There are weird movies. There are experimental movies. There are movies you can’t explain. And then there’s Crispin Glover.
Going to see Crispin Glover on tour with his films is more than watching a movie, it’s an experience. Glover ensures it is a carefully controlled experience by never making his films available outside his traveling show, and he’s currently on tour with his first, WHAT IS IT?. The experience includes not only his immensely personal films, but his “big slideshow” beforehand, including dramatic readings from altered vintage books on such topics as concrete inspection and rat-catching, and a lengthy question-and-answer session afterward (often known to run as long as two hours). You may call Crispin Glover many things, including a provocateur, but you can’t call him irresponsible or unaccountable. Just as your brain is scrambling to process the assault of bizarre and possibly exploitative images you’ve seen on the screen for the last hour, Glover is calmly standing before you, asking “So, any questions?”
To synopsize any Crispin Glover film is both difficult and pointless, but I’ll try. According to Glover himself, WHAT IS IT? was the genesis of his work in the Hollywood film industry, and how it bothered him that images that may possibly trouble or offend someone were always excised. The title of the film is apt, because Glover’s greatest hope is that the audience will ask itself, while the controversial images wash over the screen, What is this? What makes it so offensive to me? Just a few of the images that may trigger this response in his movie include swastikas, frightening blackface, and a man with severe cerebral palsy emerging from a shell like the Venus de Milo to receive an attentive hand job. What is it?
Also according to Glover, the film is about a young man and his alter ego, uber ego, and inner psyche and id. The young man, like the majority of the cast, is played by an unknown young man (Michael Bleviss) with Down’s syndrome. In what seems to be a symbolic fall from innocence, he discovers something even more fragile than himself in a snail that can be dissolved with salt, and becomes intrigued by this new hobby. His uber ego is played by Steven C. Stewart, the man with severe cerebral palsy who emerges from a large seashell in an alternate reality to be pleasured and ultimately praised. His inner psyche and id is played by Crispin Glover as a racist egomaniac perched in a long fur coat in an alternate reality. Glover’s version of playing a revered Greek god seems to be surrounding himself with a harem of beautiful women with Down’s syndrome, while silencing everyone so they can listen to a racist anthem and watch a demented puppet show that has to do with castration and getting inside a young, innocent Shirley Temple’s box.
The film’s challenging and grotesque nature surely comes through in the synopsis, but what does not is its surprising sense of poetry and dark humor. What is it, really? As Glover uses beautiful classical pieces juxtaposed against characters with Down’s syndrome murdering snails and beating each other, you begin to wonder about what you’re watching and why it’s not beautiful, and how we treat the misfits in society. As a shocking minstrel in blackface desperately pleads that he is injecting snail slime to become an invertebrate, and that he is someone special, in fact he is the celebrity Michael Jackson, the audience is compelled to uncomfortable laughter. This cuts to a scene of two young men with Down’s syndrome singing and acting out Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” illiciting yet more dark and unexpected laughter. Perhaps the most simultaneously funny and disgraceful image of all, which is a good litmus test of the film in general, is its central image: that of the ultimately iconic white, adorable, all-American Shirley Temple as an all-ruling sadomasichistic goddess, replete with Nazi-themed bondage garb. If you laugh at this image and intuitively get it, it’s a good chance you’ll get Glover, his subversive black comedy about American censorship, and his rambling lecture afterward about the corporate Hollywood machine and how it controls what we see.
For a pet project made on his own time, WHAT IS IT? undoubtedly evokes the exact look and feel Glover was attempting to achieve. His alternate-reality set, with its garish color palette, wickedly laughing doll heads, overbearing fog, and naked characters masquerading in bizarre animal masks, looks and feels like a nightmarish representation of the id. Outfitting his film with a cast that includes mostly characters played by actors with Down’s syndrome already ensures it will look different than any commercial product, and Glover plays with this notion by zooming in on characters’ faces and eyes when they register emotion. With minimal but intentional set design and costumes, such as the fur coat and the beautiful vintage-styled dresses on his harem, Glover is able to communicate the look and the message that he wants to achieve. Whatever you may say about it, it is definitely a singular and uncompromising artistic vision, although made by a standard Hollywood actor, so far outside the Hollywood system you could throw a stone and never hit it.
WHAT IS IT? and Crispin Glover are not for everyone. However, those who are brave enough to venture into completely original territory will be rewarded. Personal and experimental filmmaking on this level is rarely seen, presented, or rewarded in the way Crispin Glover is. He is truly a unique force unto himself and others.
Check out the tour dates to see Mr. Glover in person here!
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