erasing clouds

Poison Milk: Jandek on Corwood

review by dave heaton

How do you make a movie about someone who built a wall of secrecy around himself and has successfully maintained it for over 25 years? How do you make a film about a hermit who no one knows hardly anything about? Those questions hang over the documentary Jandex on Corwood, and in some sense are both the albatross around its neck and the subject itself. The Houston, Texas-based Jandek has released 37 albums of very homemade, often deranged-sounding music in 26 years. He sells them only through a PO Box address with the name Corwood Industries. He has given one phone interview and made no public appearances.* No one knows hardly anything about him, which of course has led to all sorts of rumors and theories. Around him hangs a cloud of mystery that seems impossible to break.

"Until now..." would be the next logical words, except that this is reality. Jandek on Corwood is not investigative reporting - the filmmakers had no chance of getting Jandek on film, no chance of uncovering new revelations about him. Instead they've stuck to documenting the mystery of Jandek, though interviews with concerned parties - music critics and record collectors mostly - and by presenting his music throughout the film. The music and mystery of Jandek is a fascinating subject, and viewers unfamiliar with it - or at least, viewers who care about unusual music - are likely to find this documentary absolutely captivating (with extended interviews and sound clips, the DVD offers even more layers to the story; for those who find themselves wrapped up in all things Jandek it's a treat). The 'experts' interviewed in Jandek on Corwood include the few who've had some sort of interaction with Jandek and critics who are in love with his music. Some of the latter, particularly Byron Coley and Douglas Wolk, offer the most insightful comments. Through them Jandek on Corwood goes beyond just the story of Jandek and his fans, to examine what it says about music, about art, about people and what they expect from their artists.

If music television stations actually cared about music, they would air programs like Jandek on Corwood. The filmmakers probe into the topic in an illuminating and intelligent way, and the result is a film that would make even viewers who didn't think they cared get involved in the story of Jandek. At the same time, as a work of filmmaking, Jandek on Corwood is hurt by the question of how to make a film about a subject for which you have nothing to film. Director Chad Friedrichs relies on Jandek's album covers and on nature scenes to make sure we're not just watching one talking head after another. He plays around with the coloring and backdrops of the interviews to make them 'fit with the mood of Jandek's music', but none of those tricks do anything to make the film interesting-looking. In the end we are just watching people talking, with Jandek's music in the background. While those limitations do keep Jandek on Corwood from making any sort of cinematic mark, they don't make the film any less enjoyable or intriguing. Jandek on Corwood consolidates and concisely presents the Jandek story in a way that makes it more rewarding than spending hours reading web sites ( or articles. It doesn't definitively solve the case of Jandek, but who would want to? The film's greatest success lies in the way it illustrates the meaning that mystery has for people and demonstrates how Jandek has turned the relationship between musician and listener into a creative act of its own.

*Note: On October 17, 2004, Jandek appeared at the Instal.04 festival in Glasgow, Scotland and played a 1-hour set. It was his first known live performance since his debut album was released in 1978. At the festival he basically appeared, played an hour of songs that no one had heard before, and disappeared.


Issue 28, November 2004

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