The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

Somehow I missed the phenomena of Daniel Johnston, who gained fame in the Austin alternative music scene during the mid-1980s and beyond. I stumbled upon a preview of this film and immediately requested the DVD. As an artist, art therapist and lover of outsider art, I became quickly became consumed by this story of madness, creativity and love.

Jeff Feurzeig’s documentary weaves film footage collected by Johnston and his family—with interviews and commentary by the many people who were touched by him. He was forty-five at the time of the film's release. We see footage of him a few years earlier performing at the 2001 Austin Music Awards Show, when he won Best Songwriter of the Year. He had become quite heavy and aged by the mental illness that fueled his creativity. Wildly popular in Austin, the attention he received was also quite controversial. The bipolar genius singer/songwriter/artist expressed his talent in ways that were often more spectacle than art.

Johnston’s elderly parents, Bill and Mabel, are featured extensively as they demonstrate unending care and support for their son, the youngest of five children who was always different. They lived an ordinary family life in West Virginia during the 60s and 70s. An expressive and confident child--by junior high school, his illness began to come out in ways that made him more difficult to live with. He rarely slept durih ng his constant occupation with drawing, recording and filming in his basement "art factory." He shunned the fundamentalist Christian views of his family, but as his illness worsened, religious delusions increased (ie: the devil). During high school he began drawing eyeballs—the image became his trademark. Daniel fell in love with a girl named Laurie who broke his heart when she took up with a new boy and got married. Many of his songs were about how he pined for her.

He tried college for awhile, but the parents took him out when it was apparent that he was not succeeding there. A couple of his siblings invited him into their homes at various times to attempt to provide a stable environment and “normal” life. He thrived while living with his sister and working at the local amusement park—until the day he bought a moped and went on the road with a carnival for several months. The family was sick with worry until they found him in Austin, working at MacDonald’s while making his way into the growing music scene.

Hi How Are You? Is Johnston’s first album in the genre of Meet The Beatles. He adored them and believed he would one day be just as famous. He discovered a local band called Glass Eye and felt some kind of cosmic connection with them because of his eyeball fascination and was invited to open for the band. Lead singer, Katy McCarty took a liking to him and soon Johnston considered her his new girlfriend. She went along for awhile until he began referring to her as his fiancĂ©e. She had to put an end it, another heart-breaking event that Johnston would pine over for years to come, adding material to his heartfelt songwriting.

He was featured on MTV, the realization of one of his dreams. Jeff Tartakov was a fan turned advocate who formed Stress Records to help Johnston market the licensing of his songs to other musicians. He also began using LSD and experiencing further mental breakdown leading to a violent attack to his manager. By this time, Johnston had been in and out of psychiatric facilities and on and off various medications. After recovering from one of his low points, Johnston was invited by Steve Shelly of Sonic Youth to record at Noise Studio in the late 1980s. While in New York, he got arrested for drawing hundreds of christian fish symbols at the Statue of Liberty.

The film is full of dramatic stories about Johnston’s out-of-control life, including an incident told about by Johnston senior--while piloting a small aircraft to take Dan home after The Austin Music Awards, Dan pulled the key from the ignition and tossed it out the window of the plane and wrestled the controls away from Bill. The two were heading for a crash when Bill was able to regain control for a safe landing into a group of trees.

The Johnstons moved to Walley, Texas during the early 90s. Dan was championed by Curt Cobain of Nirvana during that decade. He religiously wore the t-shirt design for Dan's first album. This attention brought Johnston unprecedented notoriety. He actually sparked a bidding war as a $100,000 contract was negotiated from the visitors area of the state mental hospital. Atlantic Records actually constructed the most beneficial plan for Johnston, fully incorporating the demands of his illness with clauses for the special provisions. By this time in Johnston’s career, Jeff Tartakov had stepped in as manager. He lived for the good of Dan Johnston. Sadly, Johnston turned on him just as his Atlantic Records contract was signed when he fired Tartakov and hired a new manager.

Johnston’s “FUN” was released in 1994 an the label dropped him soon after. Bill and Mabel never give up on their son. At the end of the film, he was living in their basement as he had as a teenager with another version of his art factory. They manage a bit of peace and quiet during the morning hours, but once Dan arises, he demands to be cooked for and taken places. He played with a band living down the street—Nightmare House.

More than 150 bands have recorded his songs. This is a fascinating story and tribute to the creative life.


Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)

Sydney Pollack began working on this documentary about his friend, Frank Gehry, after visiting the 1997 opening of the spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (http://www.guggenheim.org/bilbao) that left him stunned and amazed..."like Don Quixote got stoned and made a building."

Ed Ruscha describes him..."Gehry mixes the freewheelingness of art with something concrete and unforgiving--the laws of physics." He takes enormous risks to create structures that do not blend into the landscape as does much of architecture.

"That is so stupid-looking that it's great," Gehry comments while he creates a model with one of his design partners. The collaborative process begins with Gehry talks suggesting forms as the partner cuts pieces from sheets of heavy metallic paper and use tape to position the pieces to match Gehry's ideas--they jut out, fold and curve. These early models are reworked in various scales and materials and digitized to allow the engineering plans to evolve.

Gehry has been aligned with artists since the 1960s. Other architects laughed at him. He began some of his early experiments by building around his own small bungalow to create an amazing array of levels, textures, light and shadow. Early on, he created more traditional designs to earn a living until a friend coaxed him into giving all that up to create only the artistic work he was best at. When Gehry was a kid, a rabbai told his mother that he had golden hands, as his drawings were so special. Another hand-writing analyst said he would one day be a famous architect. Most of his work begins with pen and ink sketches. He began with art classes in college and eventually found his way into the architecture department. He received an A, but the professor tried to desuade him from the path.

The film is full of interviews with people he had worked with, including Milton Wexler, his therapist for 35 years and Dennis Hopper to commissioned a home design from Gehry. Pollack is behind the camera, but occasionally comes out to share something relevant to the discussion. Pollack mentions one of his favorite lines heard from one of his teachers..."Talent is liquified trouble." Personal frustration often leads to great art. Gehry quotes his favorite line heard once from Pollack and has made it his motto..."There is a sliver of space in the commercial world where you can make a difference."

The Bilbao project is gasp-worthy. "It's foreign to the other buildings around it--has a scale of ancient Egypt," says Julian Schnabel. The shimmering surface lends an otherworldly quality to the experience of witnessing this structure from the humble surrounding town. Locals have experienced a new sense of community self-esteem since the museum's opening--as if they take credit for creating it themselves. Art and Archeology professor, Hal Foster, is a naysayer who feels Gehry gives his clients too much of what they want. Foster says the structures function too much as a spectacle. Schnabel defends Bilbao critics who claim the building competes too much with the art and asks "Maybe the art isn't good enough?" Gehry admits to a lot of mixed feelings about all the controversy and says he was somewhat embarrassed by the completed project at Bilbao. There are certain elments that can only be seen in the final project so there are always areas he wished were different.

Gehry's work is actually that of a contemporary cubist sculptor focused on materials as a way to make beauty with junk...always keeping in mind the mantra of modernism. "Decoration is a sin." In the 1980s when designers were re-doing history, Gehry went way back to the anthromorphic fish form. He created fish lamps and an amazing hotel in Barcelona, Spain. His work is very much a team effort and talks about accepting projects based on whether he likes the people involved.

He is not a painter, but he holds reverence for the artform and his buildings come across as painterly. He says "I'm fascinated with the moment of truth--there's the canvas and the brush and the palette of colors. What do you do? What's that first move? I love that dangerous place."


Pieces of April (2003)

Peter Hedges' film is the perfect alternative to the traditional Thanksgiving stories. Before Tom and Surie, Katie Holmes was a young starlett who is cast as April, a kind of girl who flocks to the big city from conventional suburban America. She has invited her family to drive a couple hours to visit her for Thanksgiving dinner.

Part of the film is Dad (Oliver Platt), Mom (Patricia Clarkson) and the two other children on the road to New York City. We learn that Mom has cancer and the family gathering was instigated by Dad as a last-ditch effort to reunite the estranged daughter with her mother since this may be her last Thanksgiving. The other part of the film is April at home in her small sparsely-furnished apartment doing her best to put together this affair. The pressure is on as she faces one obstacle after another, starting with an oven that does not work. We learn more about the family's view of her and her view of herself. "I'm the first pancake," she tells one of her neighbors, "the one you're supposed to throw out"

She learns a little more about cooking from each neighbor she approaches as she tries to find an oven for the bird. Mom has the attitude of a person facing imminent danger and has no faith that April will come through. Dad has complete optimism and faith--he needs to see her succeed. April decorates the hallway of the tenament with crepe paper and balloons. The boyfriend is extremely supportive and encourages her to make the day go well. He shows up in a suit with vintage turkey salt and pepper shakers--the kind that any baby boomer would recognize from Thanksgivings past. I know my grandmother had the very same shakers in her collection.

