(2002) director Chris Leavens
Do you know Jack Nance? I did not personally know Jack, but I remembered reading about his death and about this film when it came out several years ago. Nance was an actor, most notable for his appearances in almost all of David Lynch’s films up until his death, most iconically as the lead in Lynch’s breakthrough film, Eraserhead (1976). It’s Nance’s visage and wild hair that haunted many a record store, dorm room, or t-shirt in the 1980’s and beyond as a pure icon of cult film.
The main reason that it’s taken me so long to finally see this film is because, not long after it hit Netflix (I’ve been using the service for 8 years), it went into their “Saved” category, no longer an active, available rental. And I waited, and I waited for it to come out of there. I assumed that it had had a small print run of the DVD and perhaps the ones Netflix had had been damaged. And so now they didn’t offer it for that reason. But it stayed on my “Saved” column for the better part of 8 years, waiting for it to be re-released or something.
Well, oddly enough, on a totally different film and tangent, I found myself hunting on the Netflix alternative GreenCine for another film that I wanted to see, Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), which I knew had just been re-released on DVD in promotion of the upcoming Alexandre Aja 3-D remake due in theaters shortly. And yet, for some reason, Piranha remained in the “Saved” area. Well, turns out, GreenCine has Piranha available, as well as I Don’t Know Jack, not to mention a whole slew of Russ Meyer films (also oddly missing from Netflix). A friend had suggested GreenCine to me a few years back but at the time I couldn’t find anything so compelling about what they had to offer that Netflix did not, and really, it seemed that Netflix would only get more and better as they grew. And it’s weird that it’s gotten me to this point, when Netflix, via streaming movies, is poised to really attempt to take over “film on demand” and take a bigger stake in the media universe than mailing DVD’s to you back-and-forth, that it’s now that I am finally pushed to sign up for GreenCine to get my hands on a couple of movies that I want to see.
That said, GreenCine has yet to prove itself to me. Piranha and several other films that I covet are low on their availability ratings and I have no idea how soon I might actually get Piranha in the mail, despite it being the top of my queue. And I have had a long and healthy relationship with Netflix, whose customer service has been largely quite strong. So, … the experiment has begun.
Sorry for that rather long aside.
The film I Don’t Know Jack is a documentary about Nance, shot on video, not too high on the aesthetic value scale. If it were a book, it would be an “oral history”, one told through the words of those who knew and loved him, back and forth between the varying interviewees, reminiscing about him. The film does take a bit of a historical construct, telling his early life in Texas to his move to San Francisco and his eventual meeting with David Lynch. Lynch is really the most notable of the interviewees, though Dennis Hopper appears as well.
Nance wasn’t a major figure in film, not a master actor, nor a particularly well-known person, particularly outside of the Lynch canon. He was, though, it seems a kind and creative man who was well-liked by friends and colleagues, someone they respected and enjoyed. He was also an alcoholic (he was taken to rehab by Hopper himself), who experienced personal tragedy (his second wife’s very dramatic suicide). And then very tragically as well, he died from a subdural hematoma, sustained in the wee hours one morning after either a fall or a fight (his death is considered an unsolved homicide — but people aren’t sure exactly what happened). After being injured, he went home, unaware of how severe his injury was, and died.
It’s a sad story about a somewhat sad life. Nance is perhaps a fine print footnote in the grander names of cinema, not a major headline. I Don’t Know Jack is a fairly rudimentary doc, nothing special in and of itself. But for a story as small and obscure as Nance’s, it’s great that there is this collective snapshot, this telling of his story. His appearance and eerie presence in Eraserhead, as well as other films, will continue to persist as an indelible, eternal cultural images. It’s just that strange aspect of pop culture, media, and perhaps technology that this visual picture of the man will long hold in the greater cultural consciousness, but the story of the real man, at least for now, is an even smaller footnote, a currently hard to track down DVD.