Crispin Glover’s What Is It? (review)

Freak Me

I mentioned a while back on that I was about to encounter what I expected to be the mindblowing creativity and presence of Crispin Glover. And I did, and it was mindblowing, and I survived, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

The evening started with Glover presenting his Big Slide Show of his “books.” See, years ago, early in his artistic endeavors, he would find old books and transform them — with eerie sketches and by blackening out some of the text and highlighting other parts — into entirely new stories, bizarre tales of strange people and creatures doing weird things. Glover reads the books, the altered pages of which the audience watches on the slides, with the same kind of manic breathlessness we see in his screen performances. It feels off-kilter and definitely odd, but it is, in retrospect, nothing but a gentle lead-in to what’s to come.
And that’s Glover’s film, What Is It?, a shocking and provocative amalgam of nonsensical, surreal imagery telling a story — barely — about death and mayhem and misunderstood genius: the most explainable aspect of the plot involves a young man on a search for snails and/or himself who is tormented by his own conscience… or maybe it’s God doing the tormenting. Glover creates a nightmarish vision of heaven in which God is a malicious trickster, and he scraps the underbelly of pop culture to parody movie sex and violence and to deliberately smash every kind of taboo about what is not supposed to appear onscreen: his cast is made up almost entirely of actors who have Down syndrome (though the characters they play do not), and he taunts us, daring us to face our own inhibitions about what we don’t want to see onscreen (male nudity and a white actor in blackface are only the beginning). What Is It? is intensely provocative in a way that movies never are — it forces us to confront our own prejudices and to really think about what we’ve just seen.

It is precisely the opposite of what Glover termed, in the Q&A session afterward, “corporatelyfundedanddistributedfilms” (he said it like that more than once, all in one breath, like it’s one word), which generally are intended to shut your brain down. Though Glover — who was far more down-to-earth and ordinarily charming as himself than you might expect — refused to offer his own interpretation of the film, because he doesn’t want an “official” one denying viewers’ individual interpretations, he did say that “the culture doesn’t ask questions” and so he set out expressly to do just that.

And if you’ve ever wondered why an actor like Glover would take a part in something like that dreadful Charlie’s Angels movie he was in (or the recent Epic Movie), well, Glover told us that he accepted the Angels role solely so that he could take all the money they paid him for that and pour it directly into the sequel to What Is It?: It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. So I can forgive Glover now for that.

Glover is touring around with the slide show and What Is It?check his Web site for dates and venues of upcoming shows.

(I saw Glover’s show at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, a nice place to see a movie. They show cartoons before every feature, and their popcorn is really, really good, too.)

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Tonio Kruger
Thu, Apr 05, 2007 8:22pm

Am I the only one who can’t help thinking of Red Dwarf’s “White Hole” episode every time I see Crispin Glover’s title for this piece? Must be me.

Fri, Apr 06, 2007 5:48pm

I can’t stand *Red Dwarf* so I never saw more than a couple episodes.

Tonio Kruger
Sat, Apr 14, 2007 5:55pm

And yet you are a fan of actor Chris Barrie, who first got his start with that show. Curiouser and curiouser. Unless you’re a really big fan of “The Brittas Empire”–which seems unlikely.

Sun, Apr 15, 2007 3:12pm

I’m a fan of Chris Barrie? Um, nope. Don’t know who he is, and I’ve never mentioned him here.