Rosy Hunt attended Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow and screenings of his films “What Is It?” and “It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine.” at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, London. She also had the privilege of interviewing the auteur himself, but regrets that she did most of the talking.
This year I have had the good fortune to attend live performances by two remarkable stalwarts of counterculture: Jerry Sadowitz and Crispin Glover. Both are profoundly talented and original entertainers who dedicate their art to the revitalisation of an increasingly anaesthetised and spoonfed society.
A countercultural provocateur or “angry comic”, acting as a springboard for our education and exploration, may find his creative forefathers delivering their satire in the Athenian agora of Ancient Greece. However, the social satire practised by the tragedian Euripedes and the comic Aristophanes is poorly represented in modern day. Performers such as Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr challenge taboo with a plagiaristic, shortsighted mindset that is narcoleptic, not catalytic. Their work offers no more than a perfunctory tip of the top hat to those champions of reactionary vaudeville who urge the audience to question not only the performance but their own reactions.
Artists such as Crispin Glover, Jerry Sadowitz and Rick Shapiro are driven by genuine passion and rebellion, and their wild performances are tempered by a humorous affection toward the audience, a shameless vulnerability and a fearless philosophical insight into the complexity of taboo. In discussing his own work, Glover makes frequent use of the word “education”, as an element sorely missing from a corporately funded entertainment culture which categorises exploitative televised freakshows as “documentaries”.
Glover told me that films should always “cause questions to be asked, or have questions in them”. Many cage-rattling performers commodify dissent, and shock without encouraging thought – and all too often, a sincere provocateur with a studied agenda is tarred with the same brush. Glover’s WHAT IS IT? was created as a revolt against the propagandist film industry, and the way that directors and producers court financing for spiritually and morally bankrupt films: “Essentially there’s a bribery element,” Glover explained to me. “People have nice hors d’oeuvres […] they utilise media as controlled propaganda”.
Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow evolved through necessity, as his popular books contain profuse illustrations and could not be simply read aloud. Each book began as an existing, ex-copyright vintage text and has been annotated with notes and found images. Some words are blackened as though by a censor’s pen – others are obscured by trickling shapes that begin to resemble dainty black rabbits and tar babies. At best, it’s an exhilarating audio-visual marriage of wordplay, poetry and visual curiosity. At its least, it’s a diverting personal scrapbook. At some points, the inexorable density of the performance becomes overwhelming and exhausting, but once one grows accustomed to the rhythm of the slideshow, Glover’s finely honed style of delivery makes it possible for a wine-weary witness to enjoy the recital whilst glancing away from the slides and their animated narrator.
[“Oak Mot”] contains snatches of dialogue and exposition that were rife with baffling, even sinister portent – even before they were blackened and riffed by Glover’s hand.
These aren’t just quaint old texts written by people who didn’t realise what “gay” meant. Glover shares stories which are bizarre in their own right; not least the best seller The Rat Catcher which drifts off on Ronnie Corbett style tangents, and the nostalgic tale Oak Mot which contains snatches of dialogue and exposition that were rife with baffling, even sinister portent even before they were blackened and riffed by Glover’s hand. He is an excellent editor of both text and moving image: the original works are pared back or entirely transformed, with an instinctive eye for rhythm and signifier.
The slideshow which precedes IT IS FINE! EVERYTHING IS FINE. includes readings from The Backward Swing, a moral tale for children originally written in 1875; The Land of Sunshine, originally a collection of information and stories on the topic of California, now heavily plastered with grotesque surgical imagery and narrated in a mixture of gleefully violent Old English (doubtless informed by Glover’s linguistic preparation for “Beowulf”) and German improv; Round My House, a tedious Francophile text transformed into a boffin-centered thriller and The Egg Farm. This last book is possibly unrecognisable from its original state and has been converted into a gorgeously simple absurdist piece reminiscent of Usborne’s “That’s Not My…” series of children’s books. I put it to Glover that he might consider producing a book specifically aimed at children and he seemed open to the idea but quite reasonably saw this as a deviation into uncharted territory. The focus is currently on the funding and completion of his current project (of which more at a future date). Perhaps the rich, charming onslaught of the Big Slide Show tenderises our minds in preparation for the films that follow.
