When it was announced that Crispin Hellion Glover was headed to the Austin area, I took action immediately: tickets were secured, times were double-checked, parachute pants were ironed and starched into oblivion (long story). While I didn’t know quite what to expect from Glover’s two-night run at the Alamo Drafthouse, I knew that the actor was screening two of his most infamously weird projects: It Is Fine, Everything Is Fine! and What is It? I also knew he would be performing some sort of reading from the handful of “books” he’s “written”, but frankly, the promise of seeing those two bizarro films was more than enough to get me into the theater. So, how weird was it? Read on for our report from the Drafthouse frontlines, after the jump.
Here’s an obvious statement: Crispin Hellion Glover– the guy best known for playing George McFly in the first Back to The Future (and known by a slightly smaller group of people as the dude who almost kicked Letterman in the face while tripping balls onThe Late Show in the mid-80’s)– is a bit of an oddball. If you know the name, you already knew this. And if you’re somehow unfamiliar with that name, you really oughtta do a little poking around on Wikipedia, YouTube, and some of the internet’s darker corners. Go ahead, I’ll wait here.
Weird, right? Crispin Glover’s been a cult figure (not to mention a hipster favorite) for years now, a kind of low-level (but highly-talented) celebrity that gives David Lynch a run for his money in the “What the hell is going on here?” department. If you’re a film-geek-in-training, you’ve seen Glover in Back to The Future, Willard (the film with all the rats; not the original, but the remake), or maybe in the Charlie’s Angels films, where he played the “Creepy Thin Man”. If you’re an actual film-geek, then you probably know Glover as the director of such rarely-seen films as What Is It? and It Is Fine, Everything is Fine! These are the kind of films that are casually name-dropped into film-geek conversations, but films that barely anyone has actually seen. As such, when the opportunity to catch both films– with a Q&A hosted by the man himself– arose, I leaped at the opportunity.
The fact that you might have never heard of It is Fine, Everything is Fine! or What is it? isn’t reflective of Glover’s quality as a filmmaker. Rather, the films Glover’s made simply haven’t been given anything approaching wide (or even narrow) distribution: if you’ve seen either of ’em, it’s probably because you attended an event similar to the one that I was lucky enough to attend this past week. On Thursday evening, Glover screened Everything is Fine! (for brevity’s sake, we’re sticking with that abbreviated version of the title) and performed a series of readings– from “books” he’d written– in front of a slideshow. On the following night, Glover performed another reading and screened What is it?
To say that the entire experience was “weird” does not begin to describe the scene the Drafthouse audience witnessed.
On Thursday, the line started up around 5:30 and grew exponentially (both shows had sold out) as the screening’s 7pm start time loomed closer. Upon entering the theater, my associate and I discovered that we were amongst a beyond-varied gathering of film enthusiasts. The people on my right seemed normal enough, for instance, while the loud-ass, obnoxious, wearing-a-t-shirt-eight-sizes-too-small, drunken fool with all the mascara sitting in front of us seemed a little less so. Nothing brings people of all races, creeds, and colors together faster than a Glover joint, yo. I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had been brought there without any idea of what was about to happen: would they be shocked? Confused? Terrified? Offended? The mood pre-show was kinda electric, actually.
And then, shortly after 7pm, Glover took the stage, beginning a series of readings he delivered while a slideshow played out behind him. The slides themselves were often pages from the “books” Glover was reading from (the “books” were actually unspeakably old novels and instruction manuals that had been edited– passages blacked out, photos inserted over the text, and so on– into bizarre, sprawling narratives that might only have made complete sense to Glover himself) interspersed with the original artwork and photographs that appeared on the “pages”. These readings were odd, of course, but the accompanying photos and artwork were even more unnerving. For posterity’s sake, here’s the titles of the eight “books” Glover read from this evening:
- Concrete Inspection
- The Backward Swing
- The Land of Sunshine
- The Betrothed
- Oak Mot
- An Egg Farm
- Round to My House
- What It Is & How It Is Done
It’d be disingenuous of me to claim that I “understood” (in the traditional sense) everything Glover read. Many of these selections were more along the line of tone poems, or maybe chants (“An Egg Farm”, for instance, consisted of no more than three or four sentences repeated several times), while others were longer, some bordering on rambling. All were equally impenetrable: hearing Glover read from these texts was akin to hearing the audio-book recording of the novelization of the Eraserhead screenplay (think about what that’d sound like for a minute). Whether or not this is a bad thing is entirely dependent upon your patience for such weirdness. Me, I’m a fan of this brand of weirdness, so (and I believe I can speak for my associate here, as well) I was never bored. In fact, we were thoroughly entertained, if not a little weirded-out by the end of the whole thing.
