Saturday 10 May 2008

What is It? (2005)

We've spent a lot of enjoyable evenings at Chandler Cinemas, watching both great cinema and truly atrocious cinema. From Blazing Saddles to Hollywood High is about as big a difference in quality as you could possibly imagine. Yet there hasn't been an evening like the Crispin Glover experience here before and the Midnite Movie Mamacita will have to work hard to come up with one that matches it. It was more eyeopening than the Russ Meyer double bill with the amazingly frank and lovable Kitten Natividad in person. It was more memorable than the Saturday night with roller derby girls, in your face wrestling and the El Santo movie done MST3K style by a local improv troupe. It was more surreal than watching Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters without sound but with Dutch subtitles.

We didn't know what to expect and we deliberately didn't set any expectations. We'd seen the trailer for What Is It? online and knew we wouldn't know what it was until the night anyway, so we waited for the event to let us into the secret. A lack of expectations seemed like a good idea and they would have been broken on the night, though surprisingly more for Crispin Glover himself than his film. He's fostered quite a reputation for being unpredictable, perhaps even unstable, but he turned out to be a calm and collected, intelligent man who cares very deeply about certain things that he does.

What is It? is his reaction to what he terms commercially funded and distributed films. In fact I should put that into capitalised text and turn it into a TLA (three letter acronym), because Glover threw it out there in his Q and A session like a mantra: Commercially Funded and Distributed films (CFDs). What he's talking about is the vast bulk of moviemaking today, which is deliberately safe moviemaking, the sort of thing that is not only calculated to appeal to the largest possible percentage of the active moviegoing public, but that is also calculated to not prompt court cases from the parents of kids who accidentally walk into something they shouldn't at a multiplex. What doesn't get made any more is adult filmmaking, where adult doesn't mean porn but something that is aimed at more mature viewers than those who generally turn out to see the latest CFD.

A lot of what he talked about sounded very familiar to me and followed very similar directions of thought to mine over the last few years as I've delved into classic cinema. In particular Glover proved very aware of the production code. He fumbled around some of the details but he knew exactly what it meant to what could appear on the screen and what couldn't and how that drove a few fundamental changes in the moviemaking world. I know a lot about that era and it's done a lot to shape my understanding and reading of classic Hollywood films but I hadn't put as much thought as Glover has into the very different things that are having precisely the same effect today.

He talked about the last 25 years, but really what he was referencing was the changes that have happened in the movie industry since the release and unforseeable success of Jaws in 1975. I know about what blockbusters have done and the financial side of things that has become possible in their wake, but what Glover brought fresh to me was the theatrical distribution side and how the rise of the multiplex and the legal and commercial aspects of such things affect production. He answered questions for two hours and while he talks slowly and carefully and rambles often, he was a fascinating speaker who, almost uniquely, fundamentally cares about what his audience think.

The evening opened with what he calls his Big Slide Show, which is a spoken word performance art piece to the accompaniment of a slide show of some of his books. These books, not all commercially available, are much older public domain works that he has altered by editing into something entirely new. This approach seems juvenile and pathetic for about five minutes, at which point the cleverness kicks in and I got hooked. Maybe it didn't help that the first book of the eight he read from was probably the least interesting. Rat Catching was joyous and it wasn't the only one. I bought all three that he had for sale and I've since downloaded the original of Henry C Barkley's Studies in the Art of Rat Catching from Google.

Then came the movie, What is It?, which may just be the most appropriate film title in history. There is a story, but the whole point of the film is to goad viewers into questioning just what they're seeing on screen. Glover gleefully breaks all sorts of taboos, in order to get us to question why those taboos exist and whether they're appropriate or not. Such questioning is always good and while I can't say I'm happy that I can't buy What is It? on DVD, it probably isn't releasable in that form and the perspectives that come with the subsequent Q and A session really are indispensable.

Ostensibly the story seems to be about a young man who commits an act of violence, then retreats from it into his own mind in order to find some sort of meaning that he can apply to live with it. From there, everything goes wild. The young man, like almost every member of the cast, is played by an actor with Downs Syndrome (Michael Blevis), though, as Glover makes very clear in the Q and A session, while the actor has Downs Syndrome he's playing a character who does not. That shouldn't seem offensive in itself but many seem to find that concept very uncomfortable indeed. These actors with Downs Syndrome also indulge in violent and sexual behaviour. Two actors perform a fully clothed yet somehow graphic sex scene in a graveyard, which seems strange and new, but it's patently obvious that the two are very much in love and the Q and A session explained that they are a couple in real life who almost married.

Probably the most striking part of the film for me was the scene that introduced us to actor Steven C Stewart. Stewart appears inside a clamshell just like Botticelli's Birth of Venus and he's just as naked, but he seems to be suffering from severe mental retardation and an inability to move. When large breasted black women climb out of volcanos on the surrounding floor and one, naked except for a monkey mask, proceeds to explicitly masturbate him, I felt very uncomfortable indeed. The obvious thought is one of exploitation: what was Crispin Glover doing and how did he get away with it? The film moves on into other taboo areas that seem less uncomfortable, but only the Q and A session pointed out that Stewart was not retarded, but suffered from serious cerebral palsy. Completely normal on a mental level, Stewart wrote the second film in the trilogy to which this was the first part. Perhaps the only exploitation going on was in how a man with cerebral palsy could create a situation in which a voluptuous lady would commit sexual acts on him.

There are also graphic scenes of animal abuse, but the animals being killed are not fluffy bunny rabbits or any of the other creatures who would usually generate concern from an audience. They are snails, and quite a few die by virtue of being drenched in salt, decapitated by a razor blade or smashed against a tank. It's that action that sparks the storyline and the very human screams of the surviving snail inside the tank are powerful and telling. They were performed by Fairuza Balk and are viciously realistic.

Just in case you were about to come up with a taboo that hadn't been addressed, I should add that there's focus on Nazis and Shirley Temple, both inspired by a piece of art Glover discovered with Temple, naked but for Iron Cross and Nazi cap, standing before a large swastika with a leather riding crop slid between her labia. It's about the most striking poster I've ever seen and I have no idea how I'm going to find a wall to mount my autographed copy on. Against these images, the deliberately cruel speech Glover gives to one of two girlfriends sitting on his knees seems almost tame.

There's also an amazing soundtrack, including Charlie Manson and Family, organ music by Anton La Vey, pre-Church of Satan, and a stunning segregationist country song from the sixties by Johnny Rebel called Some Niggers Never Die, They Just Smell That Way. I'd never heard the song before but found that I had a copy from a white power torrent I downloaded, so as to provide me a decent copy of The Eternal Jew, which I've long wanted to see as a manipulative propaganda piece that portrayed clips of Peter Lorre in M as evidence of the degenerate nature of the Jewish race, along with the infamous Jews as rats scene. Glover also uses classical music such as Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in his soundtrack, but has them slowed down to about half normal speed. Such manipulation, where a mere alteration of speed turns something into something completely different, fascinates me and I'm very happy I got to discuss things like 9 Beet Stretch with Glover at the end of the evening. I wrote about such manipulation of music in Musica Extremis - Time Experiments.

However you interpret these ramblings, the key outcome should be that the film and its accompanying experience is highly thought provoking. Whether Glover has created a masterpiece of cinema or an abomination of filmmaking really isn't important, he's undeniably created something that prompts people to ask the question the title suggests: what is it? If he can get people to truly ask that question of themselves, whatever answers they come up with are good ones. I think the film falls short of masterpiece but is still an superb achievement. I've already recommended it to others and I'll recommend it to anyone reading here. If you get the chance to go see it live, grab that chance. It's an experience.

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