Review by David Kerekes:
River’s Edge (1986) was a mixed blessing for Barry Norman, the face of film criticism in Britain due to a long running television series. Monday night on the BBC was the unlikely refuge for those of us starved of cine culture, thanks to Norman and his programme. I say ‘unlikely’ because Norman’s take on what constituted a good film was very different to mine. Perversely, I began to value his judgement: If Barry Norman liked something it generally stank in my opinion. There were of course anomalies, works of strange invention that Norman couldn’t quite figure out. On such occasions, befuddled by a director or an actor who might or might not be rubbish, Norman reviewed cautiously and defensively. That’s when I most valued Norman’s opinion because that’s when he plucked out the jewel I could not afford to miss.
Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) was one such film, Norman having given it a condescending evaluation while acknowledging the raw talent behind it, which he hoped would be put to better use in the future. Another such film was Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge.
River’s Edge is a crime drama starring Dennis Hopper and Keanu Reeves. Norman quite liked it and decreed it not half bad but for the peculiar presence of one Crispin Glover, whose acting he considered to be totally out of control. Glover plays an emotionally disturbed high school student in the film, trying to take control of a wreck of a situation. (A buddy has committed murder.) Barry Norman seemed confused as to whether the eccentric portrayal was a case of good acting gone bad or bad acting done good, or something else entirely.
It was something else entirely, you could see as much in the clip he screened. Glover as Layne pulls out all the stops for a totally demented portrait that falls off the map. He fumes, bawls, points a finger, grinds his teeth and dashes around at loggerheads with the other characters and it seems the film around him.
Glover has gone on to play many such idiosyncratic caricatures, some of them in major motion pictures (Back to the Future, Charlie’s Angels, Willard) and some of them in small independent pictures (Fast Sofa, Bartleby, Rubin and Ed). Quite often these characters define the films themselves. Jeremy Kasten’s The Wizard of Gore (2007) is a good case in point. This low budget remake of the H G Lewis cult classic would be forgettable were it not for the inspired casting of Glover as Montag the Magnificent, who reprises the nuances of an enthusiastic but impaired performance by Ray Sager in the original movie to illuminate its transcendental qualities.
And in Glover’s own words the best thing he will ever be involved in? It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. (2007), a surreal film he doesn’t actually appear in but financed and co-directed (with David Brothers).
Glover is someone operating outside the Hollywood system from within that system, in order to generate revenue for his own filmmaking endeavours. And what else would one expect of Glover in this respect but What Is It? (2005) and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE., the two films in a proposed trilogy that decimate the very pretence of a commercial product.
The recurring figure in these films is Steven C Stewart, a man afflicted with cerebral palsy who plays the role of Paul. Paul is something of a ‘man in the planet’, who might be a total fantasist or he might be the one calling all the shots. He is an unlikely serial killer in It is fine!, and possibly God or Shirley Temple to a cast of actors with Down Syndrome in What is it? As you can imagine, there is no place for taste or political correctness here. The landscape is that of Buñuel had he made a tv movie of the week.
I attended screenings of both films at the Phoenix cinema in London, on the evenings of February 10 and December 22, 2011. Glover opened each with his Big Slide Show, which was his animated readings from his several books. Never have I heard the phrase “I love you” spoken with such colic, or “chickadee!” at all outside of W C Fields. This was followed by the screening of It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. or What is it? respectively, followed in turn by a Q&A and book signing.
One person in the audience for It is fine! regarded the film, notably the sex scenes, as refreshingly ‘real’, to which there was a murmur of derision and laughter (I might add it was the same element of the audience that wanted only to pitch their own talents to Glover). Steven C Stewart as a serial killer is patently ridiculous — he rolls his wheelchair over the neck of one victim. But the sentiment holds true: how could the uncomfortable blow job not be 'real' and the film a sincere one? Glover responded to several caustic comments in the Q&A earnestly and at length. When there was no question asked he answered anyway, with information pertaining to how the films came into being, the influence of Steven C Stewart, and so on.
In years to come, perhaps even now, Glover will be regarded as an eccentric visionary of a type common through history, whose maverick ways are noble and have integrity if no one else can quite understand them. He travels extensively with his films, presently the only way to see them, upholding the tradition of roadshowing in cinema’s earlier years and its tireless showmen. I can’t think of any other ‘star’ today quite as amenable or doing anything remotely similar to Glover.
Barry Norman wouldn’t like it.
Epilog: Fairuza Balk is the actress who provides the voiceover in What Is It? In Return to Oz, Balk's movie debut in 1985, she has the line "What is it?" How about that?
Crispin Glover, writer/actor/director.
Review by Thomas McGrath:
Picture the scene. Budding auteur and established Hollywood character actor Crispin Glover (Willard, The Doors, Charlie’s Angels) has managed to secure one of those brief audiences with a film exec as made famous in Robert Altman’s The Player. The broad-shouldered, cigar-chomping exec greets Glover with a superficial grin and inclines his head in readiness for The Pitch (which, so you know, will a little glibly – albeit quite accurately – encapsulate the film under review, Glover’s directorial debut, What Is It?).
