Begging the Question(s)
Crispin Hellion Glover talks critical thought, propaganda and taboo
Crispin Hellion Glover brings his Big Slide Shows and “It” films to Guild Cinema (3405 Central NE) this weekend. On Friday and Saturday, Dec. 5 and 6, Glover hosts the de facto New Mexico premiere of the first two films in his It Trilogy, What Is It? and It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. Much like the mainstream media's depiction of Glover himself—eccentric, downright strange and maybe even slightly dangerous—his films aren't your average multiplex fare.
Glover has amassed a filmography chock-full of “outsider” characters. Notable roles include: Layne in dark drama River's Edge; Rubin Farr in surreal comedy Rubin and Ed; Andy Warhol in biopic The Doors; Arlo in biographical drama The People vs. Larry Flynt; Willard Stiles in horror film/remake Willard; and the Thin Man in action-comedy Charlie's Angels and sequel Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Glover's cameo as cockroach-charming cousin Dell in David Lynch's Wild At Heart is also noteworthy.
Glover’s breakout acting role arrived in 1985. Portraying George McFly in sci-fi comedy Back to the Future, Glover's memorable visage and method acting chops finally met the eyes of a nation. Then merely 20 years old, Glover posited to director Robert Zemeckis that the moral subtext of the film seemed to be that money makes everything okay. He didn’t sign on for the sequel, so Zemeckis hired another actor to ape Glover's original vision of the elder McFly. This attempt to imitate Glover’s performance in the sequel was aided by cheek, nose and chin prosthetics and filmic methods of obfuscation like sunglasses and using rear, upside-down and background shots. An intention to fool the audience was apparent, and Glover successfully sued. That lawsuit’s outcome altered the Screen Actors Guild bylaws.
In a telephone interview with Glover, the actor/auteur notes that he still occasionally meets people who think he was in Back to the Future II. And that bothers him. He says he would have chosen to play the role differently. If there's one thing that gets under Glover’s skin, it’s theft. But Back to the Future hails from 30 years ago, so let's get back to the present. Glover remains a working actor, but for almost a decade, his primary focus and passion has centered on touring with his films and slide shows. The first inklings of What Is It? emerged in the mid ’80s, so back to the present equals back to the past.
What Is It? is a dark, surrealistic film that explores a young man’s internal and external struggles on multiple planes of existence. Drawing critical comparison to the work of auteurs like Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini and Werner Herzog, What Is It? employed a cast of actors with Down's syndrome and writer/director Glover as Dueling Demi-God Auteur/The Young Man's Inner Psyche and Id. What Is It? won several coveted awards on its premiere at the 2005 festival circuit, including Best Narrative Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and an Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival. If you’re a snails rights activist, consider this your trigger warning.
What Is It? backstory is complex and involves an agent, writers, a script, a studio and a short promotional film that resulted in an 83-minute cut. That way-too-long-promo was the start of a lengthy, independent production cycle. Glover explains that while What Is It? employs actors with Down's syndrome, the film is not about Down's syndrome at all. “What it really is is my psychological reaction to the corporate constraints that have happened in the past 30 years of filmmaking, wherein anything that may make an audience member uncomfortable is necessarily excised,” said Glover.
While the film is a reaction to corporate constraints, Glover’s decision to use actors with Down’s syndrome had a more organic origin and evolution. The casting choice wasn’t “a clinical thesis.” “I realized something that would fix the conceptual problem in that screenplay was if the majority of characters were played by actors with Down’s syndrome,” said Glover. When pressed, he recalls a wheelchair basketball game he attended around age 12. “I remember thinking that there was a certain dramatic flair to the way some of these people with either physical or developmental disabilities were acting. I thought, ‘That person would be interesting as an actor,’” Glover said. “I do recollect that that flashed in my mind—that I thought that was interesting and an underutilized segment of the population within the dramatic arts.”
It Is Fine! Everything is Fine. evolved in collaboration with self-described handicapped rights activist and writer Steven C. Stewart. Born with severe cerebral palsy, people always had difficulty understanding Stewart's verbal communication. While in his twenties, Stewart's inability to communicate—or was it “our” failure to fathom him?—found him locked away in a nursing home for a decade.
When Glover met Stewart, he was settled in a comfortable, assisted-living environment. Glover recalls a man of normal (or above average) intelligence and copious creativity who served both as a moral guidepost for narrative inclusion of disability issues and a tricksterlike co-conspirator in bringing It Is Fine! to fruition. It Is Fine! was written by Stewart in the genre style of a television murder-mystery of the week.
