Crispin Hellion Glover (yes, that is his real name) has made a successful acting career portraying what a Victorian gentleman would kindly call "eccentrics." Contemporary film critics have been somewhat less kind, often describing Glover's performances as neurotic, twitchy or just plain odd. And indeed, Glover's star turns as Layne in River's Edge and Willard in Willard are richly nuanced performances of psychologically troubled characters possessed of a nigh-palpable uneasiness.
But there is also a tendency to confuse the role with the man. To dismiss Glover as "that weird actor" is to ignore that he is, in fact, a complex and talented artist. As the author of several exceptional and unusual books (the epic Oak Mot and Rat Catching among them), a writer of screenplays and a uniquely challenging filmmaker, Glover has produced a body of work that communicates a singular and very personal vision. He is also a charming conversationalist, polite and profoundly intelligent a far cry indeed from the thwarted character of George McFly.
The most complete and thorough expression of Glover's aesthetic is his film What Is It?. Nine years in the making, What Is It? is, by Glover's dictate, described as "Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche." The majority of the cast has Down syndrome, with the exception of Glover and Steven C. Stewart, who had cerebral palsy. Rife with disturbing and phantasmagoric imagery, What Is It? has garnered a reputation as a difficult, troubling movie. There is nudity, there is bloodshed, and there is violence against snails. How did this happen?
"A screenplay was sent to me that two young filmmakers wanted to make into a movie," Glover explains. "There was something about the screenplay that was interesting, and yet it didn't feel complete. I told them I'd be interested in working on the film if I directed it. They wanted to hear what my ideas were; my main concept was having most of the characters played by people with Down syndrome. So I reworked the screenplay, and David Lynch decided he would executive-produce that film for me to direct."
And here Glover's troubles began. "I had certain actors who were interested, and so I went to a corporation that was a filmmaking entity, and they claimed they were interested at first. But eventually they said they had concerns about making a film in which the majority of the characters were played by actors with Down syndrome."
Glover set out to make a short film to prove the viability of his concept but ended up with an 82-minute feature, which is now part one of a trilogy. (Glover is now editing part two, which was written by Steven Stewart, who passed away after filming was completed.) Investing his own money and directing, producing and editing the film himself, Glover had the freedom to tell exactly the story he envisioned. And he acknowledges that it is a story that makes people uncomfortable, owing in no small part to his actors. Glover eloquently countered most criticism of his casting choices in a long essay published in Apocalypse Culture, in which he questions why audiences are comfortable with Tom Hanks portraying a retarded man, but not with an actor who has Down syndrome portraying anything other than a kindhearted simpleton.
And unlike most filmmakers, Glover is present at every screening of his film to answer questions from the audience. But he's not there to explain what the movie is about. Discerning the meaning of this film is, indeed, part of Glover's purpose in making and presenting the film.
"What Is It? sits within a vocabulary," Glover says. "I would not call it a new vocabulary, but it is a vocabulary that is not often visited right now, particularly in commercial filmmaking. I think it's an important vocabulary to explore and to communicate with."
He furthers his point by explaining, "Usually, most films that are made right now, there's a committee type of filmmaking that has happened because of the way films are funded. They need to get sponsorship, they need to go through a certain amount of panel discussion and input in order to get made. And if it doesn't meet a certain type of criteria, ultimately the film does not get made or distributed or seen."
Not that Glover, who acts in many a commercial film to finance his trilogy (Charlie's Angels, anyone?), is blindly criticizing the Hollywood machine; he's quick to point out that "on some level that's OK. There are good films that come out of that [process]." But, he notes, "There's definitely a banishment of a certain type of thought process from that. Ideas that could possibly be considered offensive or questionable or taboo will be either excised completely or the film will not get made. It comes to a point where the culture is so inundated with that one kind of thinking that a genuine type of questioning film doesn't come through at all. Or very, very rarely. And I think that's bad for the culture for itself."
So, for critics who claim What Is It? is merely weird for the sake of being weird or, worse, willfully abstruse, Glover avers that his film is instead a stand against the homogenization of ideas that commercial cinema perpetrates. "This film is definitely a reaction to that kind of thing happening. And I do believe there are other films that's why I talk about a vocabulary that fit within that realm. And how I've been describing it more recently, is films that sit within the realm that are beyond good and evil."
Glover clarifies this grandiose proclamation by explaining, "Most films that are made have to be within the realm of that which is good and evil. Meaning that if good and evil exists within the film, it has to be commented on. Or particularly, the evil has to be commented on. And if it isn't commented on, that is the element that will get excised. Or the film just doesn't get made. And it's an important thing to have those elements in movies, otherwise it becomes a kind of a propaganda, that you're not able to see these concepts. These concepts exist, but they're not able to be seen.
"And like I say, I'm not the first filmmaker to do it or the only filmmaker to do it, but it is extremely difficult, and increasingly so in this culture, to have that kind of thing come about."
Now we are getting intoxicatingly close to the heart of the titular It but lest you think that Glover is implying that his movie exists for the sake of illustrating, graphically and unflinchingly, Evil, you're not giving him credit as an artist. It's not up to the filmmaker to impose an answer for the viewer that falls to the viewer alone to determine. And Glover trusts in his audience's sophistication and intelligence. In his words, What Is It? provides "an opening. Once there's a statement of that, and it's put forth [that we are outside the accepted realm of that which is good and evil], then there are new kinds of truths that can come out. But before that door is open, there isn't room for these other kinds of truths to come out."
Crispin Hellion Glover presents his Big Slide Show and What Is It? at 9 p.m. at the Webster Film Series (470 East Lockwood Avenue; 314-968-7487) on Thursday, May 4. Admission is $10, and Glover answers questions and signs books
after the screening.