“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.


“49 Up”

Inspired by the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” a U.K.-based filmmaking team has interviewed a diverse group of 7-year-old English children every seven years for the past 42 years, asking them about their lives and their dreams for the future. Director Michael Apted, a researcher for the original film, returns with the latest chapter, revealing more life-changing decisions and more shocking announcements. Most members of the original group agreed to take part, speaking out on a variety of subjects including love, marriage, career, class and prejudice.

This film, in all of its fascinating glimpses into the lives of a diverse group of people coming into adulthood and learning about love, loss, and redemption, was entirely too long. Two-and-a-half hours sitting in a theater is too much for my bad knees to take, especially when considering everyone’s story bore a striking resemblance to one another’s.

Some might feel it best to start with “7 Up” and work through the series in order, but seeing the latest installment is repetitive enough already. Not to say it isn’t enjoyable; quite the contrary. The most intriguing of the lot for me was Neil, who suffered from depression as a teen and ended up living on the streets as a young adult. “49 Up” shows him currently working as a politician. With a poignant story, he recalled laying on the grass and seeing a butterfly land beside him. Watching it gently open and close its wings, he contemplated that despite its short lifespan, it was enjoying simply being a butterfly. He reflected that if people could learn to enjoy simply existing in their own skin, they would be infinitely better off.

It struck me that every single person – despite class, gender, or outlooks on life as a young adult – ended up measuring success not by monetary gains or carreer-based accomplishments, but rather by happiness, generally achieved by having a family. As one of the participants reflected, “It must be awfully lonely without a family.” Perhaps it really is as simple as that.

“Short Bus” – not your average fuck film

The thrills of sucking and fucking take a backseat to the emotional core of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.”

I went to the Outfest screening of this film at the Egyptian Theatre. I’ve been waiting for ages for a film that could pull off showing hardcore, explicit and real sex scenes without being a porno.

Set in modern-day New York City, a heterogeneous group of straights, gays and transgenders find common ground at Shortbus, an underground salon where people are free to explore their most carnal sexual desires with random hookups and nightlong orgies – sometimes even finding bits of wisdom along the way.

The superb cast of characters provides someone for everyone with whom to relate. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm, seeks out ways to overcome her “pre-orgasmic” dilemmae, profoundly affecting her marriage. James (Paul Dawson), a former male escort battling depression, goes to ultimate extremes when he can’t even seem to feel happiness with his loving and devoted partner of five years, Jamie (PJ DeBoy). Struggling artist Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who succumbed to work as a dominatrix, seeks to have a meaningful relationship with someone – anyone.

Yes, the onscreen sex is real. And there’s lots of it. But rather than displaying sexually explicit scenes for the sake of cheap titillation, “Shortbus” is provocative with an actual purpose.

We’re not in Hollywood anymore.

While sex is a main focal point, the film deals with all manners of human relations. Not stressing one form over another, it shows how sex, friendship and love intermingle, and how they sometimes get confused with one another. Because one’s comfort level with their sexuality mirrors how one relates in all other relationships, showing the raw and carnal aspect of each character so explicitly works beautifully to accurately convey their motivations and struggles.

In a touching conversation, an old man identifying himself as the former mayor of New York says to the young and naive Ceth (Jay Brannan), “People come to New York to get laid … People also come to New York to be forgiven.” The latter can also be said for those who elect to see this film. Whether dealing with sexual oppression, struggling with sexual desires deemed socially deviant, seeking redemption for having already been there and done that, or feeling generally unaccepted for being who you are, the redemption value in this film is tenderly perceptible. “Shortbus” lets us know that gay, straight, bi, transgender, whatever – we all just want to feel accepted.