On June 16th and 17th at Alamo Drafthouse (Omaha ), I attended both nights of Crispin Glover’s appearance consisting of live performances, film screenings, Q&As, and book signings. And what a great time it was! Crispin Glover is one of the most wonderfully gracious, down-to-earth, and intelligent people I’ve met. His live performances films and should be experienced firsthand, because they defy easy description. But I’m going to try anyway.
Before I get to that, I want to foreground this review by saying that I didn’t know too much of what to expect from the event or from Crispin himself, and didn’t want to bias my opinion of the event by reading detailed reviews in advance. Aside from enjoying Crispin’s quirky performances in various films (including his recent role as “Mr. World” in the Starz series American Gods), I didn’t know much about him as a person, aside from media articles describing him as” eccentric” or even “crazy,” two terms that are neither equivalent nor interchangeable. Usually, the “evidence” for the “crazy” label consists of speculation about his cringe-inducing first appearance on Letterman in the late 1980s, or the fact that he used to collect antique medical equipment (a fun-sounding hobby that mostly makes me feel envious). As I discussed in an earlier post, “crazy” is a nebulous label, a sloppy blanket term for a range of behaviors and attitudes that don’t necessarily indicate actual mental illness. I’m not just carping about the descriptor “crazy” merely because Crispin Glover clearly isn’t. I also find it egregious because it’s an intellectually lazy way to dismiss someone whose ideas or behaviors are merely inconvenient, outside the status-quo, or fail to support one’s own agenda. More on this later.
This isn’t to say that Crispin’s artistic output isn’t eccentric or massively weird, because it is. If you have the opportunity to attend both nights, do so. There is some overlap in content but not so much as to be overly redundant. Both nights began with variations of “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show,” in which Crispin crawled out from somewhere beneath the stage (literally) and then presented dramatic reading of several of his books accompanied by a powerpoint presentation of the book text and illustrations. Most of Crispin’s books consist of Victorian-era texts and illustrations, which have been redacted, recombined, and annotated in ways that transform the narrative entirely, usually making it funny or into absolute nightmare fuel. For example, “Rat Catching” contains a surprise reference to bestiality. Other books, such as “Round My House,” consisted of Crispin’s original text, reprinted from his own handwriting. This was my favorite among the books available for purchase at the event and on his website. The others were out of print or never printed for distribution in the first place. My favorite among these was “The Backward Swing.” Crispin’s dramatic reading style most often further mutated or obfuscated the meaning of the text, because he would often read with an emotion that didn’t seem to fit the text, or would read in a counter-intuitive cadence or put emphasis on atypical words. I enjoy the books themselves, but would argue that they are best experienced when performed by Crispin himself.
Following the Big Slide Show on night one was a screening of It is Fine! Everything is Fine, which is directed by Crispin as part two if the “IT” trilogy. Part one, What is It? was screened the second night. In retrospect, I think I understand his reasoning for screening his films out of order. It is Fine! is a good way to warm up audience members who attended both nights, because of the two films, it is more palatable for mainstream audiences. Moreover, it’s in some ways helpful to learn about the screenwriter and lead actor Steven C. Stewart before seeing the first film. Steven C. Stewart, who had a severe case of cerebral palsy, portrays a serial killer who has a fetish for women with long hair. I won’t spoil this film for readers as I tend to do. While there are several taboo elements in It is Fine!, it’s a film with a coherent, linear plot.
That said, the oddities of the Big Slide Show and It is Fine! did not adequately prepare me for seeing part one of the “IT” trilogy, What is It?, which Crispin describes as, “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 racist inner psyche is portrayed by Crispin himself). In his Q&A afterward (as in interviews which can be read online), he states that one controversial element was the fact that the cast of What is It? consisted almost entirely of actors who had Down syndrome portraying characters who do not necessarily have Down syndrome. That’s really only one of many controversial aspects of the film. I would go so far to say that there is something potentially offensive or disturbing for every viewer. Some of those things include excessive use of Nazi swasticas, screaming snails, and unsimulated sex scenes involving women in animal masks. In multiple interviews, Crispin said his goal in making What is It? is for audience members to ask themselves, “Is this right what I’m watching? Is this wrong what I’m watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have done this? What is it?” It worked. Among the things that pushed my personal buttons were gratuitous scenes of snail-killing and some…unique soundtrack choices that included Johnny Rebel’s rendition of “Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)” and selected songs by Charles Manson. To clarify, these songs were played in the main character’s subconscious by the aforementioned “hubristic, racist inner psyche,” which didn’t prevent me from dying a little on the inside anyway.