While this film is somewhat a comedy of errors, it is also a serious look at a fairly typical non-perfect family trying to carry on while dealing with loss. The soundtrack is mostly songs by The Magnetic Fields that add a lot to the entertaining and touching story.


Into The Wild (2007)

This film begins with a Lord Byron poem...
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods:
There is a rapture on the lonely shore:
There is socity where none intrudes.
By the deep sea and muic in its roar,
I love the man not less, but Nature more.

Sean Penn's film is about a young man's search for adventure. Based on the novel, Into the Wild, by John Krakauer--the true story of Christopher McCannliss is told from the point of view of his sister's diaries during the two years after he disappeared without telling the family.

Chris had been a top student who graduated from college and planned to attend law school. His parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) are portrayed as a tightly-wound pair with high expectations for their son's future. Sister Carin is the family observer. We see the family gathered for a celebratory dinner when they announce to Chris that they were giving him a brand new car. He dismissed this gesture. "Why would I want a new car?" They mean well, but we see a pattern of conflict between parents and son. He returns to the college town where he planned to to remain throughout the summer.

The parents faithfully mail letters to him for several months. When they hear nothing back from him they contact the landlord who reports that Chris left at the start of the summer and mentions a stack of unopened letters he has kept in a drawer. Chris had headed west and abandoned his car in the Arizona desert--gave away his $24,000 savings to charity. He takes on the name Alexander Supertramp as he sheds his privileged life to work and travel. He meets a cast of interesting characters along the way. Hippies, Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierkler) live in a trailer and are the complete opposite of his own parents. Underhanded farmer, Wayne (Vince Vaughn), shows him the rancher's life. Lonely widower, Ron (Hal Holbrook), takes him under his wing, but fails to desuade him from making the dangerous trip into the Alaskan wilderness.

Alexander reaches his destination where he finds a deserted bus for shelter. He kills animals and forages for plants. We see him living in harmony with the forces of nature for four months while he discovers the limits of resources and knowledge. Meanwhile, the family hires a private investigator to find him. Carin was closer to her brother than anyone else in life. In her diaries she is able to go along with him on the journey as she tells a universal story of misguided youth and the individual's need to seek and find truth.


Objectified (2009)

Gary Hustwit's documentary about the role of objects in our lives begins with a tale dating back the first century when the Emperor of China standardized arrows so that warrior archers could exchange arrows between one another. He goes on to talk about the stories embedded in various objects as told by designers who search for new forms for mass-produced goods.

The issue of sustainability is a major focus since the shelf life of a hi-tech object is less than eleven months, as items have become increasingly disposable. Style plays on human emotions...form and function are just a part of design. There are more than a hundred definitions of design, but one designer narrowed her favorite to be: "Good design takes innovation and brings it into making useful things." Nobody needs a new phone every six months, but they may want it enough to toss away the old one to spend money on a new one. There is talk of human-centered design and integrated design. In the end, it is about what people want and need, aesthetic appeal and willingness to buy.


Art & Copy (2009)

Doug Pray's film highlights the evolution of the advertising industry in the last fifty years. Since the MadMen series has brought the early world of ads to our collective attention in the last couple years, it's hard to deny the impact of these these words and pictures on the culture. When I was a college art major in the early 1970s, "commercial art" was viewed as low art...a world apart from fine arts and crafts. Art for the purpose of selling was suspect. I enjoyed learning more about this a few ago by watching the documenary about graphic artist, Milton Glaser (http://prettygoodmovie.blogspot.com/2010/02/milton-glaser-art-is-work-2009.html).

Our 21st century world is filtered through a web of marketing that we have come to accept as the air we breathe. The average America child is exposed to about 20,000 television commercials each year. This film opens as a young man named Chad, goes to work for his family business of "Rotators." The work entails rotating and installing new billboard ads. He claims that three generations of his family have thrived doing this work and there is never a shortage of work to be done with 450,000 billboards in the US.

