Sunday, February 10, 2008

“The Snowshoe Hare is a cross between a Rabbit and a Snowdrift”

On April 20th, year of our lord 1964, a miraculous thing happened. On that stormy morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, amidst the thunder and rain, a child was born into this world. This child was born to lead us, lead us all, into a new enlightened age. This child would change the course of mankind forever. I forget his name, but you know who else was born on April 20th 1964? Crispin Hellion Glover, that’s who!

I assume that if you’re reading this, you know me, which invariably means I have probably lectured you at one time or another about the greatness of Crispin Glover. Just in case you managed to stumble across this little blog without actually knowing me personally (very unlikely), or you do know me but have managed to escape my “Crispin Glover is the greatest man alive, and here is a 90 minute presentation explaining why” speech (slightly less unlikely), here’s a quick recap.

Crispin Glover is an actor, appearing in such mainstream fair as Back to the Future (playing George McFly, Michael J Fox’s nerdy father) and the Charlie’s Angels movies (playing the Thin Man, the mute evil assassin who fought the Angels to Prodigy’s “Smack my Bitch”). He is better known for appearing in films of varying degrees of “indie” (his cameo in Dead Man is one of the best parts of that movie, River’s Edge is an absolutely amazing film, and his undertaker in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is hilarious). He has cultivated a devoted following of rabid fans with his offbeat performances of offbeat characters in offbeat movies. There are movies that I have sat through just to see him in tiny roles. I watched the first Charlie’s Angels movie just to see him, same with Nurse Betty and the People vs. Larry Flynt. His very unique and intense charisma on screen has made his a living legend and veritable cult hero amongst his scarily devoted fan base.

Crispin Hellion Glover is less famous for his work behind the camera. He has written and directed two very low budget films (both feature length, shot on film, costing $150,000 and $250,000; for those who don’t know much about movie budgets, this is insanely cheap). His films, first What is it? and the follow-up It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE., have gained a certain amount of notoriety for their graphic and offensive imagery as well as his casting of actors with Down Syndrome (What is it?) and cerebral palsy. These films are little seen outside of his fan base, due to the fact that they are not released theatrically nor are they on video. Instead, Mr. Glover takes them on tour as part of a three-part performance (consisting of his Big Slide Show, a screening of one of his films, and a Q&A).

I have been fortunate enough to see both What is it? and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. And now that I’ve taken up a large part of your time with a lengthy and ultimately useless introduction, let’s begin my review of the dark, twisted world of Crispin Hellion Glover.

Again, much like my SFA review, I’m completely and hopelessly in love with Crispin Glover. Everything that follows is replete with nerdy adoration for everything this man has ever done. So keep that in mind. There’s a very good chance that nothing I say from here on out can be trusted in any way, shape, or form.

The first part of Glover’s touring performance is his Big Slide Show. This consists of dramatic readings from eight of his books. That’s right, he also writes books. He reads selections from his books while projecting the pages on the screen. The books are a mix of pictures (found objects ranging from Indian paintings to turn of the century clinical illustrations of animals carcasses) and text that is either scrawled across the page in strange, often misspelled handwriting or large blocks of typed text with portions blacked out. The books are by-turns hilarious, creepy, confusing, surreal, and utterly fascinating. The Big Slide Show alone is worth the price of admission. My personal favorite is the book Round my house, telling the horrifying/hilarious story of a man conducting inhuman experiments in his home, culminating in a “witch hunt, in which I am the witch”. The nonchalant way in which the narrator talks of his “ideas” and his persecution and betrayal is absolutely amazing. In all honesty, even if you have no interest in his films, I’d suggest seeing his tour, just to see the Big Slide Show.

Following the Big Slide Show, Mr. Glover then screens one of his films. Years ago, back in Ann Arbor, I went to see What is it? This was a while ago, and I unfortunately don’t remember a whole lot about it. Basically it was a nonlinear story about a young man who ventures out of his house, gets lost in a park, and is harassed by bullies while he pours salt on snails. While this is going on, there is a separate storyline (presumably the young man’s subconscious) wherein Mr. Glover plays a tyrannical ruler of a cave-like underground world. The world is adorned with pictures of Shirley Temple in a Nazi uniform, a minstrel in black face delivering insane soliloquies, and a man with cerebral palsy being manually stimulated by nude women wearing rubber animal masks.

Mr. Glover has stated that the film is a reaction to the constraints Hollywood places on filmmakers, and the film industry’s refusal to address anything outside carefully constructed social norms. It’s a grand, surreal statement about the nature of taboos and forcing the audience to confront that which is uncomfortable and forcing them to think about issues without dictating to them what they should think of as “good” or “bad.” Plenty of people hate this movie, and fair enough. It’s an uncomfortable viewing experience for any number of reasoning. The majority of the cast has Down Syndrome, the snails wail in a grating ear-splitting scream as they die, and there is graphic sexual scenes involving a severely handicapped man. Many claim the film is exploitative of its cast, only interested in shock-value, poorly made, and ultimately meaningless. I prefer to give Glover more credit than that. True, the production values are very low, the picture is grainy and the sound quality is poor. There are many things that don’t seem to serve a purpose beyond shock-value, but when the point of a film is to confront its audience with squirm-inducing taboos, well shocking imagery is kind of important. Obviously this sort of thing is not for everybody, and I’d be hard pressed to argue against someone who hated it. I’ll just say that I am grateful I got to see it, and leave it at that.

