“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” @ Tiny Creatures

Last Thursday I went to a free screening of “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” at an art gallery in Echo Park. All of two miles away from my house, I managed to show up to the gallery late – just a few minutes past 8, mind you, but late nonetheless – to find there were no available seats. Seeing as there were fewer than a dozen chairs set up, this wasn’t much of a surprise. After awkwardly looking around for a seat, I spotted a stool next to the piano upon which the projector was busily spewing the images of an R.E.M. music video DVD upon a wrinkled white sheet hanging a few feet away. Tight of a spot as it was, at least I found a place to put me bum. Behind me sat a collage of pornographic images cut-and-pasted together on a poster-sized sheet. From the wall beside me, the rear half of a squirrel stuck out as if it had attempted to fly through but didn’t quite make it. Hand-decorated record sleeves, miniature models and other miscellaneous artsy goodies adorned shelves. Modest as it was, the gallery oozed cool.

Just before the film was about to start, the projector guy narrowly squeezed himself between me sitting on the stool, which was a foot from the piano, and the wall, which was also a foot away, nearly hitting his head on the hanging lantern, 6 inches above. Oh no. I’d taken his stool! I felt bad. I kept offering to move and sit on the floor, but he kept refusing to claim the seat that was rightfully his. Nice fellow.

The story of Daniel Johnston, who is known to most as the guy behind that curious “Hi, how are you” T-shirt featuring a weird frog creature worn by Kurt Cobain, is at once tragic and uplifting. Although he has suffered from severe manic depression with psychotic delusions all his life, Daniel has achieved notoriety and acclaim for his art, having released close to 40 albums, sold countless works of art, worked professionally with the likes of Jad Fair and Maureen Tucker, had his songs covered by Sonic Youth, Beck, Yo La Tengo, Pearl Jam, and Wilco (among others), and even landed an appearance on MTV. His story is a stranger-than-fiction tale that one would chalk up to mere legend (Joining a traveling carnival? Crashing an airplane? Drawing hundreds of Jesus fish inside the Statue of Liberty?) had the events not all been verified and accounted for.

To say any more would spoil the delightful surprises and scary revelations skillfully brought to life on the screen by director Jeff Feuerzeig. Featuring priceless footage of his early years and intriguing interviews with the people closest to Daniel, this finely directed documentary – which won the Best Director prize at Sundance in 2005 – is a beautiful portrait of a tortured genius.

After the film, Feuerzeig fielded questions from an initially timid audience and briefly discussed his current projects (two docs about The Monks and Tiny Tim).

The Tiny Creatures gallery plans to host such screenings every month. Visit tiny-creatures.com to sign up for their mailing list.

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