During the 1960s ad agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach began allowing the art director and copy writer to join forces to create the ads that were previously conceived by the less creative business types. The film features all the memorable commercials through the decades. Phyllis Robinson was DDB's copywriter responsible for recognizing the "Me Generation" and creating Clairol's tagline "It lets me be me." A gray-haired woman at the time of the film interview, she admits that she never once colored her own hair.

George Lois, a tough-talking guy from the Bronx is all sales and known for his in-your-face celebrity campaigns, such as "I want my Maypo," spoken by Mickey Mantle and other sports figures. Lois claims that "advertising should be subversive." He later converted the Maypo formula to "I want my MTV" using Mick Jagger and other rock stars. He was also responsible for numerous engaging Esquire Magazine covers, such as a face with parts of Malcolm X, John Kennedy, Bob Dylan and Fidel Castro. A visionary who convinced unknown clothing designer, Tommy Hilfiger that he could make him famous overnight with a billboard that listed the top four desgners for men--Ralph Lauren, Pierre Cardin, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger. Despite Hilfiger's embarrassment and worry that it could kill the future fo his business, agreed and he did become wildly successful almost overnight.

Mary Wells, of Wells, Rich, Greene is interviewed in her envionment of tasteful rows of flower vases and pottery. We notice a note on the desk that reads "Why not have a bigger life?" She explains how her theatrical bent gave her just the right attitude to create memorable ad campaigns, such as the one for Braniff International Airlines, featuring planes painted all different colors and stewardess uniforms designed by Pucci to match the color-scheme of each plane.

Hal Riney claims to have been a quiet kid who longed for a different kind of family. He is known for a series of television ads during the 80s that relied on heartfelt scenes of family life and the american dream with authoritative narrative. He launched Perrier and created the Presidential campaign ad for Ronald Reagan "It's morning again in America."

Goodby, Silverstein & Partner aim for "brutal simplicity" with a motto "art serving capitalism." With Haiku-like slogans such as the "Got Milk" campaign, they often created a kind of mass happening appeal, an inclusive approach to the audience. "We're trying to entertain society using client's products," says Goodby.

Lee Clow is a surfer with a rebel spirit who believes the creative people should be in charge. At TBWA/ChiatDay he helped create the "Think Different" 1984 superbowl commercial that introduced the Apple Macintosh computer and later introduced the dancing black sillouette iPod ads that remains one of my personal favorites. "When done well, an ad can be part of culture instead of pollution," Clow says. "All brands will become media--everyone can become their own network."

Wieden & Kennedy used the words of a man about to die on death row--"Let's do it"--and transformed the words to Nike's famous slogan of the late 1980s. "Just do it" is attributed to offering people a life-changing message that may have sparked divorces, weight-loss, better fitness, career change and other acts of self-improvement. Another Nike campaign--"if you let me play sports"--suggests a host of better life outcomes for girls who play sports.

Many more campaigns are featured in this film that delves into the hearts and minds of the people who create them. Advertising is here to stay. It has become an artform of our culture worth appreciating.


Winter Passing (2005)

Adam Rapp's film tells the story of Reese (Zooey Deshanel), a 20-something actress living in New York. She has broken off ties to her eccentric bohemian parents. Dad, Don Holder (Ed harris), is an author somewhat like a J.D. Salinger, who has dropped out of sight and has not published lately--has become reclusive and retired from his teaching post. Mom, also an author, recently commit suicide.

Reese did not return for the funeral, but while working as a bartender is approached by a book editor (AmyMadigan) who tells her that her mother has left her a bundle of love letters exchanged between the parents while they were courting. She offers $100,000 to publish the letters. This offer is too appealing to pass up so Reese heads to Michigan on a bus. She finds Dad depressed and quite alcoholic--has moved into the garage and all the bedroom furniture out into the back yard. Don uses the former bedroom as an indoor golf course and has made a habit of hittinga few balls before dinner with Corbet. Former students, Corbet (Will Farrell) and Shelly (Amelia Warner) reside in the main house to care for and manage the life of Don.

Reese arrives unexpected and finds a chaotic situation to navigate as she tries to reconnect with her father and find the letters. Reese holds on to her belief that Mom and Dad were not good parents to her. Don knows this to be true. Still, there was a lot of love in the family of artists, along with a lot of moodiness and complication. I always enjoy seeing films featuring Ed Harris and his real-life wife, Amy Madigan. Her role is minor, but Ed is wonderful as the elderly burntout heartsick author. Quirky Zooey Deshanel is perfect as the daughter of bohemian outsiders.