Friday, January 16, 2009

Two Nights with Crispin Glover

It’s been several months since my weekend with Crispin Glover at Webster University, in which he screened his two directorial features, delivered his Big Slide Show presentation, sold copies of his many avant-garde books and provided an extensive Q&A session. Somehow I thought that an extensive period of digestion would yield more insights into his work. This has not been the case. However, while I can’t claim to have been particularly entertained or enlightened by Glover’s work, I’m honestly thankful for one of the strangest and most provocative weekends of my life.

Glover is primarily known for his acting roles in films like “Back to the Future,” “River’s Edge” and “Charlie’s Angels” (which he did to bankroll his independent work), but considers his director stint to be his more important contribute to cinema. Popular culture can likely be forgiven this oversight, considering that Glover, quite wisely, refuses to sell the rights to his films, accept corporate funding, issue his work on DVD, put the film on the internet, release it in theaters chains or even allow it to screen without being in attendance.

Instead, Crispin Glover opts to use an alternative distribution system grounded in Third Cinema and grassroots campaigns. He visits cities one-by-one, not always large ones, and shows his films to relatively small audiences. He charges more than conventional movie tickets, but assures that the proceeds fund his work and preserve his artistic integrity. He insists upon a Q&A after each film to help discuss (not to explain) his work and, perhaps more importantly, his intentions. He engages well with the audience, many of which are offended and hostile or just confused and skeptical.

The evening-long presentations begin with his Big Slide Show, easily my favorite part of both nights. Glover, his face lit by a single spotlight on his face, impassionedly orates from memory six of his books while the pages are displayed on the screen behind him. It’s tough to describe how much of a visual experience this actual is until one understands that these are not books in the traditional sense.

Glover cannibalizes antique books from pawn shops and other sources, inking out, embellishing and reconfiguring the text into creepy, anarchic stories of obsession, madness and memory. Unsettling imagery, styled handwriting, beads of blackness and unexpected patches of empty space make the slides all the more compelling. My favorites were “Rat Catching” an overly enthusiastic guide/biography on the lost art form of the title and “Round My House,” a rather narrative venture concerning a self-styled inventor, his inhuman experiments and his rabid defense of a quasi-sympathetic doctor that testified against him.

I found Glover’s feature films less successful, though admittedly my criteria for a successful film is inadequate to address Glover’s goals. “What Is It?” (2005) could loosely be described as a mental crisis and psychological revolution within the mind of a lost boy with a snail obsession and Down syndrome. Actually, most of the cast has Down Syndrome. Some are porn stars. Fairuza Balk (Return to Oz, The Craft) voices the snail. Crispin Glover himself plays the cruel, controlling tyrant that reigns, on an elevated throne, inside the protagonist’s head.
The film takes place in two settings, the external world and the inner psyche. The outside world sequences are especially weak, as they slog along through low-fi backyard imagery and abrasive, jerky randomness. Heavy, ambiguous dialog and symbolism along with a cheeky “I don’t know what it means; what do you think it means?” tone wears quickly through the audience patience unless they can subsist purely on the “This is so crazy” vibe.

The other setting, the kingdom of the mind, is more my vein of surrealism. The above-ground portion is a fog-smothered, crater-pitted landscape prominently featuring the enrobed Glover on his monumental throne from which he listens to racist records and ponders odd artifacts. Around him circulates vaguely demonic elephant-headed nude women, actor and cerebral palsy victim Steven C. Stewart in a giant clam shell and cherubim imagery linking Shirley Temple, sadomasochism and Nazism. Below this is an inner sanctum with velvety Victorian furniture and concubines.

Though these portions of the film don’t make any more sense than the rest, they are more visually arresting and potentially meaningful. The somewhat crude shock tactics are everything that shock cinema should be in its purest form: multipronged attacks on even the most taboo of subjects presented without clear-cut messages that excuse or vindicate themselves. I’m not really a fan of most art like this that intends, presumably, to shock me out of complacency and confront me with repressed truths about humanity (or whatever). For one thing, they don’t have a tendency to work.

