Most documentary filmmakers go out of their way to get their subject on camera. Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler actually went out of their way not to. What's more, they didn't just avoid filming the musician who is the subject of "Jandek on Corwood," which will be screened Thursday by the American Cinematheque at its Egyptian Theatre. They avoided even meeting him.
Before a trip to Houston to get a shot of the post office box that serves as the business address for Corwood Industries, the record label that releases Jandek's music, the pair wrote a letter to the subject to warn him.
"We said, 'We'll be at your post office box at such a time and such a date, and if you want to meet us, we won't tape you, but you can come by,' " says Freidrichs. " 'But if you don't want to meet us, stay away.' We go down to shoot, and he's not there."
That will come as no surprise to anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Jandek, one of the odder cult figures in music. Combining a public profile that makes J.D. Salinger look like Britney Spears with music that has limited appeal at best, Jandek's quarter-century career — using the term loosely — is the embodiment of obscurity.
If you can find someone who's heard Jandek's music, you'll likely hear that it's either the most haunting or most annoying thing they've ever heard. A typical Jandek recording (and there have been a lot — 35 albums since 1978) consists of sparely plunked, carelessly tuned acoustic guitar with a man's shaky voice warbling drawn-out, arrhythmic portrayals of isolation and despair, with occasional mood swings into anger, exuberance or pique. Mid-period albums saw him "going electric," while later ones were often spoken-word, but all with the same pervasive sense of desolation.
Album covers generally consist of fuzzy snapshots (the interior or exterior of a house, sometimes a photo of a young man who may or may not be Jandek, staring intensely like an albino Robert Johnson or posing rakishly). On the back, under a plain-type song listing, each album has only the Corwood Industries name and post-office box address.
Jandek, or a man purporting to be Jandek, has given only one interview (in 1985) and the small, but intense, body of fans he has accrued has been left to blind speculation about who this person is and what exactly he's doing.
"Initially we considered doing a 'Hard Copy' thing, knock on his door and confront him and make him say why he's doing what he's doing," Freidrichs says. "But it seemed silly to do that. The reason people are interested in Jandek is the mystery. If you take that mystery out, what's the point of making the movie? We stayed away from any type of biographical material and just go for the mystery. It's almost like his nonpresence in the film, that's his presence."
The film, then, examines the Jandek mystery through those who have become obsessed with it — a handful of music critics and record collectors who live their lives decidedly off the beaten track. These are people who have dug deeply into floating and discussing Jandek theories, which began germinating with the first Jandek album's release and have proliferated in the Internet age.
A few of the more common ones: Jandek is really a rich industrialist pulling an extended practical joke. Jandek recorded hundreds of hours of music in one mid-'70s burst and has released it according to his own master plan. Jandek is a loner who never leaves his house. The person seen on many album covers is not actually Jandek but may be a deceased brother.
Then there are the "clues" to his life and identity contained in lyrics and on album covers, developed in remarkable detail. Is the woman who suddenly appears singing — beautifully — on the 1982 album "Chair Beside a Window" (on a song titled "Nancy Sings") a new girlfriend? Is her name really Nancy? Is the house on some of the covers actually where Jandek lives? Is it even in Houston? Where are those European-looking street scenes on some of the recent albums? Cork, Ireland? Where Jandek went on vacation?
A few details are clarified in the film, one or two in the centerpiece, the playing of an audio-taped 1985 interview by musician-writer John Trubee for a story in Spin. But mostly, "Jandek on Corwood" paints its portrait of the artist through the perceptions of others.
"By far the most interesting things we discovered were the fans' interpretations, how people create the image, given so few clues," Freidrichs says.
The filmmakers were not actually among the ranks of Jandek obsessives before starting this project. Friends since their St. Louis childhoods, they were merely looking for an enticing topic for a documentary.
"Paul was living in L.A. and came across this Jandek guy on the Internet and contacted me," says Freidrichs, who had been working at a local TV station in Columbia, Mo., since graduating from the University of Missouri there. Freidrichs listened to the music "and kind of became a fan." But it was the mystery that really caught him and convinced him that there was a phenomenon worth documenting.
They didn't accomplish the project entirely without communications from Jandek.
"When we initially started thinking about the project, we wrote Corwood asking for rights to use cover art and actual music," Freidrichs says. "He wrote back and said, 'Sure, feel free to use whatever you want,' and sent a whole bunch of CDs. Every now and then we'd write and ask specific questions: What does this song mean? Who is this person? He wasn't forthcoming. Sometimes he sent messages like, 'It's better this way.' "
And while Jandek didn't show up at the post office box, he did make contact soon after.
"We headed to Austin and were at a Mexican restaurant, and he called on the cellphone," says Freidrichs. " 'Wow! I'm talking to Jandek!' "
Even that, though, didn't diminish the mystique.
"It was a pretty mundane conversation," he says.
"But it was the exact same voice as on the interview. Tended to have
long pauses, which is typical of people who have spoken with him."