REVIEW: What Is It? [2005]

“It’s burning”

Finding out that the ever-eccentric Crispin Glover was coming to town with his new film It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. first gave way to excitement at the prospect and then curiosity to attempt catching a glimpse of his directorial debut What Is It?, both part of a planned It? Trilogy. Only viewable at his personal road shows, I’m not sure the ability to see the actual film even exists anymore. There is, however, a bootleg copy roaming the internets, and so the completist in me was able to take the plunge into a surreal world I may never be able to comprehend. Reminiscent of the 60s and 70s avant-garde pieces I watched at college in Film interpretation, Glover’s 70-minute nightmare appears intent on making its audience uncomfortable with its pornographic brazenness, its inclusion of music from Charles Manson and segregationist Johnny Rebel, its principal cast of mostly actors with Down syndrome, and taboo upon taboo.

It’s a film about self-destruction and self-awareness, following a young man (Michael Blevis) as he searches for home. Confused about his lot in life, he takes a journey to find a snail to replace the one he murdered, met with hatred by its snail girlfriend (voiced by Fairuza Balk). On the way, his inner-psyche begins to hatch plans for death, in effect destroying the thing holding it back from pure evil. But while the creatures of his inner sanctum stay subservient to their leader (Crispin Glover’s Dueling Demi-God Auteur and Inner Psyche), the man on the outside recollects memories of his mother—who appears to be asphyxiating him by blowing smoke into a respiratory tube connected with his mouth—a fantasy woman to love him (Lisa Fusco), and the ridicule and torment inflicted upon him by others, burning him psychologically as he burns the snails he finds with salt, never able to bring one home alive.

The visuals are at times hard to take, from a constant barrage of snail deaths (yes, snails were harmed in the making of this film) from salt or razorblade to the naked women in elephant and monkey masks giving Steven C. Stewart (a man with severe Cerebral Palsy) a hand-job. He is the young man’s uber ego, and the only one to be strong enough to take down Glover’s Demi-God and reinstate a sense of balance in the inner sanctum, but can only display his power when no longer preoccupied by the masked women, I would assume sent by the nefarious, long-haired man. The inner sanctum is filled with swastikas, imagery of a nude young Shirley Temple, talking dolls, and a minstrel (Adam Parfrey), one more segmented piece of the young man’s mind—celebrity. There is a puppet Tide box, a hollow cast of a girl filled with egg yolks, and a Cabbage Patch doll playing the record of Rebel also. It’s a myriad of disturbing subject matter expressing the battles within the young man; the tug-of-war between good and evil as he copes with the prejudices faced in the real world.

Glover went about to spark conversation on racism and prejudice, using taboo to open people’s eyes to the fear of such things. One could say he is exploiting these actors with Down syndrome, using them to instill an emotional reaction from his audience or to make them uncomfortable. I’m not quite sure if he isn’t. But throughout the strange film, left to each viewer’s interpretation or ideals, there is one glaring success. While on the surface it shows an afflicted man and his trials and tribulations within the cruel world we exist, I’d be hard-pressed to be talked out of the fact it truly concerns Glover himself. An eccentric on the fringes of Hollywood, he too has been constantly vilified and ignored as an oddity throughout his career, treading a unique path through his artistic visions. At one point his Demi-God asks his disciples how they will acknowledge him, to which one responds “McFly” before another “God” and himself “Auteur”.

We are all snails left open to surface pain and suffering, but on the inside we rule ourselves and direct our life. Celebrity may risk overshadowing who we are, vengeance and vitriol can give the desire for darkness and retribution, but the part of us that seeks joy and pleasure can out-muscle all for a path of personal righteousness. In that respect What Is It? could simply be seen as the birth of Glover the director, showing everyone he has embraced who he is and is fearless to prove it in unconventional ways. And for that, I can almost forgive the confoundingly pretentious, bloated work set forth to express the message.

What Is It? 3/10 | ★

[1] Crispin Hellion Glover on the set of his film What is it? (Actor are Kiva & Crispin Glover)
[2] Discussion in Crispin Hellion Glover’s What is it? (Actors are Kelly Swiderski & John Insinna) Photo by Rocky Schenck

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