However, the Q&A session afterwards at least convinced me of Glover’s intelligence and wholehearted sincerity, which distinguishes him from the fray of mindless, heartless shock-mongers more interested in commercial exploitation. Yet one of the problems is that even with a well-meaning director and an out-of-the-way selective venue, much of the audience is not on Glover’s wavelength. Shock cinema is now virtually accepted as just another marketable genre of pop culture that preys pointlessly on the desire of many (including myself at times) to prove how independent/alternative/hardcore they are. I wonder how much of the audience really watches “What Is It” because they believe its controversial content can be a catalyst for positive social change and not just because of its reputation as outrageous lunacy?

Incidentally, my favorite part “What Is It?” was the ending credits, which are overlaid onto some sort of Romanian folk music go-go dancers.

Glover’s 2007 sequel (almost no actual relation) bears the witty title “It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” It was written by and stars Steven C. Stewart whose back-story eclipses the interest value of the film itself. Stewart spent most of his adult life in a facility for the mentally handicapped because his severe cerebral palsy prevented himself from making himself understood either verbally or on paper. After finally being recognized as a fully cognizant and reasoning person he acquired a special typewriter and composed a semi-autobiographical porno-thriller based primarily on his frustrated sexual fantasies. Crispin Glover brought it to the screen.

Stewart’s screenplay is considerably more coherent than Glover’s “What Is It?” to the point where it is actually far too transparent. Nothing in the story shows any evidence of inspiration, talent or deeper meaning, though for Glover it represents a profound point of interest for meta-topics on the nature of art, expression and sex. Thus the lion’s share of the film’s value comes from provoking questions like “Is it artistic, erotic, misogynistic or all of the above?”, “Is Stewart making an honest attempt to tell a story or just indulging fantasies and finding a means to star in sex scenes?” (Glover admits he suspected the latter), “Is Stewart exploiting the actresses; is Glover exploiting Stewart?”, “Who should have access to cinematic expression and are their limits on what can be expressed?”, “How do we register pleasure and discomfort when confronted with graphic, unsimulated sex, especially when it involves a person who doesn’t conform to societal expectation about health and beauty?” and so on.

Whether you think these are urgently important issues that need to be brought to the forefront of cultural discourse or whether you’d prefer to avoid “It Is Fine” like the plague and be left alone to discuss last nights episode of “Project Runway” will vary widely. Personally, I didn’t find the film to have much of merit though I respect Glover’s attempts to really explore difficult issues and personal convictions. I think there may be more hidden meaning underlying Glover’s work than, say, Brett Ratner’s, but the effectiveness of his films to convey its significance to the audience strikes me as equally dubious.

I’m also aware that attributing Glover’s two films some mystical meaningfulness that even I can’t divine might just be falling into the Critic’s Trap: assuming that just because the medicine tastes bad, it must be doing something healthy. Maybe “What Is It?” and “It Is Fine” are just the intellectual equivalent of placebos.


Mad Dog said...

If nothing else, they certainly caused you to look at how on earth to possibly critique them. I, too, have to talk myself back from the brink of convincing myself I like a movie that I really don't like just because it has "cred" or a "reputation" every now and again. And sometimes I have to admit that I love certain movies that are reviled by critic and public alike. (Hello, Hulk, Funny Games and Speed Racer!) It can really be difficult sometimes to draw the line between what really does seem to have artistic merit and random auteur-esque flailing.

K. said...

His movie is filth, and offensive. And, potentially, the abuse of the "actors" with Downs Syndrome is probably criminal behavior in some states. His inner psyche scenes were meant to be as weird as possible, and there was nothing "artistic" about the scenes. I can't believe anyone would support this garbage. His writings....utter nonsense with no artistic value.