Directed by Crispin Glover (2005)
Reviewed by Space Coyote, added on Sep 6 2008
Reader Review: by Space Coyote
Much has been made of What is It?, Crispin Glover's infamous film featuring a cast of people with down syndrome that he refuses to distribute or even allow to be screened unless he himself is present. I had the opportunity to see the film here in Memphis, which was screened after a spellbinding one-man show performed by the man himself. I've been a Crispin Glover fan for some time, from his endearing portrayal of George McFly in Back to the Future, to playing a dude with a cockroach fetish in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. Recently, a digital Glover was seen screaming and yelling in Old English while he tore helpless Geats apart as Grendel in Beowulf. Whenever Glover appears in a movie, you know at least he will turn in an amusing performance, even if the rest of the movie sucks. When I heard that Glover was coming to Memphis to do a show and to screen What is It?, it was hard to resist the opportunity to experience it.
What is It? is a very difficult movie, not only because of the condition of the cast members, but also due to its experimental nature. Audiences in general have a very low tolerance for the avant-garde, especially when the avant-garde saturates an entire feature film like this one, and when the strange images and editing choices began right off the bat, I could feel the audience reactions beginning to mix almost immediately. Drinking in the vibe I was getting from the audience was almost as interesting as the film itself, I've never experienced a screening where so many people were feeling so many different things. People laughed at what I consider to be inappropriate times, people laughed nervously, people laughed at moments that were genuinely funny, people expressed mild to intense discomfort, people sighed out of boredom, and people walked out of the theater. It's a screening I'll never forget.
It's easy to dismiss a movie like this as a shallow, pompous exercise in cinematic art-house masturbation. A lot of people accuse David Lynch of participating heavily in pretentious ass-hattery, but What is It? makes films like Eraserhead and Inland Empire seem positively mainstream by comparison, so anyone who can't take Lynch will probably burn their eyes out and commit seppuku before making it all the way through this film. But to refuse to dig into this movie because of its challenging nature would be unfair, because there really is a lot going on underneath the snails getting their heads cut off with razors and the images of Shirley Temple decked out in Nazi garments. Part of Glover's thesis with this film is that Hollywood filmmaking is very limited in how a filmmaker can tell a story, in that good and evil have to be clearly defined, and that the filmmaker, if dealing with good and evil, must point out the evil side of things so that the audience understands that it is evil, and so that the audience understands that the filmmaker understands that it's evil, which essentially comes down to spoon-feeding the audience and denying them the opportunity to think for themselves. It's rare that something that isn't clearly defined makes it through the system. What is It? has a current of hate imagery running through it, including images of Nazi fascism, people in black face, naked black people with monkey masks covering their faces as they go in and out of holes in the ground like prairie dogs carrying watermelon, and some god-awful racist country music from (what I hope is) a bygone era. Instead of pointing out how terrible these things are, Glover assumes you are smart enough to figure it out for yourself, taking away the safety blankets that typically come with controversial subject matter. Glover isn't just trying to shock his audience with these things, mainly because this imagery ties in well with the nature of the film's actors, who are still treated with disrespect in today's society. There are so many things going on its almost impossible to wrap your brain around it in just one sitting. The tools of cinema are put to fantastic use, drawing from influences like Herzog and Fassbinder, to get the bizarre message across in a truly abstract way, a way that is so abstract that you can take from it what you will, as nothing is spelled out for you, and Glover certainly doesn't do that during the following Q&A session, he will simply help explain what his goal was, which I feel he certainly achieved
If you have the opportunity to see What is It? as Glover tours with the film on and off, I urge you not to miss it. Glover will soon be touring again with his follow-up, entitled It is Fine! Everything is Fine!, which looks like a similar experience that is working within the trappings of genre cinema, the way Alejandro Jodorowski worked within the western genre to create a unique narrative with El Topo. What is It? is something that will provoke a strong reaction from you, one way or another, which is the mark of an interesting film. I personally got a lot out of the experience in a positive way, but I can see how someone could react negatively given the stuff that is up there one the screen. Either way, it's an experience that is anything but forgettable, something that is rarely afforded to audiences during an evening at the movies in this day and age.