar and lunch in town. Sally is a composer and music teacher in Abilene, Texas and a fan of John Cage and Minimalism. The Reporter vibed that Sally wanted to have some fun with the bohemes, away from her ticking nuclear bomb family.

The seminar was called something like How To Be A Film Composer. Sally was intrigued simply because she's a musician. Fearless sat on a semi-circular dais with Kevin Bacon and other directors and composers. The wanna-bees sat in the audience, apparently unaware that the odds were they'd have their greatest hopes crushed in the garbage dump called Hollywood.

The panelists gave earnest answers. Fearless, a twisted aesthete, mystified the attendees with an obscure dissertation about the Golden Age of Reverb. Later, the moderator wrapped up by asking the panelists for general advice. He turned to Fearless, who pontificated thusly: "What I tell any young composer is ..."

Fearless paused and the audience leaned forward.

"...always remember one thing..."

They leaned forward even further, in eager anticipation of The Answer.

"Second verse, same as the first."

Judging by the blank stares, few seemed to understand this sagely wisdom gleaned from Herman's Hermits, but The Reporter did.

After lunch, Rosenthal gave Sally the choice to stay with them as they killed time in Park City or he could drive her back to her parents and siblings. She thanked Henry and said she preferred to stay in town with them. For all the Danielmania of those few days at Sundance, The Reporter will never forget the contented expression on Sally's face.

We all come from families and spend the rest of our lives embracing and escaping them and creating new ones. Art breeds its own family. Two filmmakers, a music teacher and The Reporter formed a family for one brief afternoon in Utah. This family had its own forebears and, no doubt, would have its own singular offspring. These very words you are reading were, in effect, conceived on that day and perhaps, much like the words of Herman's Hermits, will plant seeds elsewhere.

The Reporter felt camaraderie with the music teacher from Abilene Christian University. She's a sister artist. He hopes that the Sally Johnstons of the world remember that they -- as the late Thelonious Monk once observed -- are the stars of their own movie. The limelight, after all, is just a bunch of light bulbs

Jeff Feuerzeig won Best Director/Documentary at Sundance 2005. The Devil and Daniel Johnston was released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Sept. 19, 2006.

This article is reprinted from the print edition of Artillery, November 2006.