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Features

November 8, 2006

What Is It? Anybody's Guess

Crispin Glover delivers outlandish directorial debut to NYC audiences

Long famed as a weirdo first and actor second, Crispin Glover has come a long way since going on David Letterman's show in 1987 in platform shoes and landing a kick inches from the host's head. Branded in the public consciousness as the last word in customizing roles, Glover (right)was relegated to the same category as Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken: character actors whose mere presence guarantees a certain eccentricity sure to redeem, however fleetingly, whatever movie they appear in.

In recent years, Glover's resume varied unpredictably; stints in the Charlie's Angels franchise harnessed his menace harmoniously, but his appearance in the ill-conceived Bow Wow children's movie Like Mike was incongruous to say the least. Specialty items like Willard (with Glover as a repressed loser commanding a vengeful army of rats) seemed closer to Glover's interests as an actor, but evidently appearances have been deceptive -- he was always just in it for the money.

"I decided a while ago that trying to express my personality through my choice of roles was counterproductive," Glover told The Reeler. "When I think back on all the work I've done, I think many of the films I have done had interesting elements. I'm not saying that all of them were bad. But only three of the films I've done are totally satisfying to me: The Orkly Kid" -- a short film from 1985 with Glover as an Olivia Newton-John obsessed small-town kid -- "River's Edge, and this film."

"This film" is What Is It?, a film whose title is unlikely to be answered for most viewers by the time it's over. The plot sounds like what you'd expect from Glover -- a cast composed largely of people with Down's Syndrome, a large helping of explicit sex, a man in blackface protesting that he's Michael Jackson and the frequent and surprisingly upsetting destroyal of snails with salt -- but the form and experience never turn out to be as viscerally riveting as Glover's best acting work. As an actor, Glover is like his sometime mentor David Lynch, inexplicable but absorbing; as a director, though, he makes What Is It? murky, a dream whose basic dramatic outlines are hard to find.

Some elements do stand out, but far more entertaining is the hour-long "Big Slideshow" preceding What Is It? -- which is, for now at least, not a stand-alone movie but part of a full evening with Glover. The slideshow projects pages from Glover's books -- weird appropriations of turn-of-the-century texts with names like Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, with much of the text blotted out by increasingly destructive drawings and marginalia -- while Glover declaims them in indelibly dramatic fashion. Then the movie is shown, a lengthy Q&A follows, and Glover sticks around to sign his books and whatever else attendees might have brought.

So should the movie be seen as part of a full package or an individual work? "I find that the slideshow helps ease people into the movie somewhat," Glover said. "I actually make most of my money from the books. All the money I make from my acting work goes to fund these films (Glover has two more in the works, with What Is It? the start of a theoretical trilogy), so the books are what really sustain me. I approached What Is It? like a business proposition, and in the long run I do really expect to make a profit off of it. It's just that I think it may take a while. To me, What Is It? is a narrative film. It won the Best Narrative prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which is famously experimental. What bothers me is when people think that this is a piece which doesn't make any sense, that I've put together something at random. If people get that sense, I think I've failed."

Oddly, just as the whole thing ends, the lengthy closing credits assign everyone surprisingly explicit roles: Glover, for example, is billed as "Dueling Demi-God Auteur and The young man's inner psyche." The clarity of these credits provide a psychological framework for interpreting the film, but Glover insisted that that's all they are -- "a framework," he said. "When we were going about making the film, it seemed silly to assign arbitrary names for the characters - Jim or something - so I wrote how I perceived the characters and their relationship to each other for the credits. This is my understanding of the film, but it is just one understanding."

Despite the seriousness of Glover's intentions and his literal and figurative investments in the film, it's ultimately more interesting to look at Glover's psyche rather than "the young man's." The end credits, for example, also note that this film has in no way advanced "the assassination of Steven Spielberg" -- a reference to Glover's longstanding feud with the director, dating back to an essay Glover wrote singling him out as an exemplar of corrupt and culturally stifling media product. When asked if Spielberg is more of a symbol of what Glover dislikes about corporate media, he hesitated a second. "To a certain extent, yes," he replied. "But I also do not like his work. I feel that what he is doing is not helpful to the medium, and I know that he has a media operation that gives him the reputation of a good man, which I know he is not. And if he wants to respond to that, which I'm sure he won't, he's welcome to."

It's oddly comforting to know that, beneath the provocations and inaccessibility of What Is It?, traces of the old Glover remain. What Is It? is, for all its overt provocations, a definite appeal for seriousness, Wagner soundtrack included; Glover is struggling to establish himself as a serious filmmaker rather than as a peddler of quirks. And while this is laudable, it's not much fun; What Is It? unsuccessfully splits the difference between both worlds, but Glover may have a hard time convincing his fans they'd rather discuss his experimental work than his still-eccentric worldview. Even if he doesn't feint assaults on talk show hosts anymore, preferring to voice his challenges more decorously, he's one weird dude; in his newly-preferred context of quasi-experimental narrative, however, he's just one more mystifying provocateur. Fortunately, more work for hire is on the way.



(Photos: Rocky Schenck)

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