What Is It? Ask Crispin Glover

Crispin Glover

A couple of years ago, I went to the Charles Theatre in Baltimore to see Crispin Glover in person. You might be most familiar with him from his hilariously awkward performance as Michael J. Fox’s nerdy father in Back to the Future. Or maybe you know him best because you’ve never forgotten his unsettling and wigged-out character from the youth-gone-really-bad drama River’s Edge. Perhaps you know he played the title role in the 2003 remake of Willard alongside R. Lee Ermey and a lot of rats.

Then again, you might just know him from his wackadoodle appearances on David Letterman:

Crispin Glover makes a living playing distinctly non-mainstream characters in mainstream films, using those paychecks in part to bankroll his other artistic passions, which include “writing” very strange books and making even stranger independent films. The books are cut-and-paste affairs, actual vintage and obscure texts written by others—subsequently blacked-out, doodled upon, and otherwise reconfigured to fit Glover’s invented, always eccentric new narrative purpose. This is Rat Catching, for example:


In between Hollywood gigs, he tours the world delivering a very unique one-man show of sorts. He begins with a spoken-word performance that accompanies a “Big Slide Show” drawn from some of these odd books, and then shows one or the other of the first two indie films he has made that will ultimately become a trilogy, related not so much by plot at all but by thematic concerns. Glover’s surreal, explosively taboo-breaking movies are one of the few really unique cinematic events left to be experienced, though most people would absolutely find them too obscure and distasteful to tolerate.

At the Charles in Baltimore, I saw the second of these films, It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. It’s possible to provide a synopsis/logline for the film, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a quasi-film noir-porno that’s also a semiautobiographical journey for its star, the late Steven C. Stewart (who, in real life, had cerebral palsy); Stewart’s character suffers a fall to the ground which knocks him unconscious and into a dream state where he realizes his fantasies of having sex with a variety of women.


There are assorted other shocking provocations in that film, but the chief aim of the movie as I understood it was to demonstrate that society’s most afflicted persons, generally seen as utter outsiders by the able-bodied, could—and should—also be depicted in the kinds of stories and scenes typically only inhabited by “normal” actors…which is to say the young, the easy-on-the-eyes, the glamorous types who are frequently Glover’s co-stars in, as he puts it, “corporately-funded-and-distributed-films.”

During the Q&A that followed, Glover was candid and often moving about his intentions using Stewart and other people with disabilities in productions with such graphic and potentially offensive content. Frustrating as it might be, his decision to only screen the films in this way, under his total control, is pretty admirable. He has no plans of releasing them to television, home video, anything. If you want to see these movies, keep your eyes on his calendar.

The final part of the night is the meet-Crispin-Glover-and-have-him-sign-something-or-take-a-picture portion of the program. Yes, I had him sign my copy of Rat Catching. Glover is generous with his time meeting each fan, almost to a fault. I spoke to him briefly about the movie and he talks back while he’s signing your materials, but he’s eager to keep you chatting even after he’s done. I was the one that had to say “Well, I have a pretty long drive back, so here I go.” That’s impressive. I was such a fan, I got right on his mailing list. You can be on it too, should you wish to visit his website, Volcanic Eruptions, and sign up.

When I got the email that he would be at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City doing his Big Slide Show and screening his first film—What Is It?—on June 8, I scooped up my ticket right away. My “ticket” turned out to be in the form of a little folding pin you had to wear visibly in order to gain admission to the theater. How appropriate that you would have to label yourself “MAD” (Museum of Art and Design) to get into this show.


So…what is What Is It? And how was What Is It? Darn good question. Glover’s directing debut was twice as shocking and half as comprehensible as the second film, which was my first. If you follow that. The cast is populated by nonprofessional actors with Down syndrome, Steven C. Stewart “again” (in a smaller role, before taking the lead in It Is Fine!…), and this time, Glover himself, portraying “Dueling Demi-God Auteur/The Young Man’s Inner Psyche and Id.” Yep. It’s that kind of movie.

The “young man” in question—played by Michael Blevis, not credited with appearing in any other film—seems to be troubled by a great many things…more specifically, a predilection for killing snails, groping lovers in graveyards, and experiencing visions of dancing blackface minstrels, Shirley Temple and swastikas…and, in one utterly unforgettable scene:

–Glover’s “Id” character sits atop a stone throne observing a naked, ape-masked woman sexually stimulating Stewart, who lays curled up in a giant clamshell that’s been towed into view by another nude, masked woman ambling along like a horse. This beyond-bizarre tableaux is made extra-outrageous by the musical accompaniment of a profoundly racist song.

And then there’s the minstrel injecting himself with snail juice. And the watermelons.  The ditty by Charles Manson and the organ music by Satanic Bible author Anton La Vey.

What Is It? is aptly titled. It truly resembles no other film. The works of Alejandro Jodorowsky come close, and he delights in being as prickly as Buñuel, but Glover’s urge to rattle a filmgoer’s cage goes beyond most anything I’ve witnessed from a “respectable” filmmaking talent. I can’t say I get behind What Is It? the same way I can It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine, and that’s chiefly due to the mania for the onscreen snail-killing. Most are dispatched by having salt poured upon them; there’s one scene where the “young man” takes a razor blade to a snail and decapitates it.


I’m game for nearly anything in a movie that justifies itself somehow. Ebert used to say (I’m paraphrasing) that, for him, it’s not what a movie is about, but how that movie is about it—and that’s my go-to philosophy as well. What Is It? tested the limits of my patience, and not because I was “shocked,” but because I was disheartened by how Glover apparently thought the killing of creatures onscreen wasn’t a gesture that was potent enough to be done once to make whatever point he wanted to make…but that he felt the need to go back to that device again. And again. And again. It made me a little sad, frankly.

This time, I didn’t stay for the Q&A. Before I left, I heard the young couple behind me debate whether or not they were going to stay, too. “I don’t even know what I’d ask him,” one said to the other. I felt that way, too. In this case, the movie spoke well enough for itself—which, ironically enough I suppose, is usually the ideal situation—and spurred no desire in me to investigate his thoughts about it at all.

When I walked into the museum to see the movie, the sun hadn’t quite set. When I emerged from the building, which is located right on Columbus Circle, the sky was black and the circle was gloriously lit. By one of the fountains, a ballet dancer whose dress was decorated with LED lights was twirling around to the appreciation of hushed onlookers either sitting inside the circle or wandering through. The weather was gorgeous and the beauty of the city seemed more potent than usual—and I wondered if that feeling was inspired in part by the contrast to the time I’d just spent in the bowels of a film so grimly assaulting.

Maybe the movie was better than I thought.