There are three basic approaches one could take to a documentary about Jandek, and none of them are what one might normally attempt in a documentary about a musician: the man is nearly a complete mystery, so you can’t tell the story of his life. You could delve deeply into his music, performing an extended critical analysis that serves as an introduction for newcomers and a reaffirmation for the loyal fans. You could film the mirror, capturing how people react to him and what they read into the Jandek blank slate. Or you could try and unearth the answer to the mystery.
Jandek on Corwood goes for the trifecta, which is probably wise. I can’t imagine any single approach supporting an entire movie; indeed, the trio of approaches only barely keeps this movie going. The problem is that there’s so little to look at. Thirty-seven album covers, some with pictures of Jandek, and the people being interviewed. What else can you show? There’s nothing else known, and the director is reduced to long shots of scenes that evoke Jandek’s lyrics, patient pans over the address of Corwood Industries, and ominous footage of empty rooms and old-fashioned tape recorders which might be something like the environment in which Jandek records. Or not. Who knows?
I think the strongest element of the movie is the understated observation that everyone who listens to Jandek’s music paints their own picture of the man. The director never points this out explicitly, but he doesn’t really need to. We’ve got the magazine editor who thinks of Jandek almost as a spiritual guide, the guy who wrote the first published review of Jandek who uses Jandek as a way to affirm his own importance in the world (“it was my review that really kept him going, you know”), the music critic who reads Jandek as an atonal master who’s deliberately moving beyond representational art — it’s a cavalcade of opinions, which in sum make it eminently clear that when we are deprived of information we blithely make stuff up.
Hey, there’s a message there… nah, it’s just a movie about a guy from Texas who doesn’t want to communicate with people as a musician in much of any way except through his music.
Finale: about ten minutes of audio from a 1985 telephone interview with Jandek. That’s all the mystery uncovering that gets done, despite an awful lot of tease. (Look, it’s a shadowy live shot of a man in an amusement park. Could this be Jandek? Well, no. Look, it’s a close shot of a loaf of brown bread, partially eaten! Did Jandek eat this bread? Not so much.) It’s really interesting stuff for the Jandek fan, though, so all is forgiven.
It’s a good movie. If you aren’t into Jandek… well, consider it as an experiment; Jandek has sustained a complete absence of presence other than his music for over a quarter of a century and more than 35 albums. This is unique. As several of the interviewees point out, it’s part of the reason why we’re fascinated by his music.