Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: I Don't Know Jack (2002)

Chris Leavens' I DON'T KNOW JACK is a warts and all documentay about the life of character actor and David Lynch regular Jack Nance.  Told through the eyes of his family and friends, it is a portrait of a man who allowed his talent to be consumed by his inner demons.

The film begins by showing Nance as a promising young actor in the late 1960s (when he almost nabbed leads in films such as IN COLD BLOOD and THE GRADUATE), to his big break in ERASERHEAD and finally his later years as a character actor in such project as TWIN PEAKS, MOTORAMA and, of course, MEATBALLS 4.  However, most of the documentary's running time is devoted to exploring Nance's alocholism, which surfaced early in his life and not only affected his career but also his personal relationships, such as his combative first marriage to Catherine Coulson (later a TWIN PEAKS co-star).  Through the interviews, an image emerges of Nance as an almost Jekyll and Hyde personality: warm and kind while sober but an absolute terror with a loud mouth and quick temper when he was drinking.

Some great stories emerge in the interviews, such as Nance not wanting to do ERASERHEAD until bonding with Lynch over a wooden roof rack that Lynch had built. Dennis Hopper tells how he tried to trick Nance into rehab during the filming of BLUE VELVET by telling him that they would slowly wean him off alcohol instead of forcing him to go cold turkey.  A casting director tells how Nance turned down a role in the film MIRACLE MILE because he had just gotten a job as a security guard and the film would conflict with his work schedule. the most touching part of the film deals with the suicide of Nance's second wife, Kelly Van Dyke while he was on location shooting MEATBALLS 4. Nance's belief that he had at least partly caused her to take her own life (they were talking on the phone when the line went dead due to an electrical storm) led him to resume drinking after several years of sobriety, a state of mind which probably led to his mysterious death in 1996, supposedly the result of a late night altercation outside a Los Angeles doughnut shop.

I DON'T KNOW JACK provides a revealing look at a tortured human being. I give the film a lot of credit for not shying away from Nance's dark side. It would have been very easy for this film to be nothing more than a whitewashed tribute to a fallen friend. By acknowledging his faults, Jack Nance emerges as a full blooded human being, one that is very obviously loved and missed by those he left behind.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.


  1. What we can do to ourselves, in response to what life can do to us.

    Not to go too off point, but, since I impulsively took up the challenge to watch the Kuchars' Big Hit, do you know if David Lynch ever cites the Kuchars or their work as influences?

  2. Yes, sometimes we're our own worst enemies. I believe I've seen interviews where Lynch lists the Kuchars and Kenneth Anger as early influences but of course I can't find them now.