O is None and a Circle and a Hole and It's Whole
I suffer from ventriloquism. Whenever I'm personal here, it seems to be about self-doubt--which I don't mind, I just hope it doesn't become a full-on schtick.
Anyhow, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, besides admittedly dethroning Hotel Rwanda for Most Times I Wanted to Bawl My Fucking Eyes Out at a Movie But Couldn't Because I Was in Public, is, if nothing else, a portrait of single-mindedness. Tragic single-mindedness, sure; psychosis or fanatacism, even, but a condition not without dignity.
What I sorta envy about Johnston is what I doubt about myself: conviction. I've always been fascinated by the determination of belief because I tend to want to believe in everything, to let everyone sit at the table. I can't live without the noise, but I can't sleep either. When the belief seems right, well, that's wonderful; even when it seems wrong to me--neo-imperialism, The Darkness--I'm fascinated by someone's ability to tune out the hums around them enough to hear the psychic glint of a single sound. (Even cranky Lewis Lapham at Harpers, who seems to have written the same intro essay for the last four months, took the most recent issue to dissent from the prescribed, politically correct "plurality of voices" in the wake of the Mohammed cartoon debacle. Even if Lapham uses the platform to try to find a bearing against relativism, there's nothing to brace him and say he isn't just reinforcing it.)
I know there's a difference between believing in something and suffering from mental illness (though insanity is just extreme self-absorption I guess), and the last thing I want to do is fetishize Johnston's manic depression or the speculations of his LSD-burn. Still, it's hard to ignore the power of Johnston's single-mindedness when he broke into a house and frightened an elderly woman into actually jumping out of a fucking window because he was shouting at her about the presence of demons.
While Johnston's music seems best appreciated in bursts (Beta dares you to make it through a whole album), there are definitely isolated moments of brilliance, which were well-excercised in the film. While I guess most people know "Casper the Friendly Ghost" or "Speeding Motorcycle" because of Yo La Tengo or Harmony Korine, "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Your Grievances" is, in my view, what makes Johnston special. Religious, albeit sidewardly; a religion of self--"Do yourself a favor, become your own savior"--self-reliant to a fault, uncharitable, almost martyrly; it's a tiny spot of light only if you believe the world is dark. Which, for Johnston, it wasn't really; he had people to help and support him, but nothing took precedence over what happened in his head. Johnston recorded the song in his first "studio," which utilized his brother's workout benches as tables for a portable cassette recorder and his chord organ; exercise, exorcism, Johnston's career was filled with long, existential puns. Still, if a pun splits the meaning of something, Johnston only wanted one for everything--his own--which, if frightening at times, is enviable; you could see him as a sinking ship or just a guy who wants a swim--god in the eye of the beholder.