Live Review: Is it? It is! An evening with Crispin Glover

Crispin review

LIVE! – Is it? It is! Two Nights with Crispin Glover
January 28, 2017: “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show Part 1,” followed by the film What Is It?, Q&A, and a book signing
Cinema de Sève, Concordia University

“I desire to make films that go beyond the realm of that which is considered good and evil.”
– Crispin Glover

When I was a kid I had a crush on the Thin Man. Not William Powell’s performance of the classic Dashiell Hammett character (that came later in life), but Crispin Glover’s Thin Man from the 2000 movie Charlie’s Angels – the screaming-but-otherwise-speechless, smoking, suit-wearing, sword-bearing villain with a fetish for women’s hair.

Three years later Glover appeared as the title character in the horror movie Willard, an updated version of the 1971 original. This character was as bizarre, solitary, and sartorially sophisticated as the Thin Man; it occurred to me that my schoolgirl crush could in fact be on Crispin himself. Not a fan of the Back to the Future franchise, I sought Glover out in different movies and roles, like Bartleby (2003) – he plays the perfect Bartleby – and of course the small but unforgettable turn as Lula’s cousin Dell in Wild at Heart (1990), who loves putting cockroaches on his anus almost as much as he loves Christmas. In case you’re wondering, cousin Dell’s screams bear a remarkable resemblance to the Thin Man’s screams a decade later.

So I was excited but also a bit nervous to meet the man behind the screams and suits during a special two-night event with Crispin Glover here in Montreal recently. Notably, the planned event had nothing to do with Glover’s performances in other people’s films (although he was gracious enough to answer any questions about those performances during the Q&A period): it was all about his own art, of which there is a lot. But other than following Glover’s Instagram account for the frequently updated pictures of the Czech castle where he lives and works, or ordering his books off his website, it can be difficult to access Glover’s art. Hence this two-night event, which would see Crispin doing a performative reading from his books (which he started making over three decades ago, in 1983) with an accompanying slideshow, followed by a screening of one of his own films. On the first night he showed the film It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE (2007), written by the movie’s star Steven C. Stewart, and on the second night, which I attended, Glover screened the intensely personal film – which he wrote, directed, and edited – What Is It? (2005).

The book reading and slideshow was arresting, funny, and marvelous. During the Q&A period Glover emphasized the Surrealist influence on his filmmaking (he’s particularly fond of the collaborations between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí), but the slideshow and book reading had the childlike absurdity and hard-hitting humour of Surrealism’s anarchic progenitor, Dada. Crispin’s comparisons between his own work and Surrealism were also astute: he shares with the Surrealists a clear influence from Sigmund Freud (especially evident in elements of fetishism, free association, paranoia, and perversion) and a preoccupation with sexuality and violence. The books were constructed from “found” (i.e. public domain) books from the nineteenth century, and have both original drawings and reworked imagery. Crispin read from eight books, his dramatic narration superbly complemented by a dizzyingly diverse slideshow. Some of my own favourite art and artists appeared, including works by the Flemish Renaissance painter Bruegel, and a detail of the Deposition (c. 1435) by another Flemish master, Rogier van der Weyden.

Different artists have different attitudes with respect to the question of being understood – some try to control how viewers encounter their work, while others believe that a work ceases to belong to them once it’s completed. Although Crispin Glover doesn’t seem overly concerned with controlling the reception of the books and slideshow, he is at great pains to have his film What Is It? understood. Considering the cryptic nature of the work, this is no easy task. What Is It? is an allegorical tale in which actors with Down syndrome play characters – sometimes imaginary – who do not have Down syndrome. The tagline for the film is: “Being the adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche.”

The motivation for the making of the film, according to the Glover, was educational. It represents his reaction to the corporate restraints on film in the last thirty-five years. Crispin is deeply concerned about the corporately funded film industry where, according to him, “anything that could make people uncomfortable is excised.” By contrast what he hoped to produce was a movie that would provoke audiences into asking themselves: “Is this right, what I’m watching? Is this wrong, what I’m watching? What is it? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have done this?” Being that those are exactly the sorts of questions that came to my mind while watching the movie (and the question and answer period made clear that I wasn’t the only one) I would say that Crispin’s film, which he began in 1996 and has been touring with and screening since 2005, is completely successful. Glover himself has said: “there are only three films up to this point that I feel like are properly educational. And I would say The Orkly Kid is one of them, River’s Edge is one of them, and What Is It? is the other.”

I imagine that everyone will have different associations while watching What Is It? Because I wrote a PhD dissertation significantly concerned with Freud and with the racist aesthetics of proto-Nazi Austria, my mind tended to move in those directions. The paranoid inner world of the main character in What Is It? reminded me of the sadomasochistic mind of Daniel Paul Schreber, the German judge whose 1903 book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness was later made famous by Freud.

And the repeated use of swastikas with images of Shirley Temple evoked the complicated real-life relationship between Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, the SS, and Shirley Temple’s movies. But putting my personal academic associations aside, it seems that the movie represents – at least to some extent – a critical commentary on Steven Spielberg and his hegemonic influence within the corporately funded and distributed film industry, as well as his dubious professional practices. Although What Is It? is probably not for the faint of heart, I would recommend watching the film. Ultimately you must decide for yourself what it is.

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