WHAT IS IT? Crispin Glover and the Politics of Difference

I have just seen Crispin Glover’s film WHAT IS IT? at the Chauvel Cinema. If you weren’t there, you won’t be able to see it. However, Crispin remains in (Sydney) town until Thursday night, when he presents the “sequel”, “IT IS FINE. EVERYTHING IS FINE!” If you are at all interested in radical cinema, this is a must-see.

You can’t see the films of Crispin Glover outside of his live screenings. They are not available on DVD and they do not get general cinema release. They have screened at Festivals around the world, but those days are past. Now, the only way to see them are accompanied by the Filmmaker, live.
Crispin Glover is an iconoclastic, idiosyncratic actor. Many know him from roles in BACK TO THE FUTURE (as the Father), THE DOORS (as Andy Warhol), WILLARD (the remake, as Willard) and his breakthrough role in RIVER’S EDGE. That film launched he and Keanu Reeves to Hollywood careers – but with very different trajectories.
Crispin now makes extremely experimental short feature films and tours the world with them, speaking alongside them, reading from his very Poe-influenced, poetic (and funny) books and giving long, generous Q and As.
His film WHAT IS IT? is a tour-de-force of challenging filmmaking. A short feature, the film examines marginalisation using that most taboo of subjects: the disabled. Nearly all the actors in the film are disabled – many intellectually and some very extremely physically. His actors do things we rarely witness disabled actors doing to each other in conventional film: they hurt each other, they lie to each other – and they have sex.
Rolf De Heer has explored similar territory, but not to the same degree. His film DANCE ME TO MY SONG was a powerful film and did not shy from depicting the severely handicapped as sexual beings. But Glover’s film is different. DANCE ME TO MY SONG places a handicapped person amongst the abled; in WHAT IS IT?, Crispin Glover posits a world of handicapped people, where the only “able-bodied / ably-intellectual” person is played by Glover himself. Everyone else is, essentially, in one way or another, “dis”abled.
Glover’s character – a self-styled “King”, with long hair, and sitting on a throne (like Olivier in RICHARD III)), wears a fur coat throughout – a disgusting example of an outrageous demigod, a Monarch of Vanity. Throughout the film, references are made to his state of (semi) celebrity: in one brilliant moment, another character, disabled in speech, refers to him as “Marty McBride” (the character Glover played in BACK TO THE FUTURE). Other references are made to the cult of celebrity, and Glover does not hold back from depicting himself as all-powerful, at one point choosing one disabled lover over another, and taunting the other with hints of his powerfulness: “Why would I choose you?”
But Glover does not reserve his most vicious for himself: Indeed, the narrative within the film (and, experimental as it is, there is a narrative) suggests a horrendous murder or murders committed by disabled people amongst themselves. This is where the film makes its most potent and well-landed point: that viciousness is everywhere, but essentially breeds downwards. What we see at the top levels of society – when we see a boss sack his underling – comes all the way down the line: next the underling hits his wife, next the wife hits her kids, next her kids hit OTHER kids.
I once saw two homeless drunks get into a very very serious fight over the remaining drabs of a bottle of awful wine. I kept walking. WHAT IS IT? asks me: what is it that I can walk past that?
Glover also uses a great metaphor for our perception of those in society considered “disabled”: snails. Snails are used throughout the film, in close-up and somewhat abstract, but also directly in the “narrative”, as observed by the main actors (or “protagonists”). When we first see the snails, we react knowingly: Hah! The lowest form of life. By the end of this amazing film, we question what “form of life” means.
Crispin Glover, that “strange Hollywood actor” who appears in very “Crispin Glover” roles, is actually an extremely sophisticated film-maker, working in an extremely unconventional format. His work is worth seeing. It is on this Thursday the 9th October at the Chauvel: the greatest cinema in Sydney, and not least because it is the only place you can see this sort of work.

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