CULT ICON Over a decade ago a pair of first-time filmmakers approached Crispin Glover to ask if he would act in their movie.
Glover signed on — but to direct, with the condition that most of the roles be filled by actors with Down syndrome. Best known for eccentric fringe roles in films such as River's Edge, Bartleby, Back to the Future, and Rubin and Ed, Glover had written other screenplays involving people with the condition and had kept it in his mind's eye for some time. "Looking into the face of someone who has Down syndrome," he says during a recent SF interview, "I see the history of someone who has lived outside of the culture."
Glover maintains that the resulting film, What Is It?, is not about Down syndrome. But he raises a valid point about the benefits of casting underutilized actors. "There is not necessarily a learned social masking [in their performances]," he says.
Though Glover's casting decisions were backed by then–executive producer David Lynch, they soured Hollywood's corporate entities and led to a plan to shoot a short film proving the viability of a disabled cast. That short flowered into the realization that a feature-length movie could be made without kowtowing to studio execs and for less than $200,000. After almost 10 years Glover emerged with What Is It?, a 72-minute film he describes as "being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic racist inner psyche." However tenuous a tagline that may seem, it hits the mark dead-on.
Glover has taken strenuous liberties with narrative structure, resulting in split sanctums. The outer realm — an atmospheric ringer for a Diane Arbus print — concerns itself with the travels of the Young Man (Michael Blevin), who is slighted by his friends and finds solace in snails (one of them voiced by Fairuza Balk) before several violent if childlike murders take place in a graveyard. The second, inner sanctum is the young man's psyche, a kingdom presided over by one Demi-God Auteur (Glover), populated by concubines, and disrupted by a minstrel in blackface (Apocalypse Culture author Adam Parfrey) who aims to become an invertebrate by injecting himself with snail juice.
Overflowing with incendiary imagery, What Is It? juxtaposes Shirley Temple with swastikas, features buxom monkey-ladies crushing watermelons, and documents a praying mantis claiming the lives of a snail and a child. "Some of those things start out as emotional, and then you intellectualize them," Glover says.
After What Is It?’s Sundance premiere, many critics liberally employed words like exploitative, weird, and inflammatory. The latter two I'll concede. But whatever What Is It? is, a deeper plot than what's suggested by those words is afoot. "There are things in this film that would not necessarily be taboo in 1910," Glover says. "In certain silent films, racism, sexuality, violence are handled in a more frank way than they are right now. Why should these things not be put in front of the public? They exist. They've got to be able to be talked about and processed in the culture."
Glover is traveling with What Is It?, preceding each screening with a slide-show presentation from eight of his books. Most were created in the ’80s using cut-up techniques akin to those of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. The large-screen format and dramatic readings by Glover breathe new life into the books, which were published in small, beautiful editions by his own press, Volcanic Eruptions. After the movie there is a Q&A in which the filmmaker takes the time to speak with every viewer, be they friend, member of the press, or regular part of the audience.
It seems that we are approaching the disclaimer part of the text — the part wherein the responsible reviewer urges the reader to shed all preconceptions and bring an open mind to the Castro Theatre this weekend.