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Jandek documentary builds on a mystery

Like an old vinyl record, there's a hole at the center of ``Jandek on Corwood,'' and it's the subject of the movie himself. The spooky fringe musician who calls himself Jandek is an outsider, even by the forgiving standards of outsider art. His name and whereabouts are unknown. The only photos of him are blurry and dated. He avoids press inquiries. All we have is his music: since 1978, 37 albums of atonal, whispery death blues, described by one listener as sounding like ``something frightening left on your answering machine'' and distributed by a mysterious entity called Corwood Industries, based in Houston.

``Questions, etc., can't be arranged. Anything else, just ask,'' Jandek wrote to a journalist who attempted to contact him. Chad Freidrichs's documentary takes that accidental koan and runs with it: The film's a puckish, if overlong, essay on the hipness of enigma. Since the singer remains unreachable, Freidrichs rounded up a jury of critics, used-record-store owners, and knowledgeable fans. Rarely have so many pale guys with glasses and black T-shirts been in one film.

The consensus is that Jandek - whoever he may be - is a borderline freak show whose consistency and tenacity entitles him to respect. ``There's a man in a room,'' says DJ Brooks Martin by way of describing the Jandek sound. ``He's got a guitar and he knows a few chords. He's a melancholy sort, and he picks up the guitar, sort of free associates for a couple of minutes, then he stops. And then he does it again. And then he does it over 20 or so albums.''

The appearance in 1982 of a song called ``Nancy Sings,'' featuring the voice of a woman named - oh, let's say, Nancy - was welcomed as a sign that Jandek actually knew someone. Backup musicians soon followed, but the most recent albums have returned to basics: vaguely strummed guitar in private tunings, song titles like ``I Threw You Away'' and ``Worthless Recluse,'' the sound of a man facing a wall at 3 in the morning.

There has been one confirmed sighting. In 1999, journalist Katy Vine tracked down and spent an evening drinking beer with a solemn, nattily dressed man in his late 30s who avoided talking about music. Writer John Trubee recorded a phone interview in 1985, and Freidrichs lets this tape roll at the end of the film. The pleasant baritone voice gives nothing away; the yawning silences before Jandek answers questions speak much louder.

The director dances around the emptiness at the middle of his movie as best he can, filming desolate nature footage and found objects while the songs flutter and groan on the soundtrack. ``Jandek on Corwood'' is terribly padded nevertheless, and eventually even the fans have to admit they might like Jandek less if they knew any more about him - that his mystique is as important as his defiantly uneasy music. ``You may not get all the answers you want,'' wrote the artist, rebuffing yet another journalist. ``It's better that way.'' Whatever you think of Jandek's art, he's clearly a marketing genius.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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