Recently I was able to see the second film in Mr. Glover’s “It” trilogy, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. This film was written by Steven C. Stewart, the man with cerebral palsy from What is it? Central to understanding the film is understanding Steven C. Stewart. Mr. Stewart has severe cerebral palsy. When his mother passed away in his twenties, he was sent to live in a nursing home, where he was neglected and abused by the staff. His disability renders him almost incapable of communicating, and it took him roughly a decade before he was able to get out of the nursing home. Through a convoluted series of acquaintances, a screenplay Mr. Stewart had written ended up in the hands of Crispin Glover, who in turn felt that no matter what it took, he had to make this movie. Within a month of completing shooting for the film, Steven Stewart died at the age of 62.

Unlike What is it?, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. is much more linear and narrative based. Steven C. Stewart stars as a man named Paul, who while living in a decrepit nursing home, meets and starts dating a woman he meets at a party. Paul falls in love with this woman, eventually asking her to marry him. She rejects him and Paul strangles her to death. After killing the woman, Paul then goes on to seduce her nubile daughter, and after having sex with her, proceeds to strangle her as well. After the death of the daughter, Paul begins venturing out in the world to seduce and murder more women all with long hair that he is obsessed with touched/washing. After murdering one of his victims, Paul falls out of his wheelchair, experiencing a dream in which he is using a Rapunzel-like woman’s hair to climb a mountainside. She cuts her hair, causing Paul to tumble down the mountain, wheelchair and all, finally landing headfirst onto the tile floor of the nursing home. We soon realize that the entire film was the violent, sexual fantasy life this man lived in his mind while trapped in his palsied body.

The film is filled with graphic sex and constant violence against women. Again, the production quality is low, so the picture is grainy and sound poor. Like What is it?, this film is strange to judge. It really doesn’t matter what my opinion of it is. Most people would absolutely hate it, and there really aren’t any counter-arguments to that. You don’t want to see a man with severe cerebral palsy get a very graphic, X-rated blowjob? Well, fair enough. I will say that I am again grateful I got to see it. It had moments that were absolutely fantastic. The final scene, in which Paul tries to talk to the other nursing home residents who cannot understand him, lends a truly fantastical element to the earlier portions of the film, where the women Paul meets understand his speech perfectly even though the audience cannot. Crispin’s father, Bruce Glover (who was at the screening, FYI), was fantastic as the first victim’s brutish ex-husband. The police “interrogation” wherein they invite all the suspects for lunch and give them all bendy-straws (because they found a bendy-straw at one of the murder scenes) was awesomely hilarious. It’s odd to think about whether I “liked” it or not. It’s not an enjoyable experience, it’s uncomfortable, strange, and actually quite unpleasant. But that’s the point. The point is to do something that no one else would ever do. Make people confront things like the sexuality of the handicapped, etc and so on. So it’s odd to say I “liked” it. I will say that I’m glad I saw it, and I will most definitely see the third “It” film (tentatively titled It Is Mine) when he tours with that.

After screening the film, Glover then holds a Q&A. He is surprisingly frank and open during this portion. For instance, at the end of the film, before the credits role, there are two title cards. The first stating that Steven C. Stewart died a month after filming ended, the second stating that he had fallen in love with one of the actresses and bequeathed all of his proceeds from the film to her. An audience member, naturally, asked which actress did he fall in love with. Glover, not answering it because he felt it was a little too gossipy while acknowledging he would also want to know had he been an audience member, goes on to tell a very long story about Steven C. Stewart. Glover acknowledges that he thought part of Stewart’s motivation for the film involved his chance to act out these sex acts with the actresses. That the graphic nature of the sex scenes were a way for Stewart to experience these things that he may have never been able to experience in real life. Glover said that the scene that most struck him when he initially read the script was the scene when Paul’s marriage proposal was rejected, and had no doubt that that scene played itself out in one way or another multiple times in Stewart’s real life. He claims that while the film is obviously not a documentary, it is a documentation of both Stewart’s real life (as seen in the nursing home scenes that bookend the film) and his frustrated, fantasy-filled inner life.

The Q&A is not all frank discussions about Stewart’s sexual frustrations. Glover is charismatic, strange, well-spoken, serious, and funny all at once. Someone asked how he came across Stewart’s script, and as Glover launched into a long story that didn’t look like it was getting at the actual question, he stopped to explain what he was getting at. He basically had some convoluted explanation about how answering simple questions with long-winded stories helps to shorten the Q&A by answering multiple questions at once. I don’t really buy his explanation, seeing as he went about 20 minutes over his allotted time (making the Alamo staff visibly nervous, since there was a line out the door for Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation which was being shown after Glover), but it was a funny explanation for his long-windedness nonetheless. I do think there was some credence to his thinking, though. I don’t know that any audience member would have the balls to ask up front if Stewart just wrote the script so he could have sex with actresses, but in his rambling, Glover did answer that lingering question.

The reasons for the post-screening Q&A seem to be three-fold. First, it gives Glover a chance to explain/defend his difficult, offense, and downright weird films. Second, it allows the audience to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the creative process and larger sociophilosophical issues. Finally, it gives an adoring audience the opportunity to ask Glover whatever the hell they’ve always wanted to know about him. Case in point, when someone asked what the deal was with the infamous Letterman interview. According to Glover, it was all a big practical joke that was actually going somewhere, but that Letterman surprised him by walking out on the interview, and he never got a chance to finish his joke. Also excellent was when one audience member asked if Glover had gotten a haircut during the movie, claiming his hair looked shorter. Glover, confused, responded that he hadn’t gotten a haircut during the movie, but had, oddly enough, cut it himself the day before.

At this point, I’ve rambled on way too long. Basically, if you love Crispin Glover you’ll go see these screenings. If you don’t, well then, you probably won’t go. These performances are engrossing, one-of-a-kind experiences. I love them, and will continue to go to them as long as Glover is touring.

As a reward for your patience, I leave you with one of the greatest moments in Glover’s illustrious career:

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