As it turns out, we didn’t know the first thing about weirdness. Glover introduced Everything is Fine! with a few words, and the film itself is preceded by a series of title cards that kinda-sorta-don’t-really explain what the hell you’re about to watch. It just so happens that I’d read an in-depth interview with Glover regarding Everything is Fine! the day before over on Ain’t It Cool News, so I had a rough idea of what to expect: I knew that Everything is Fine! is a film Glover made back in 2007; that it was written and stars a gentleman with Cerebral Palsy named Stephen C. Stewart; that it was going to contain some unsettling imagery. I knew those things going into the film, yes, but they did nothing to prepare me for the experience beyond filling in a few “real world” details that…well, they didn’t help matters.
Anyway, It is Fine, Everything is Fine! (written by and starring Stewart, directed by Glover) is like a late-70’s TV thriller as directed by David Lynch (turns out, Stewart was aiming for that style when he wrote the film). Stewart stars as a version of himself, a man with Cerebral Palsy trapped in a nursing home/private-care facility. Thing is, Stewart’s character seems to get out an awful lot, moreso than one might expect. Here he is going to parties– swinging dance parties and pool parties, in fact– and there he is encountering no small amount of women willing to go to bed with him. The fact that Stewart’s handicap renders him nearly unintelligible is never really addressed: characters within the film react to him as though he were speaking “normally”. The film’s various characters– mainly women– reference his handicap, but never in the way that it might be treated in real life: in Everything is Fine!, Stewart’s character is a bit of a ladies’ man.
He’s also a murdering ladies’ man. And so, every once in awhile Stewart kills off one of the women he’s just seduced, slept with, or attempted to sleep with. He’s also got a penchant for long hair, which means that the film contains graphic sex scenes (as in: full penetration and oral copulation) in addition to equally-bizarre sequences where Stewart’s character fondles, strokes, and manhandles various ladies’ heads. If you’re thinking, “Why, that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever seen before!”, I can assure you that it isn’t. It is, in fact, wildly disturbing, highly effective, and powerfully performed. I don’t know that I’d call Glover’s film a “great film”, but there’s no denying that it makes a point, moves its audience, and leaves you squirming in your seat.
Here. Check out the film’s trailer to see what I’m talking about:
The post-screening Q&A made it clear that Glover is all too happy to leave the audience squirming. It is, in fact, precisely what he’s aiming for. Glover proved to be a bit of a long-winded public speaker (over the 75 minutes or so that Glover was answering questions from the crowd, only 5 questions or so were actually asked), and one idea that he returned to over and over again was his interest in putting “taboo” subjects onscreen. He claimed that offending the audience isn’t important, but explained that ignoring “taboos” is (There’s some double-sided logic at work there, but let’s just go along with it). Glover says that he finds modern filmmaking to be “propogandistic” and “offensive”, and feels that more filmmakers ought to be challenging their audiences by foisting taboos upon them, or at the very least presenting them without shame or fear of criticism (more on this later). The basic sentiment is, when an audience is questioning whether or not they should be watching (whatever-they’re-watching), the filmmaker has made something worthwhile. At least, that’s what I took away from his chat.
The second evening began with another reading, this one combining about half of the material we’d heard the night before with a smattering of new selections. Glover was noticably more relaxed on night two, but I’ll confess being a little bored sitting through some of the longer selections a second time. After an hour or so, the actor offered a few quick words about What is It?, and then the film began. Shortly thereafter, the audience’s heads started exploding randomly throughout the auditorium. Wanna see the trailer? Here, check this out:
The thing about What is It? is, What is It? isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen. Scratch that: it’s precisely like a lot of half-assed student films that I’ve seen, stuff where heavy-handed symbolism does battle with bizarre musical cues, overly-dramatic dialogue, and seemingly-random events over the course of the film-in-question’s run-time. On the one hand, What is It? is clearly the work of an artist who had a very specific statement that he wanted to make, a very specific series of images he wanted to share, a very specific aesthetic and tone that he wanted to establish on-screen. Who am I to question an artist at work, particularly one as accomplished as Glover? On the other hand, I couldn’t help but return to the same thought over and over again as I watched What is It?: would the audience be lapping it all up as readily if it had been made by some random dude from NYU’s Film School, or some yutz on the corner of 6th and Congress? Or would they have criticized the genuinely-impenetrable “plot”, the symbolism, the questionable…everything?
Here’s a random list of things I witnessed in What is It? (and before any of you call “unfair” for offering a laundry list of bizarre observations completely out of context, be aware that What is It? is not a normal film, and thus cannot be judged– or critiqued– along the same lines; I’d laugh in the face of anyone who would say that they “understand” it): a kid with Down’s Syndrome performing lines from “Beat It”, a guy in black-face glaring into the camera and muttering “Arnold Schwarzenegger hugging me”, snails being sprinkled with salt (over and over again, perhaps a dozen times over the course of the film’s run-time), scenes set in graveyards, in spooky underground lairs, the guy with Cerebral Palsy from Everything is Fine! laying naked inside a giant clamshell while a girl in a demon mask cradled a watermelon in one hand and jerked him off with the other. This is the short-list. If I wanted to beat you over the head with the point, I could go on with another 200 picks– but I think you get the idea.
