Seeing is believing

Film - We make our own reality, say a blind artist and mad musician. By Victoria Segal

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One night in 1978, the French artist and film-maker Hugues de Montalembert was walking home through Washington Square in New York when he was mugged by two men. Finding that he had no money, the men turned vicious and ran off only when their victim's screams grew too loud. With horrible irony, they had thrown paint remover in his face, and as de Montalembert chillingly explains, "It is a base, not an acid. Water will not make it go away. It continues to dig." The next morning, this man whose "life was based on seeing" had lost his sight for good.

Gary Tarn's evocative documentary Black Sun examines how de Montalembert adapted to his blindness, combining the subject's own understated narration with Tarn's digital images of faces and places, often treated and distorted to suggest visual disturbance. De Montalembert is a remarkable man - within 18 months of going blind, he travelled to Indonesia on his own and wrote a bestselling book in painstaking longhand - yet this art-fully fractured film is more interested in his enduring artistic impulses than in any clichéd "testament to the human spirit".

He describes how his brain started to generate images because it was desperate to see, projecting erotic or disturbing pictures: "I was making films in my head." Tarn's footage of cities and street scenes from New York to Rajasthan reflects this, focusing on random moments of daily life - the face of a taxi driver, the mentally ill muttering on corners, a convention of deaf people signing excitedly, a grid of buildings seen from the air. "In vision, there is no reality," says de Montalembert. "What you see will be different from your neighbour."

But it is Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston that really drives home de Montalembert's words. There are those who will find the lo-fi music of the manic-depressive artist and cult singer-songwriter Johnston about as appealing as a cat running up and down a piano; their neighbours, meanwhile, see his songs of love, demons and motorbikes as works of naive genius, the underground-rock equivalent of "outsider artists" such as Howard Finster. One devotee claims that "you tune into his world, hear the symphony". Kurt Cobain was a huge fan; both Tom Waits and the Flaming Lips have covered his songs. You either get Johnston, or you get a headache.

While the invisible Hugues de Montalembert remains firmly at the centre of Black Sun, the bloated, physically unpredictable Johnston is ultimately a void at the heart of Feuerzeig's film. Even as the lurid stories of his life pile up around him, his illness makes him unknowable, lost behind his eyes and his delusions. Born into a right-wing Christian family in West Virginia, he started out a confident, clever little boy. As family photographs show, however, it wasn't long before the child prodigy started to withdraw into himself, obsessed with music and art, and at constant odds with his straight-arrow family. (His mother called him "an unprofitable servant of the Lord"; he preferred "unserviceable prophet".)

As manic depression and religious mania took hold, so did the outlandish stories. He ran away with the carnival. He fell in all-consuming love with a girl called Laurie Allen who unwittingly remained his lifelong muse, despite having married her mortician boyfriend. LSD didn't help his precarious mental state: he was arrested for drawing Christian fish symbols inside the Statue of Liberty, and once terrified an old lady so much by trying to "cast out her demons" that she jumped from a second-storey window. "I used to be Daniel Johnston," he grins in distressing footage from the 1980s. "Who are you now?" asks a voice off-camera. "I just don't know," he replies.

Now a middle-aged man who looks forward to trips to the mall and the occasional live show, Johnston is a fragile being. Perhaps as a result, his legend has thrived. Those who make grand claims for him betray the underground's tendency to exalt madness as something pure and "true" instead of dangerous or sad. As associates line up to praise his work, comparing him with Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan, you realise he has become a fetish object, as desirable to his fans as a limited-edition vinyl single. In the post-Nirvana boom of the early 1990s, there was a major-label bidding war for his favours - a ludicrous situation, when you consider he was in a mental institution at the time. (Atlantic, which signed him, got what it deserved. It sold 5,800 copies of his debut with a major.)

Feuerzeig's film is really more about the tragic effects of madness than the glory of art. We see the slow disintegration of a man and his family in scattered images as disturbing as anything de Montalembert's brain could dream up. "Hello, hello. I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston . . ." says the young artist into a mirror as the film begins. Sure enough, for all the visual overload, there's nothing to see here.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Is this the end?