Published in the Austin American-Statesman
Crispin Glover is not a raving lunatic.
Which is not to say he's the most balanced guy in the world.
Glover is sitting at the Driskill Grill after an Alamo screening of "What Is It?," a film he wrote, directed, and edited himself. He's explaining that, while he understands most folks think he's bonkers, "I'd think people would know, that if I really put this whole thing together, I'd have to be a pretty hard worker and sensible person. It's a technical industry. I mean, I can't be this insane person -- I've also published a number of books, and I've also had a record come out. It's a lot of work and detail, and I'm okay with those things. But it was difficult, and there's a lot of different departments that have different vocabularies..."
Readers of a certain age may be remembering what Glover told David Letterman in 1987, as a defense against being called weird: "I'm strong, you know. I'm strong. I can arm wrestle...I can kick," at which point Glover kicked a platform-shod foot toward Dave's head. At the Driskill, his feet are calmly under the table.
These days, Glover likes to hint that the Letterman appearance, one of the most captivating things ever shown on TV, was a planned-out piece of performance art. But he won't confirm it -- just as one of his heroes, filmmaker Luis Bu–uel, refused to explain the more provocative aspects of his own life.
Bu–uel comes up a lot in the discussion of "What Is It?," a bizarre and deliberately shocking film involving: a cast of actors with Down Syndrome; a blackface-minstrel and a Ku Klux Klan ditty; the grisly (and real) torture of many snails; a pornographic painting of Shirley Temple as a Nazi; and a man afflicted with cerebral palsy, lying naked in a giant clam shell, being fondled by a woman wearing only a monkey mask. At the first Drafthouse screening last week, Glover says only two people walked out.
The film is a crazy labor of love, the actor's attempt to jolt what he calls the "procultural media" into addressing truly countercultural issues. He's loath to be too specific about this point, but he does have an intriguing justification for using actors with Down Syndrome: "I think probably many people, when they look at somebody's face that has Down Syndrome, they immediately see a history of somebody who has lived outside of the culture. I think you can feel that when you're watching a movie embodied by them." That's a fairly accurate description of the film's mood, which recalls the Werner Herzog film "Even Dwarves Started Small," itself cast with unconventional actors.
"What Is It?" is shocking and offensive, but unlike many would-be "underground" films it also belongs to the tradition it aspires to: The internal logic of its narrative and the potency of its imagery place it right on the twisted road from Bu–uel and Salvador Dal’'s "Un Chien Andalou" to Herzog and David Lynch. (Glover acknowledges his idols, but downplays the Lynch influence -- perhaps because it's the most obvious ingredient.)
Glover plans to tour the country with "What Is It?," doing in-person appearances like the ones that sold out last week at the Drafthouse. While he's proud of the film and hopeful about its subversive possibilities, he understands that many ticket buyers are coming solely to see a famously unhinged man. It's his own fault.
"When I first started acting," he recalls, "my initial concept was, never do any publicity at all about anything -- just act, and be completely mysterious. But when 'River's Edge' came out, I was proud of it, and it made sense for me to go out and publicize the film."
"But it was around the time that the 'Brat Pack' was in, and I knew that was how I would be lumped in. I knew I had already been making these books, and doing unusual -- I had an unusual apartment -- I knew if I invited that kind of stuff in, I would not be put in that same category. I was interested in art in general, and Andy Warhol, and the idea of publicity being an art... But I understand that that can be confusing to a very conservative film industry. And I don't do that now. Now it's like I compartamentalize: This movie is art; this book is art. I don't really do art through publicity anymore. I'm just very straightforward and tell exactly what's going on."
"But there's many years of confusion," Glover realizes, "from when I was doing this other kind of thing, and that's something I just -- I don't try to battle it, but it can be a little bit irritating, when it's like, most people think I'm absolutely insane. And non-functioning, basically. And that's very far from the truth."
Point taken. Although we'll let the professionals decide just how far the mystique is from the reality.