Work in Progress
by Michael Joshua Rowin
What Is It?
Dir. Crispin Hellion Glover
In 2005, What Is It?, the feature-film debut of fringe actor, cult icon, and over-proud weirdo Crispin Hellion Glover (not just Crispin Glover, as most know him), made its New York City premiere at the New York Underground Film Festival to much hype and anticipation. Unable to attend, I received two contradictory reports about the event, which also included Glover’s “Big Slideshow” and a Q&A. One was that Glover made an ass out himself by presenting his juvenile pseudoexperimental film, starring the director and a group of people with Down syndrome, and then proceeding to display his pretension and ignorance about the history of underground film whose lineage he now, presumably, considered himself a part of. The other was that the whole thing was a put-on, an Andy Kaufmanesque performance using the only possible confrontation that can rattle experimental film audiences and the hip elite—complete poseurdom—to mock that scene’s institutional mindset. Upon finally seeing What Is It? two years later during Glover’s third trip through NYC with his independently funded road show, I was surprised to discover that the film’s value and intentions don’t lie somewhere between those two abovementioned accounts but somewhere outside them. What Is It? is at once less gratuitous and more insipid than anybody has given it credit for: while Glover’s purpose is wholly sincere and even somewhat brave, his approach is totally wrong and his directorial skills remarkably insufficient for such a provocative task. In order to shape taboo busting into genuine subversion, the attitudes propelling What Is It? need a creative force whose sensibility matches his commitment. Glover is not that creative force.
What Is It?, a film in the tradition of off-the-beaten track provocations from Un Chien andalou to Emperor Tomato Ketchup to Gummo, has the sad misfortune of being released in a 21st century that, compared to previous eras, contains far greater tolerance and even mainstream housing for such abrasiveness. The crowd that formed a line extending far up the block from the IFC Center to view Glover’s film was clearly more interested in the director’s eccentric reputation than the implications of his film. Even the titters What Is It? aroused—titters that Glover later spoke of as stemming from questionable audience feelings toward what they were seeing—were subdued. Instead, What Is It? invites gawking curiosity and then profound boredom. Even at a little over seventy minutes, the film is overlong, rambling, and repetitious. It proceeds something like this: A Young Man (Michael Blevis) with Down syndrome journeys outside his house, losing his beloved pipe in the process. He encounters other people with Down syndrome, as well as talking snails, upon which he pours salt, and attacking preying mantises; toward film’s end, he and his cohorts put a man in black face on trial. Meanwhile, in the Young Man’s “inner sanctum,” a Dueling Demi-God Auteur and the Young Man's Inner Psyche (Glover, with long hair and a fur coat) sits upon a throne in a marshy bog. Naked women with grotesque animal masks saunter out of holes and carry a man with severe cerebral palsy (Steven C. Stewart, the writer and star of the second of Glover’s planned trilogy, It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!) in a giant oyster. One of the naked women services him sexually. Glover plays Johnny Rebel's noxious recording “Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way).” Pictures of Shirley Temple in front of Nazi swastikas flash on screen. Two women with Down syndrome flirt with Glover. Stewart wrestles Glover. And on and on: the pageantry of intentionally offensive images progresses without thoughtful connection to anything other than the potential but nonexistent shock effects Glover hopes to achieve. Even the psychodrama’s manifest material is too shoddily put together to create the sort of disorienting, anarchic madness of Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small, the film Glover most obviously wishes to emulate.
Glover’s failure is disappointing because the man has serious intentions for What Is It? beyond the “weirdness for weirdness’s sake” charges that have been leveled at him. In the November-December 2006 issue of Film Comment Glover was given free reign in that magazine’s “Guilty Pleasures” column and wrote a version of the spiel he’s been disseminating while on tour: “Because my own film What Is It? is basically self-funded, I have a great interest in how funding influences content. What Is It? contains content that some will consider beyond the realm of good and evil. In corporately financed film, content that does not sit within the boundaries of good and evil will be excised, or the project will not be funded or distributed.” Not many Hollywood actors openly talk from their own experiences about how base influences superstructure, and Glover is admirable in doing so. But there are a few problems here, starting with the fact that when Glover says his film is “basically self-funded,” he’s referring to the Charlie’s Angels paycheck that made his project a reality, a risky move still not much different from the strategies of David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, Hollywood players who finance their “personal” work by directing commercials or commercially viable pictures.
Another problem is the issue of exactly what constitutes “content . . . beyond good and evil” and how it is treated in movies. Glover never defines these boundaries, neither in his statements about What Is It? or in the film itself, and by circumventing the particulars of this issue reveals the vacuity of his execution. Nudity, handicapped people, racism, and insects have made their way, in various forms, into mainstream fare (we’re living in the post-Freddy Got Fingered period, after all—come to think of it, Charlie’s Angels mastermind/cutie pie Drew Barrymore aided Tom Green’s transgressions, too), but even if Glover believes he’s presenting these things in a more truthful light by refraining from judgment, then he’s not only behind in the game but severely self-deluded. Anyone can present Nazi logos or minstrel performers in a film and bill their appearances as “confrontational,” but it takes insight and artistry to uncover the meanings and the modern incarnations of such taboos to make sense of them. Compare, at one end of the filmmaking spectrum, Stan Brakhage’s investigation of the insidious fantasies of Shirley Temple in his Scenes from Under Childhood and, at the other, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, an unsuccessful but at least ambitious attempt at probing satire, to Glover’s superficial treatment of the dark underbelly of pop culture and the latter’s laziness is placed in stark relief.
To be fair, moral responsibility may be antithetical to Glover’s very program, but, unlike the best provocations, What Is It? neglects to even reassert questions basic to its existence: What are we watching?; Why are we watching?; Is this exploitation?; etc. That’s because there’s a vanity to What Is It? that betrays its creator’s suspicious self-flattery. Early scenes proudly show off the film’s motifs (to Wagner, no less) to herald the intrepid daring of its aptly named “Demi-God Auteur,” only to devolve into frequent slug-foamings or montages of Down syndrome people getting bonked on the head, embarrassing payoffs to Glover’s promises of opening a Pandora’s Box of personal obsessions and ideas. What Is It? is “underground” filmmaking for the South Park age, buying into a mythos of gutsy independence while refusing to make any effort toward actually challenging its audience. It’s not “beyond good and evil” (nor “neoclassicism,” as Nathan Lee has facetiously suggested) but a simulacrum of subversion and a veritable display of self-promotion.