Modern art appreciation can often be compared to a food purchase at a motorway service station. Unwilling to accept that one has made a foolish investment, one reads and re-reads the seductive blurb on the packaging, attempting to rekindle faith in the false promises it makes even as the tasteless pap slips down our throat. Glover’s publicity and previews make no such claims, allowing us to make our own decisions, our own promises. The spice of rumour and speculation that surrounds his work is sometimes misleading, sometimes insightful, but mostly audience-led. Look at a blank or scribbled canvas in an art gallery and the chances are you’ll need to refer to the programme to find out what you are being accused of, or challenged to confront. Attend Crispin Glover’s Big Slide Show and you’ll experience thoughts and feelings which you are able to identify and examine. You may have questions to ask about the motivations of the artist himself, but if you do then it’s your lucky day, because the auteur will make himself available at the end of the show and beyond to answer, or to at least offer considered and honest responses to your questions. He maintains that “the culture doesn’t ask questions”, and without wishing to be obstructive, much prefers to welcome audience interpretation than to cauterise curiosity with his own “official” explanation.
Man has made his bed, but he cannot lie in it. In life, for every genetic problem posed by nature, we are shamed with a thousand potentially devastating and irreversible man-made problems.
I asked about “The Rat Catcher”, which was originally adapted by him in 1985 – decades later, I suggest, the tightly choreographed recital must surely feel stale? Glover told me that even after hundreds of almost identical performances, his relationship with each text has enriched over the years. I asked about his love of Werner Herzog, and he cited EVEN DWARVES STARTED SMALL, an examination of man’s propensity to chaos and internecine destruction, as a bedfellow to his own lyrical piece WHAT IS IT?.
A key conceit in Herzog’s film is his casting of dwarf actors in non-dwarf roles. Each diminutive performer is presented as a person of average height, although their man-made environment is not adapted to suit them. Man has made his bed, but he cannot lie in it. In life, for every genetic problem posed by nature, we are shamed with a thousand potentially devastating and irreversible man-made problems. Take as metaphorical illustration the scene in WHAT IS IT? where a character attempts to make amends by gluing a snail’s crushed shell back together, ensuring its lamenting mate a Monkey’s Paw moment.
The disability shared by the principal performers in WHAT IS IT? is Down’s syndrome, a genetic condition which perhaps exaggerates the physical frailties and learning difficulties of other men, but which by no means precludes the cast from delivering professional performances. Glover’s leading men and ladies might be ostracised by those members of society who can’t see past their almond eyes and smooth palms, but they have been cast in a complex and challenging art film, which must be approached with subtlety, commitment and respect if it is to succeed; and they certainly rise to the challenge. It’s not they who have something to prove – it’s us. Glover explained in his Q&A that his employment of performers with Down’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy was born of the intention to promote equal rights for handicapped actors – it’s the decision makers in the film industry who branded them as icons of taboo.
One iconic image used in “WII?” is a painting of the child Shirley Temple dressed in Nazi hat and jackboots. Temple was cast as the evil dictator, and audio clips from her films have been edited to give the impression that she is communicating with her delinquent stormtroopers via walkie talkie. This universally adored poppet improved morale during World War Two, allowing civilians some respite from the horror of warfare. Today, the mainstream movie industry continues to offer respite, to a harmful extent which blinds us to atrocity and perpetuates prejudice, rather than offering temporary and innocent relief to a society otherwise unable to hide from the worst of times. How perfectly disarming to issue an order to kill using the delightful burble of a precocious toddler. And how utterly sinister her “Goodnight, My Love” sounds when slowed down as part of the soundtrack.
Temple has grown into a woman, of course, and although she has been a political ambassador for many years, she will never be able to rid herself of her childhood image. Today, when asked to dance, she replies graciously, “If you shot at my feet, I would dance – but I gave that up a long time ago”. And so Glover as the de facto and diegetic Auteur of WHAT IS IT? suffers from an identity crisis foisted on him by popular culture, musing in one scene, “What should you call me? Never McFly.”. Meanwhile, on the mortal plane, the minstrel and the teenage delinquents fight and bicker, wailing “I want to be a special television show person”.