“Ok,” begins Glover, “so all my lead actors have Down Syndrome…”
“Wait, Down Syndrome. You mean, like, they’re retards?”
“They’re playing retards, like Sean Penn in that movie?”
“No, they really have Down Syndrome.”
“And they’re killing snails…”
“Lots and lots of snails.”
“Real snails or CGI snails?”
“So we’ve got real retards killing real snails?”
“Right. With real salt. We have loads of close-ups of the snails being liquefied by salt. And there are all these snail voiceovers screaming and begging for mercy while they burn up.”
“And we’ll cut these snail deaths in with loads of other stuff, like the cast having sex and groping one another.”
“Retards having sex?”
“Yeah. And I’ll be in it too! Flirting with the cast and listening to racist folk music.”
“I love it.” The exec leans into his intercom. “Mary, prepare a contract for Mr. Glover.”
Whether Mr. Glover bothered bending the ear of such an exec or not (we might dare assume the latter), he was ultimately forced to fund this film himself, slowly recouping his investment by accompanying the film everywhere it goes around the world, introducing the screenings with a series of readings from his literary cut-ups (Glover’s a man of infinite sidelines), and bobbing up after the film itself to answer questions and field the audience’s outrage…
Outrage I’m aware of thanks solely to the testimony of David Kerekes, who had attended previous Glover extravaganzas, and invited me to the recent London screening of What Is It? Previously, he explained, audiences have typically consisted of people drawn by Glover’s friendly and famous name, audiences who enjoy the film they are then presented with about as much as they would a terrorist attack on the tube at rush hour. “How could you Crispin?” they wail, after the credits have rolled – at least the ones who stick it out do, many others having left retching… or weeping in sympathy for its pitiless exploitation of disabled folk… or snails.
Which all sounded like a lot of fun! As it was, word has got out over the last couple of years amongst the more discerning cinema lovers, the sort who will barely even consider shelling out for a ticket to a film in which the actors don’t have Down Syndrome and aren’t killing snails. And this latest crowd all sit sagely holding their chins without making a peep throughout. Overall, they looked like an over-styled and undersexed bunch. One of them, a chap who appeared to have wandered in via a time machine initially parked behind a Soft Machine gig, kept passing to and from the bathroom throughout, flashing the rest of us a rather excessively affable grin every time his bouncy stride interrupted the latest vista of bubbling snail. His regular toilet trips were the nearest we came to the promised exodus.
Regarding the readings that kicked proceedings off, I enjoyed Glover’s magnificent diction, and his cut-ups effectively mine lots of surreal menace from the original texts (the fetchingly doctored versions of which are projected onto the screen as they are performed) but after twenty minutes of it I was becoming perilously bored, and great spontaneous waves of exhaustion were squeezing a succession of giant yawns from my slowly dipping skull. It was a huge relief when Glover concluded his final recital and made way for What Is It? Which, thank God, wasn’t as tedious as it might sound. Much of the film’s idiosyncrasies were memorable and even intriguing, and I was actually looking forward to Glover’s re-emergence for the question-and-answer session, in which I suspected he might well prove amenable to shedding some light on his strange creation.
This, I suspected, was where a dab of outrage might come in especially useful, as a few snail lovers, say, would presumably propel Crispin into a wholehearted defence of his cinematic methods. As it was, the screening’s conclusion was met with the audience’s self-satisfied silence (pleased to bits with itself, I guess, for having sat through something so abrasively obscure) following which one of the assembled geeks piped up with a suitably geeky question.
“Um, Crispin,” they began, “I was just wondering if you had any plans to go on tour with your music anytime soon” (music being another of our host’s aforementioned sidelines).
Glover opened his mouth…
Fifteen minutes later, the question was answered. No, that’s putting it too mildly. The question, rather, was eviscerated, skinned, stuffed and smoked. And the answer (if you’re interested) was no. Or, maybe. (Furthermore, Glover’s voice, when he isn’t performing, is an exotically monotonous one, a clipped unblinking drone that would appear, if transcribed, to have had all punctuation shaken off the page in a grammatical earthquake.) Cue another geeky question. Then another. At times, Glover would digress from his pedantic autistic thoroughness into interesting territory that suggested that he would indeed have been equally happy to address his methods and motives (during which it was mentioned that What Is It? was designed as a specific riposte to the Hollywood establishment). But he was careful to always return to the invariably dull question at hand, concerning riveting topics such as which editing programmes he’d employed in the making of his film.
So why didn’t you ask a question, smartarse?
Because asking questions is the preserve of saddos. Besides, I had to get back home and rescue my locked-out wife. So, nodding and smiling as I apologetically shuffled up the aisle in the midst of Glover’s latest monologue, I made for the Northern Line, my head full of screaming snails.