Discussing Stewart's psychosexual and decidedly antiheroic cinematic re-visioning of his own life, Glover said, “Steve wanted to play a person who was a bad guy, but generally you don't see people with physical or developmental disabilities portrayed as bad guys in corporately funded and distributed cinema. And of course there's nothing wrong with it. That's what Steve wanted to do. So that's what the particular moral frame was.”
For answers to remaining questions and more importantly, to ask new ones, visit with Crispin Hellion Glover this weekend. And don’t worry about hurting his feelings during the Q&A. “I've had a lot of different kinds of responses to the movies through the years. Screaming, crying, yelling ... People can get really upset. I've had every reaction. I don’t think it’s necessary that everybody love the films. These films are not necessarily for everybody,” Glover said. “I have the Q&A on tour because I am dedicated to having real discussions. My rule is that I answer all questions. There's nothing I won't answer honestly.”
“Corporations do not want people to ask real questions. Taboo makes people think, ‘Why am I watching this? What is it that is taboo in culture? What does it mean when the taboo has been ubiquitously excised?’ I realize I have a taboo element innately in my movie by having actors with Down's syndrome playing characters that do not necessarily have Down's syndrome. You will see corporately funded and distributed movies or television featuring actors with Down's syndrome [playing characters with Down’s syndrome]. That's not taboo. What is taboo is having actors with Down's syndrome playing characters that do not necessarily have Down's syndrome. It can cause questions. Corporations do not want that to happen.”
“I think there’s a misunderstanding specifically about US propaganda. When you hear the word propaganda, you usually think Communist-era propaganda or Nazi Germany propaganda. And there’s no question those cultures used propaganda. All governmental institutions use propaganda. The United States is no exception. I would argue that [ours is] the most well-oiled propaganda machine in the world. With the internet, people are becoming more aware of the use of propaganda, but usually what they’re focusing on is strict governmental propaganda. But what is really more important is the media-wide propaganda including fictional films and television that's employed regularly by the corporate interests in distribution of these elements. What people have to realize when watching movies or television is that these are funded by corporate interests that would not fund things ... if the content of those entities, those elements, would hurt the corporate interest.
“It’s not about the money. I would argue that film and television can lose money and cost the corporate interest money as long as it advertises the proper interests for the corporations that are funding those elements. The way that people have to look at media, the education system and government is as a triumvirate of the same subsidiary to corporate interests. ... The corporations fund media, fund academia and fund the government. Media is a subsidiary to corporate interests, and academia is a subsidiary to corporate interests. A media element supports the propagandistic needs and interests of the corporation. It doesn't really matter if it’s making or losing money; what matters is that it’s putting out to the people that ‘this’ is a ‘good’ idea. The corporations will then fund that idea and make sure it keeps existing.”
“I’m in favor of a guidance system specifically with regard to children. Children are forming, and they are coming into what their interests are, and they can be traumatized by certain imagery or content. ... My films are not for kids. The content of my films could be upsetting to children. ... It would be very bad if all films were adult films. Conversely, it would be very bad if all films are children's films. Corporations will not distribute an NC-17 (what used to be called X) film. ... Studios will not make NC-17 films. That's the rating for an adult-content movie, but nobody will make an adult-content film. All corporately funded and distributed films are for the eyes of children. That's not a good thing. ... Everything is made for the eyes of children, which I guess is okay for children, but it's not okay for adults.”
“A corporately funded and distributed film must, by the definition of what I'm talking about, sit squarely within the boundaries of that which is considered good and evil. The filmmaker and all the filmmaking points clearly both within and outside the film to what they would call moral guideposts. That there is only one way to think about that. To think other than that would be the 'wrong' way to think, the 'evil' way to think. The filmmakers themselves are of the moral standard, and anybody in the audience who crossed that moral standard would be an 'evil' person, and all consequences that were negative would be deserved.
“You will see characters in movies that do things which are considered morally incorrect. Usually that character will end up having a comeuppance for their wrongdoing. What usually happens in corporately funded and distributed media is if a character has a disability, that character will essentially be a benefactor to society. And there's nothing wrong with that. Plenty of them are benefactors to society. What is highly unusual is to see a character with a physical or developmental disability playing a character with questionable interests.”
Friday, Dec. 5, 7 to 10pm
Saturday, Dec. 6, 7 to 10pm
Editor’s note: The Saturday screening coincides with the Twinkle Light Parade in Nob Hill, so the Alibi recommends making allowances for extra travel time. (In the event of extra time travel, please consult a specialist.)
3405 Central NE
Tickets: $20 per seat, 18+
Advance tickets available at Stranger Factory, 109 Carlisle NE. For more info visit strangerfactory.com or call 508-3049.