I watched the The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a biopic of a artist/singer-songwriter who made it sorta big in Austin before and while he was–not to put too fine a point on it–going crazy. He’s the guy who did the “Hi, How are You?” mural up on the drag.
The film begins with Johnston’s childhood in West Virginia, using Johnston’s home-made Super-8 movies and audio recordings of himself and his mother to recreate a childhood that, while not full of supportive warm fuzziness for Johnston’s arty ways, doesn’t appear to have been more crazy-making than anyone else’s.
The movie then follows Johnston to Austin, where he took root in the local music scene and came to collaborate with The Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. The film conveys these times with more of Johnston’s audio tapes, which are a large part of what he is famous for, and interviews with Butthole Surfer frontman Gibby Haynes, Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, and other local luminaries. Through interviews and well-shot, well-composed, and well-imagined original footage, as well as more of the omnipresent audiotape, the film follows the events of Johnston’s descent into the land of the not-so-very-sane, and then catches up with him today, living with his parents in Waller, Texas and playing with local bands there.
It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a while, and I highly recommend it.
Also, last night, I watched Æon Flux. I’d avoided seeing it to this point simply because I really, really loved the shorts, and didn’t want a crappy screen adaptation to ruin it for me. I’d read enough horrible reviews of the movie to believe I’d made a good decision, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my fears were in fact ill-founded.
A lot of the flack that the movie caught seems to have stemmed from three separate sources. The first is that the movie was not screened in advance for reviewers. These advance screenings are what allows you to read a review in the paper on the day that a movie opens, and when a distributor doesn’t hold one, it’s generally perceived as a tacit admission that the film will make more money on opening night without a lot of bad reviews to drive audiences away. Judging from the almost universal mention that the lack of a screening got in the reviews, it seems likely either that the reviewers were influenced for the worse by it, or MTV films made a wise, wise decision.
The second source of dislike for the movie is the set or the costumes. A lot of reviewers thought the costumes were as silly as the pristine neo-Bauhaus architecture of the future. Reviewers seemed find them ugly or annoying or simply find it improbable that garters or bob cuts would be in style four hundred years from now, although none offer any reason why this would not be the case, or any valuable insight into what kind of clothing might be. While everyone (especially critics) is entitled to their opinion, I chalk most of these complaints up to unfamiliarity with the cartoon, which was chock full of outlandish hairdos and costumes, not to mention sparse, outsized architecture.
The third source of complaints is the technology, with several reviewers apparently thinking that Frances McDormand somehow lives in Æon’s brain or stomach, another wondering how Sophie Okonedo had her hands replaced with feet (cloning, genetic engineering, and surgery, anybody?), and several people commenting on the lack of “technology” in the future. I blame these complaints on ignorance. If half of these reviewers had any idea how badly the technology of today is simplified and misrepresented even in ostensibly serious films, I doubt they’d take exception to a little artistic license with the future. In my view the movie made an admirable, if ultimately flawed, attempt to depict a high-technology future where the interface between people and their tools has become a very organic, intuitive thing that does away with all the silly mediation (mice, keyboards, displays, etc.) that we deal with today.
I felt that the movie, while far from perfect, did a fine job of translating the eccentric visual style and hyperkinetic flow of the animation to live action. Many of the shots and scenes in the movie, as even the most jaded critic admitted, have a very sharp, colorful, geometric beauty.
Even the plot is surprisingly similar in type to the series, with a layered, twisting structure that attempts to turn everything you think you know about Æon’s world upside-down every half-hour or so. Some of the twists are more satisfying and, well, sensical than others, but all of them keep the story moving more smoothly than any MTV films audience has any right to expect. Although the main story line pretty quickly dissolves into a conventional and predictable love story, it does a good job of retaining and evoking the complex lover/adversary relationship between Trevor Goodchild and Æon Flux in the series.
Thematically, the film is more cohesive than I’d have expected; it’s mostly concerned with death, but in a happy way. To say more would probably ruin it, so I won’t.
Peter Chung, the creator of the series, was not heavily involved with the movie–he read the various drafts of the scripts and made suggestions, but little else. Given that, the amount of fidelity to the look and feel of his work is pretty impressive, more so after after you’ve watched the special features on the disk and spent an hour listening to the director, producers, writers, and in fact practically everyone else involved with the move drone on about how marketable a property it was, its potential for demographic targeting, conversion to conventional Hollywood storyline, abundant opportunities for the creation of strong female characters (to put women’s asses in the seats next to the men, who presumably only require Charlize Theron in order to show up), and other MTV commerce drivel too horrible to mention.
All in all, it’s a good flick, and I’d recommend it. I’ll buy it next payday, so if you want to watch it, I should have it available