I won’t claim to understand the film, but– like the genuinely entertaining readings that Glover offered on both nights– What is It? does manage to succeed as a moody piece of performance art. Sure, it’s performance art that’s been captured on-camera and blown up to silver-screen size, but…well, one couldn’t call this a “film” in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, images have been captured on film and run through a projector onto a big-ass screen, but What is It? makes David Lynch’s Inland Empire look like the most pedestrian, predictable rom-com Kate Hudson’s ever made. It succeeds in the tone it establishes (that’d be: “disturbing”) and in the personal mission that Glover had to make a film with an all-Down’s-Syndrome-afflicted cast, but as far as enjoyable movie-watching experiences go, Everything is Fine! was far more palatable.
After the What is It? screening happened to us, we were again treated to a(n even lengthier) Q&A. A few things worth noting about the second night’s Q&A: for one thing, Glover repeated whole swaths of “dialogue” verbatim, repeating seemingly-off-the-cuff remarks word-for-word from the night before: it became evident very quickly that Glover’s Q&A was really about 50% audience participation, 50% rehearsed story-telling. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I’ll admit that it was jarring (and a little tedious) to sit through the same ten-minute anecdotes about the funding of, say, Everything is Fine!, particularly when he told the same stories word-for-word the same as the night before. I shouldn’t complain about someone– especially someone who’s clearly as uncomfortable facing a large crowd of strangers as Glover is– preparing material for a paying audience (after all, comedians do it every night), but because the session was presented as an entirely-motivated-by-audience-questions situation, it did make the whole thing feel a little…odd. But then, “odd” had already been redefined by the time we got to the Q&A.
Also worth mentioning: Glover really nailed home his ideas about offending the audience, “taboos”, and the “Corporate Entertainment Machine”. The night before, he wasn’t as explicit as he was on night two, but here’s the logic he presented: ignoring taboos is important, mainly because taboos shouldn’t be important. It might be considered “taboo” to show a handicapped couple screwing in a movie (with full penetration, no less), but it’s unimportant simply because we’ve made it “taboo” by being so damned prude. Glover seemed very, very concerned about what the audience might write about him online after the show (this came up time and time again on both nights), and he was especially wary of anyone misunderstanding him on this point. See, it’s not that offending the audience is his mission: it’s that the audience shouldn’t be offended in the first place, even if he is putting some wildly offensive imagery (the aforementioned sex, the graphic violence, the dude in black-face, the frequent use of Swastikas, and so on) on-screen. Um, OK.
After the show, I had a chance to sit and chat with Glover for a few minutes, and he was very shy– but talkative, if that makes sense– one-on-one. He was (again) very concerned about what me and my associate (also an online writer) had to say about the show, and seemed very eager to find out what we did and didn’t like about each performance. We told him that we preferred the first night, and we also agreed that Everything is Fine! was– overall– the more palatable filmgoing experience. He asked which of his reading-selections we preferred and voiced concerns about a few technical errors that had sprung up the night before. We waved them off and told him– truthfully– that we’d had a great time. Glover also mentioned how much he loves the Alamo Drafthouse, and told us– as he’d told the audience after the What is It? screening– that he hopes that Alamo owner Tim League “takes over the world”. I can’t help but agree, but then, I’m from Austin.
All in all, it was a strange couple of nights. Glover’s friendly and warm (if perhaps a little squirrelly) in person, his readings were enthusiastic and well worth hearing (though maybe not twice in two nights, though that might be different for Glover superfans), and his films were absolutely worth checking out. I’ve been hearing about What is It? and– to a lesser extent– Everything is Fine! for years, so it was great to finally find out what all the hubbub was about. I wish that Glover’s films were just a tad more accessible (something along the lines of Lynch’s best work, for instance), but what’s the point of comparing the two? Glover’s a true artist, and after catching these two shows at the Drafthouse it’s more clear than ever that he’s determined to spend the rest of his career making films and producing content on his own terms, with zero apologies.
My Grade? Everything is Fine! gets a B-, while What is It? gets something in-between a D and a C+ (for excessive inaccessibility)
If you’re interested in attending one of Crispin Glover’s upcoming shows, check out ticketing availability over at crispinglover.com. We can’t recommend these shows enough, even if they will leave you with a few nightmares, questions, and introduce you to a few images you might be better off not seeing. Say what you will about how weird it all is, but you’ll never be bored.