I tentatively asked Crispin Glover about his appearance on Letterman. Many people link him inextricably with this guest spot, which was widely perceived as a nervous breakdown or moment of drug infused madness. Looking back at the short interview, we now know that Glover was giving us a sneak preview of Rubin Farr, a character he had created for the film RUBIN AND ED. Through Rubin he echoed Kierkegaard’s exasperation with his own audience: “People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me.”. Rubin’s quavering, confused references to various samples of lazy journalism – “You’re trying to make me sound weird…” bring to mind mainstream comedian Russell Brand’s jolly backlash against the scuttlebutt he inspires in the Sun. Glover has infinite reserves of gentle patience in the face of old stunts dusted off, and he told me, “I neither confirm nor deny anything about it. It is a thing that happened, a long time ago, in 1987. I’m 47 years old now.” Shoot his feet, and he will dance.
Some say that the scenes of poultry suffering in Herzog’s EVEN DWARVES STARTED SMALL reflect an anger triggered by the arbitrary burden nature places on those who are born with bodies that restrict and disadvantage them in everyday life. So why the infamous mistreatment of molluscs shown in WHAT IS IT?? Perhaps insects offer the best metaphor for impotent suffering, as an inability to vocalise leaves their agonies to our imagination, and even lends it a certain nobility. How dreadful it would be if the ant shrivelling beneath a magnifying glass, the spider maimed underfoot, could reproach us with an unbridled cry of agony. In WHAT IS IT? Glover gives voice to the snails, allowing the actress Fairuza Balk to offer her full-blooded screams on their behalf. Not quite as ghastly as the payoff to Kurt Neumann’s “The Fly”, but still upsetting.
In life, dying snails are silently resigned to their fate, as all too often are we men. This imagery is often received as the most upsetting element to the film – and no wonder, for few have never killed or tortured an invertebrate for fun. But before we weep for these snails who suffered for the film industry, and whose brethren many of us have tormented personally, should we not fight for the rights of the battery hen, the telly chimp, the dairy cow, the dancing bear? If casual use of Nazi imagery and the sexual grotesque offend us in WHAT IS IT?, should we not direct our points of view to the television channels who disguise prime-time exploitation as education by broadcasting “The Origin of the Nazis”, “The History of Breasts”?
It’s tempting to speculate, given the bowdlerised Americanisations of cult British sitcoms such as Men Behaving Badly and The Office, that much of the imagery in WHAT IS IT? is likely to touch more nerves for a US viewer than a UK viewer. For instance, the WHAT IS IT? character who wears full black-and-white minstrel makeup is not necessarily any more taboo to a UK viewer than The League of Gentlemen‘s Papa Lazarou or Bo’ Selecta‘s Craig David. However, it’s this very character that drew the most audible gasp of delighted shock from the Phoenix audience, as he stubbornly fought with another white character for the official identity of “Michael Jackson”, arguing “I LOVE children”. Glover told me that he is familiar with UK comedy, and has seen various episodes of The Young Ones. He co-starred with Rik Mayall in “Little Noises” and enjoyed conversing with him on the psychological relationship between comedian and audience: “[Rik Mayall] had a very good thought process regarding what laughter is. He said it was a civilised growl.”
IT IS FINE! EVERYTHING IS FINE is a glossy, saturated thriller in the style of The Rockford Files, written by and starring Steven C. Stewart, who pitched the script to Glover having worked with him on WHAT IS IT? The protagonist Paul is a ladykiller whose character is handicapped but far more coherent and sexually attractive than Stewart himself. It’s possible to acclimatise to his inarticulate delivery, partially due to his powerful on-screen presence, infused with humour and idiosyncratic charisma. Karma Barnes (Carrie Szlasa), an early conquest, bears startling resemblance to Maxine Carr, a familiar figure to British vanbangers; I did not waste time by introducing her to Glover but UK followers of the Soham story will find this doppelganger adds spice.
