The name Jack Nance (née Marvin John Nance) will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the decidedly odd universe of David Lynch. A character actor who never found the levels of success when venturing outside of that universe as he did within it, Nance created indelible roles in most of Lynch's films. His most celebrated must be Eraserhead, in which Nance played Henry, a man plagued by anxiety and a singularly bizarre haircut. He also appeared in Lynch's Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and – perhaps most memorably – as Pete Martell in the television series Twin Peaks, wherein he spoke the immortal lines regarding Laura Palmer in characteristically inimitable fashion: "She's dead...wrapped in plastic." (My personal favorite from Twin Peaks is his curiously detached intonation of "two by four; four by eight" when checking lumber for the mill.)
In December of 1996, Nance was found dead in his apartment, the result (apparently) of head trauma suffered during an altercation at a donut shop the evening before. His death was ruled a homicide by the authorities, and to date no one has been arrested or charged for the purported crime. I Don't Know Jack, a documentary directed by Chris Leavens and "presented" by David Lynch, explores the troubled life of the actor, as well its bizarre – downright Lynchian – conclusion.
Born in Boston and raised in Texas, Nance relocated to California seeking work on the stage. He immediately found respect and company with some of the more experimental and avant garde artists he found there, and began trying his hand at film roles. (According to his brother Dennis, he was in the short running for In Cold Blood, which ultimately went to Robert Blake, and the Graduate, which went to Dustin Hoffman.) Nance met then-aspiring director Lynch in Philadelphia where he, according to Lynch, dismissed Eraserhead as a "stupid student film." He eventually agreed to do the picture (he liked the modifications Lynch had made to his Volkswagen), and went along with his then wife and assistant camera operator Catherine Coulson – who would later become immortalized as the "Log Lady" in Twin Peaks herself – to complete it. As Lynch notes, "fate was smiling on us," and indeed their collective fortunes changed for the positive as a result of the cult favorite. However, it was also during this period that Nance's bouts of drinking and wickedly barbed tongue became increasingly troublesome to those close to him.
I Don't Know Jack explores this aspect of Nance's life in detail, as it was a major component of his existence that never quite left the foreground. Lynch describes an incident in which he took Nance to the hospital for immediate care, and doctors commented that for a man in his early thirties Nance had the body of a man in his fifties. Nance's agent recounts that he fell asleep in her lap during the wrap party for Dune in front of producer Dino De Laurentiis. By the time Blue Velvet was being filmed in 1986, Nance was at the end of his tether. Dennis Hopper, recently sober himself, helped Nance, and actually flew back to Los Angeles with him to get him into rehab. Now sober, Nance decided to forego acting, worked as a security guard, and studied to be a paralegal and a hotel manager (a job which he apparently loved). During this time, he also reestablished the once severed ties with his extended (and members of his immediate) family, and was able to enjoy the fruits of his labor in Twin Peaks when he eventually returned to acting.
Nance's life had become more comfortable – and he was becoming more comfortably sober – when he fell in love and married Nancy Kelly, a troubled young actress who did not share Nance's command of sobriety. While working on Meatballs 4, Nance suffered a crushing, heartbreaking blow. While attempting to break off the relationship with Kelly (who had slid into drugs and pornography), she threatened to commit suicide if Nance hung up the phone. As a storm swept into the location, the lines were cut and Nance lost the connection. Kelly made good on her threat, and Nance commenced drinking once again after nine years of sobriety. His life, from that point forward, only became more unmanageable – he was also diagnosed with a brain disorder and was only given a year or so to live. This downward spiral culminated in the altercation at the donut shop, which played some part (as yet undetermined) in his death. As Lynch notes, he would not be surprised if Nance's sardonic tongue may have played a role.
I Don't Know Jack is clearly a labor of love for those involved, and he has left an unmistakably deep mark on many of those he kept close contact with. His exploits in drunkenness are recalled in typical fashion – to those that shared his tendencies (including brother Dennis), they were funny and outrageous; to those that did not (including his brother Richard), they were sad and self-destructive. Nance is also described as a chronically lonely man who enjoyed solitude, even though he was, ironically, not comfortable in his own skin. (Lynch notes that when he thinks of Nance, he sees him in "pajamas, a bathrobe, and little slippers.") The interviewees are generally forthright and compassionate in their remarks, some are glib, and many are moved to tears by their recollections of Nance (those interviewed include Lynch, Dennis Hopper, brothers Dennis and Richard, Catherine Coulson, Wayne Grace, Catherine Case, Charlotte Stewart, Donna Dubain, David Lindeman, Leo Bulgarini, and Bob Logan). Each "chapter" of the documentary is introduced by biblical proverbs (apparently Nance studied the Bible as a young man) and is accompanied by odd – yet somehow fitting – music on the soundtrack. I Don't Know Jack also includes footage from many of Nance's non-Lynch films, still family and professional photographs, and home movies.
Video: Presented in full frame, I Don't Know Jack appears adequate, if slightly grainy and uneven at times, which is not surprising given its status as a low budget production (it is also somewhat unpolished -- the beginning is so abrupt that you might think you stumbled five minutes into it). I will also make a special note here concerning the menus – they are slow to respond and generally troublesome. Blech.
Audio: I Don't Know Jack is presented in a DD 2.0, which sounds serviceable, if not spectacular. There are instances in which ambient noise during the interviews is readily discernable, but generally the mix is fine and the voices of the interviewees are clear.
Extras: Included in the I Don't Know Jack release are Production Notes; Jack's Photos (2:46), a brief montage; three trailers, including the one for I Don't Know Jack; and, lastly, Unsolved Homicide (21:41), a brief featurette concerning aspects of Nance's death that is just about loopy enough as to make perfect sense on this disc. Actress Kimmy Robertson (who played Lucy in Twin Peaks) offers that she was approached by Nance in a dream and that he told her he was murdered; she subsequently sought the help of a psychic (trained by the "government") and attempted to communicate with him (included here). Also interviewed is retired detective Jerry Beck, who headed the homicide investigation and suggests that the ruling of "homicide" may not have been correct.
Final Thoughts: To fans of Jack Nance and David Lynch (it's nearly impossible to separate the two professionally), I Don't Know Jack will prove to be a somewhat entertaining – if ultimately troubling – experience and a generally worthwhile addition to "Lynchland." Nance's idiosyncratic manner is on display in film clips and in spirit, as virtually everyone involved imitates his distinct diction, often to very funny effect. By the end, however, I'm not sure we "know" Jack at all – we know some facts, such as how he lived his life, who his friends were, etc., but no truly penetrating insight is offered in I Don't Know Jack. However, given his disposition, this is probably exactly how the enigmatic Nance would have wanted it. As a friend notes, the fact that his life came to an end as the result of an "unsolved homicide" probably would have tickled him.