Crispin Glover’s What Is It?

Crispin Glover has been working on What Is It? for close to ten years now. I’ve been reading about it, and waiting to see it for as long as that. He finally brought the film (literally; he travels with it and attends every screening) to Los Angeles for three showings, which I eagerly attended.

I enjoyed some of it, and I admired more of it, but unfortunately, I really can’t say it was worth the wait. If for no other reason, it has kept Glover so busy that he has only appeared in a handful of movies in the past ten years. When he does show up, he’s not always in quality fare. For example, the remake of Willard might have been good, and Gloverhimself really is quite good in it, but it’s never more than a B-Movie. He has been one of my favorite performers since I can remember, and I’d love to see him get roles in smart, interesting oddball films, like River’s Edge and Reuben & Ed. Instead, his trip in getting What Is It? made has been epic on many levels: It started as a short film, he worked hard to get funding to make it into a feature film, he lost all faith in what he calls the “corporate methods of film-making and distribution,” and financed it himself. He did this mostly with money from appearing in Charlie’s Angels, while most of the film sat in a vault in NY and promises in post-production made to him were broken one after the other. He ended up editing it mostly himself, with help from volunteers, and for the past year he’s travelled from city to city showing it, finally ending up back home in LA last week

Considering the time it’s taken him, and the obvious effort he’s put into it, it does deserve some intelligent thought and discussion. I’m not saying that I’m particularly so intelligent that I’m qualified to critique it; what I’m saying is that it would be very easy to write off What Is It? as an act of provocation and nothing else. But it deserves more than that.

The cast of What Is It? is almost entirely made up of people with Down’s Syndrome. An exception to this is Steven C. Stewart, who suffered instead from severe cerebral palsy. His main performance in the film is lying naked in a giant clam shell, twitching form the effects of his condition, while a woman in a monkey mask masturbates him.

It’s by no means the most disturbing scene in the film, but it’s probably in the Top 5. What Is It? owes much to Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch and Werner Herzog (particuarly Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small, which also depicted a world given over entirely to a specific minority.

The film’s story is described by Glover himself as “The adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home, and is tormented by a hubristic, racist inner psyche.” The world switches between the “real,” taking place mostly around Glover’s Silver Lake house and a few cemeteries and the “inner psyche” which contains Glover himself in a full-length fur coat, a dancing minstrel, pornographic paintings of Shirley Temple surrounded by Nazi imagery, and the afore-mentioned Stewart, (Who, it should be said, wrote the film’s sequel, It is Fine. Everything is Fine! which debuts at Sundance next year. Stewart died from complications of his cerebral palsy shortly after filming was completed, and the film largely deals with how women ignored him sexually for his entire life.)

The main character, who initially seems to live at peace with his snails, comes to some kind of realization that he’s trapped and needs to either escape or complete a nebulous task. He sets his journey into motion by killing a snail by pouring salt on it, and is shortly confronted by another snail – this one voiced by Fairuza Balk – who is horrified by his actions. The man leaves his house, looking for a pipe, and realizes he doesn’t have a key to get back into the house now that he’s left it. Meanwhile, in the “inner psyche” world, Glover presides over the land tenuously, until he’s finally overthrown by Stewart, who also dies in the process. There are some lovely scenes. There is a puppet show. There are two people with Down’s Syndrome (a couple in real life) graphically engaged in foreplay in a cemetery who then float off on a cloud. Shirley Temple calls to the people in the real world from the dream world with walkie-talkies. The Minstrel (in blackface), is stoned, threatened with lynching, is told he is NOT Michael Jackson, and is then buried alive. Along with Glover, the Minstrel is the only person appearing in the film who is not seriously handicapped. He’s played by Adam Parfrey, who runs the publishing company Feral House.

Glover wants to know why the things in his film are taboo. And he wanted to show people on film who are mostly ignored in life, and usually infantilized in film and TV when they are shown. (Corky from Life Goes On comes to mind.)

There are several reasons Glover travels with his film: First is that he is determined that the film “make money” by showing in theaters, as opposed to having a theatrical run be a mere trailer for a DVD release, which he despises. Second, he wants to answer questions the audience has after seeing the film. And answer them, he does. The first question he was given at my showing was stragiht forward: “How many snails died in this film?” My answer would have been “12”, if each snail killed made it into the final cut. Glover’s answer took about ten minutes, and was a perfect essay of well-formed paragraphs, coming back sevral time to elaborate on points he had made a few minutes earlier. He was no less careful, calculated and precise in the dozen or so questions that followed. I was incredibly impressed with Glover’s convictions, his statements on the current state of filmmaking and popular culture, and his demands to know what people thought of the images and ideas in What Is It?. That said, the Q&A was absolutely exhausting and the staff on the Egyptian feverishly tried to cut him off for the last 20 minutes.

Another reason for Glover’s direct involvement with each show is to go through his “Big Slideshow,” which is basically readings from each of his 8 books (2 or 3 of which have been published). Unlike What Is It?, I can say that the Big Slideshow was tremendously enjoyable and funny. Glover’s best-known book is Rat-Catching, a 100 year old book on the subject, with many passages and words blacked out, leaving only the phrases and connections that Glover wants to make. The other books are similarly old and on topics barely recognizable now. Glover’s re-workings of the books are impressive in themselves, but when performed in front of sevral hundred people, they were wonderful.

Besides his own films, Glover will be in Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, as Grendel, which is notable b/c Zemeckis directed Back to the Future, which simultaneously made Glover famous and nearly ruined his career. He seems to be making the most of his ressurgence, and I hope he gets some good roles, and with them, respect.

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Mark Mauer likes movies cuz the pictures move, and the screen talks like it's people. He once watched Tales from the Gilmli Hostpial three times in a single night, and is amazed DeNiro made good movies throughout the 80s, only to screw it all up in the 90s and beyond. He has met both Udo Kier and Werner Herzog, and he knows an Irishman who can quote at length from the autobiography of Klaus Kinksi.

One thought on “Crispin Glover’s What Is It?”

  1. After hearing a report about it on This American Life, I’m very interested in seeing a film called The Beaver Trilogy, which stars a young Crispin Glover, as well as a young Sean Penn. Anyone seen it? I am thinking of getting it for my class as a matter of discussion of the relations between documentary and fiction (the first third is a documentary, the last two thirds, two separate films dramatizing the same events–in short you get 3 iterations of the same material).

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