There are stylistic touches of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO – from the hyper-real backdrops to Fassbinder favourite Margit Carstensen‘s sensual, natural performance, and Paul’s stubborn obsession with long hair. He nuzzles it, brushes it, winds it like wool in his fists. “I like long hair, it makes women look more feminine” he explains to one of his conquests, when the conversation inevitably turns to her plans for a drastic crop. “I hope you’ll like me for other things than my hair,” she returns mildly. Paul’s cry of triumph, once a hapless lover has been throttled, is “Now you won’t ever have a haircut again!”. The denouement of the film includes a wonderfully ridiculous dream sequence in which Paul finds himself the plummeting prince confounded by a scissor wielding Rapunzel.
During some scenes in IT IS FINE! EVERYTHING IS FINE, dialogue continues although the speaker’s mouth is closed, or even eating. It seemed to me a fascinating device, calling doubt on the perception of the protagonist – when Paul discusses his love life with a friend at the institution, the friend seemingly empathises with his problems – but although we hear him speak, he is eating canteen slop from a tray. When Paul brings a woman home to his apartment, she snarls, “I could never get involved with a handicapped person,” and yet her lips do not move. Are we hearing what he hopes to hear, what he fears people will say? Glover told me that it was not a technique, but a technical necessity. He cited mainstream films in which a similar phenomenon occurs, such as EYES WIDE SHUT, and explained that it’s just something that has to happen when extra dialogue needs to be added to mismatched footage. It happens often in soap operas, too, but in the context of IT IS FINE! EVERYTHING IS FINE, it’s difficult to ignore.
In flagrante delicto, Paul is no more palsied, dribbly or incoherent than any other man in his position. He’s just like you and me.
Stewart was committed to an institution when his mother died, and it’s tempting to infer a theme of anti-maternal resentment when Paul gazes at his own mother’s photo during the film – although one might just as reasonably impose Oedipal interpretations. It’s difficult to escape the plain fact that this is simply what Glover described as “a documentation of one person’s fantasy”, whose “beautiful naïveté” he strove to preserve, and to honour with an opulence which matches the screenwriter’s old-fashioned, flowery style. This sentimentality is offset by closely choreographed sex scenes which find Stewart’s character finally able to meet his fellow actors on common ground. In flagrante delicto, Paul is no more palsied, dribbly or incoherent than any other man would be in his position. He’s just like you and me.
The part of the story which deals with a rejected proposal is, Glover tells us, possibly autobiographical – but this is speculation. Due to the pressures imposed by the production process he regrets that he was not able to form a closer personal relationship with Stewart, who died shortly after the film was made, and to find out more about his thoughts and feelings. In any case, he has given Stewart a unique legacy in sponsoring and realising his screenplay, and Stewart’s psyche is surely laid bare to us here, in a way that is more revealing than any direct interview. “They’re gonna think it’s weird”, Glover and his co-director David Brothers warned Stewart before filming began. “OH yeah,” replied the writer, with relish.
Crispin Glover offered the Phoenix an antiestablishmentarian celebration of man’s public and private eccentricity, not merely a display of his own. “Is he really weird?” people asked me before I went to the show. “Is he really mental?” No. He’s a gentle, thoughtful, unassuming and wildly imaginative man who loves to listen and learn, and he hopes you do too. Today, erstwhile hellions of punk and garage allow their infamy to be harnessed in adverts for insurance and butter. Even William S. Burroughs has appeared in a television spot for the Nike corporation. Have the torchbearers of counterculture become its pallbearers? “Sometimes I feel as though I may fade away,” reads a caption in one of Glover’s books. “but then I remember my work.”
People have walked out of his shows, but the last thing he wants is to alienate or dispel. Any uncomfortable surprises thrown up by his slideshow and films should provoke an examination of personal and societal attitudes. They contribute to the good fight against censorship as a barrier to independent thought, presenting the audience with a warped mirror and earnestly encouraging us to join them in facing up to our own prejudices and areas of ignorance.
We hope to welcome Crispin Glover and his show to Cambridge this year, if his work commitments allow. Meanwhile, he is touring the States – click here for details.