To say What is It? is disturbing is an understatement. More specifically, I actually found it more disturbing than one of my perennial favorite movies, A Serbian Film, and as least as disturbing as my friend Andrey Iskanov’s Unit 731 quasi-documentary film Philosophy of a Knife. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way at all. In contrast to a lot of big-budget dreck that is entertaining in the moment but which leaves you without a thought in your head, What is It?, like the other disturbing films I mentioned above, is not necessarily pleasant to watch , but is something to be appreciated in the long term precisely because it is thought-provoking.
Which brings us to the Q&A sessions, which were an oasis of calm rationality after the strangeness of the dramatic readings and the films themselves. In response to each question, Crispin gave thorough, intellectual answers that reminded me of my favorite professors’ lectures in film theory classes and from subsequent graduate school behavioral science courses. Although each night’s roughly two-hour Q&A had a different overall focus, one unifying theme was Crispin’s argument that corporately-funded films function as a type of propaganda because they discourage audience members from asking questions of any kind. Another observation was, and I hope I am paraphrasing this appropriately, that corporate films are intended for the eyes of children, because anything that could make an audience member uncomfortable is excised. I very much appreciated his in-depth insights and discussions in this subject, in part because I have a similar perception of such films. For over a decade, I’ve believed that most mainstream, corporately-funded films force the filmmaker to take a “No Child Left Behind” approach to storytelling, insofar that even if a film has subject matter deemed not suitable for children, that film is ultimately scripted and edited in such a way so that even the most intoxicated or least intelligent test screening audience member can understand it. Additionally, it seems that the budget of a film is inversely related to how taboo it is “allowed” to be. While that isn’t a terrible thing for every type of film, it’s obviously deleterious for horror films and any other type of film that by nature needs to convey things that are disturbing or controversial.
Since What is It? was a reaction to corporate straightjacketing, it’s not entirely without irony that a significant a percent of Crispin’s acting work is in corporately funded and distributed films. However, that doesn’t indicate that Crispin’s views on corporate propaganda are somehow inauthentic, but rather that corporate control over the U.S. entertainment industry is so ubiquitous that it’s virtually impossible for an artist to detach entirely from the system. Crispin states that he used income from Charlie’s Angels and other corporately-funded films to cover the cost of making his independent films What is It? and It is Fine! Which brings me back to the issue of some journalists labeling Crispin as “crazy” or some variant on the term. On one level, it may just be an attempt to entertain celebrity gossip junkies or reflective of a common difficulty in separating an artist from his work product, but on another, more insidious level, it is also an easy way to dismiss Crispin’s more subversive views about the U.S. entertainment industry.
Crispin’s Q&A sessions weren’t restricted to professor-like discussions about corporate propaganda and relevant works by Noam Chomsky and Edward Bernays. He also discussed the influence of the Surrealist movement on his own work and shared several humorous personal anecdotes, including his intent behind his first appearance on Letterman. (I won’t reveal the answer here.) The fact that he openly answers questions in his Q&A sessions that he will not answer in typical media interviews is yet another reason to attend his live performances and film screenings.
After the Q&A sessions concluded, both evenings ended with a book signing. While it was a long wait to meet Crispin (I didn’t make it home until 2 a.m. on Friday and 1 a.m. on Saturday), I’m glad I did, and appreciated the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one. A staff member at Alamo Drafthouse told me that they had recommended that he spend only two minutes with each guest, but he generously spent quite a bit more time with those who wanted to talk. As I mentioned earlier, he was very gracious and grounded, and also genuinely interested in each guest and in hearing their feedback about his presentations and films. Even though I intended to not bring up weird or inappropriate topics, my conversation with Crispin started benignly and then evolved to an academic discussion about paraphilias. Fortunately, he seemed unfazed.
Crispin is currently writing a book about propaganda (I can’t wait for it to be released) and completing an untitled film starring his father, Bruce Glover. Visit crispinglover.com to sign up for his newsletter, buy his books, and get information about his tour dates.