In my endless pursuit for productive procrastinatory activities, tonight was a good night all in all. I finally watched a documentary I’ve been wanting to see for a long time, called The Devil and Daniel Johnston.videosearch?client=safari&rls=en&q=the+devil+and+daniel+johnston&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&um=1&sa=X&oi=video_result_group&resnum=4&ct=title#

For those of you who don’t know, Daniel Johnston is a mentally challenged Jesus enthusiast, musician and cartoonist. He’s more or less a living legend, a complete anomaly. In creating this documentary, director Jeff Feuerzeig was faced with the challenge of telling the story of someone larger than life – who lives outside the boundaries of well, reality. In and out of mental institutions, jail, and music venues all around the world, the story had to not only be told, but told in such a way as to evoke the man, not just his story. Feuerzeig uses many of Johnston’s original movies, drawings and songs to narrate his story. Many paramount moments in Johston’s life are actually recorded on cassette – and these voice overs are weaved throughout the movie. In addition – Feuerzeig re-interprets the classic documentary technique of re-enactment’s in order to evoke certain spaces – such as old bedrooms, music venues, towns, and locations Johnston was in, but without any of the contrived acting involved in many historical documentaries. Johnston at present day rarely appears in interviews – his world is constructed more by way of his work, not him reflecting on it. This provides a more experience of the work. 

Re-creating someone’s entire life is an incredibly daunting task. In an unconventional documentary like this one, where there is no voice over narration, the audience constructs a fabula, but in a different way. The interviews with his friends, the old photographs, the old concert footage, the cartoons, all supply the material of the story and syuzhet, but the various narratorial voices necessitate a distillation by the viewer. Johnston is not the narrator, but his world is being narrated. We are watching his world from our own various vantage points. His early movies provide a glimpse into the way he saw the world, but the documentary itself tells the story of how the world sees him. We are seeing his world made of the things he created, but in the end we are constructing him ourselves, and he doesn’t get much say in the matter. With this in mind, if every movie were a person, the viewer would be the creator of each person, projecting their own views of who and what that person is and represents. From a formalist point of view, that is the role of the viewer. In our daily lives, we interact with people, we see the way they speak and represent themselves, and then we take that and interpret them, sometimes only seeing what we want to see, and projecting our own interpretations onto them. 

The Devil and Daniel Johnston was a very voyeuristic experience, listening to private recordings of him speaking, looking at old family pictures, witnessing him dancing and playing music. But the man himself is being shaped by the people talking about him, by Feuerzeig, by the images they they have chosen to show. We can never really see the whole picture, because there is no whole picture. I think Daniel Johnston puts it best…

“My hopes lay shattered like a mirror on the floor
I see myself and I look really scattered
But I lived my broken dreams”

Every person is a collection of fragments; like narratives. But we live through them, trying to make out the picture. 


3 Responses to “Narration across Daniel Johnston”

  1. Jeff Feuerzeig on October 23rd, 2008 1:14 am

    JJ, Hi. I very much enjoyed your astute distillation of The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Though I’ve never studied radical constructivism, you’ve certainly identified exactly what I intended to do as well as the desired effect it would have on an audience. Glad you enjoyed the work…


    Jeff Feuerzeig

  2. Julia on October 23rd, 2008 2:21 am

    Wow, hi Jeff, I’m pretty blown away that you replied. I really respect your work and had no idea you’d be reading this…but if you ever need any assistance on any projects you’re doing, please let me know. I’m a film student and making documentaries is what I do, and what I hope to do for a long time…I love to collaborate, so just throwing it out there.

    thank you for making the movie.


  3. Jeff Feuerzeig on October 23rd, 2008 4:48 pm

    Hey JJ. I would be happy to have you aboard on a future project. Just shoot me an email at



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