Make no mistake--artist/performer/filmmaker Crispin Glover intends to provoke his audience. There's an intensity of vision, a crazy-quilt of references, and an unflinching candor to Glover's work, and underlying it all is a true desire to change the way his audience engages with film and art. Being afforded the chance to see him speak & present one of his films at Philadelphia's International House this past Monday, I cashed in some comp time* and headed southwards for the experience.
*I love having the kind of boss who is zen with the idea of my taking time out of the office to see cult films. There's a special place in heaven for him.
The majority of Glover's fame comes from his appearances in front of the camera, an acting career defined by the portrayal of off-kilter outsiders. Although Glover sees these roles as jobs that finance his pure-art projects, there's a link between his acting roles and the art and film he showcases in his live appearances. Realizing at an early age that the monetized releases coming out of the American studio system didn't provide him with the kind of creative expression he wanted, Glover began to make altered books in his late teens and studied the craft of filmmaking in order to bring his own vision to life.
Glover's artistic landscape is one in which context is key. Beginning his show with selected readings from his books provides some aesthetic framework for the film screening to come. The books exist as altered copies of preexisting vintage publications, with large sections of text obscured, handwritten notes included to change the narrative, and images clipped, glued, and transposed throughout. "Concrete Inspection," a handbook whose original purpose was to aid in industrial applications, becomes a mysterious poem when the pages are blacked out to reveal small windows of words, while the children's cautionary tale "The Backward Swing" takes on new levels of meaning with the inclusion of religious and political imagery. Copies of the books are pocket-sized, canvas-bound art objects with a beautiful hand-feel that both embrace and challenge the very book-ness of the source material. Glover's readings are carried out with the overstated physicality of a character in a Murnau film, and come off as instructional vignettes aimed at the insane, narratives veering wildly and sometimes collapsing into a jumble of only-semi-related words.
The centerpiece of the presentation is the film screening. With no plans to make his films available on DVD, Glover travels with his productions, based on the vaudevillian model. With the inclusion of the book sale at the end of the evening, the show is a bit like an arthouse version of Kroger Babb's "Mom and Dad."
"It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine" is the second installment of Glover's planned "It" trilogy, a series of films focused on its creator's fixation on creating films that encourage--even force--their viewers to question the contents and meaning of the material portrayed on screen. "IIF!EIF" is a more focused exploration of this concept than its predecessor, "What Is It?," a Dadaist creation that includes cast members with Down syndrome, snails salted to death, blackface, swastikas, and graphic sexuality. While "WII?" could be dismissed by some critics as for its aggressive controversy-bating imagery and deliberate ugliness, "IIF!EIF" is more sophisticated in its world-creating and in its message.
Based on a script by Steven C. Stewart (who also stars in the film) and co-directed with David Brothers (art director of "WII?"), "IIF!EIF" follows the story of a man who engages in romantic entanglements with beautiful, long-haired women, only to snap and murder these women when they threaten to cut their hair. What makes Stewart's story different from other misogynistic lustmord tales hinges on one detail--the writer/actor has a severe case of cerebral palsy, with the limited movement and speech problems that accompany the condition.
Filmed almost entirely on indoor sets created by David Brothers**, "IIF!EIF" is deliberately artificial in its presentation. According to Glover, Stewart's script was inspired by the crime dramas and soap operas that he would ravenously consume, making the sometimes-stilted delivery of the actors feel appropriate. Glover's father, Bruce Glover (a veteran actor in his own right), puts in a comedic turn as a jealous ex-husband and Margit Carstensen (best-known for her work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a director who was himself no stranger to controversy of a similar variety) is disarmingly sensitive as Stewart's character's first love interest. What's most remarkable about all of the performances is that, while Stewart's dialogue is for the most part indecipherable to the audience, his cast mates exchange lines with him in a natural manner.
**Delightful trivia moment: according to IMDb, Brothers' main set-design credits are attached to the Disney "High School Musical" franchise.
That's not all that the actresses in this film exchange with Stewart. There are multiple sex scenes, ranging in nature from "fully clothed" to "extremely graphic," in which the human body is pushed front and center. Stewart's body is on display as much as the bodies of the actresses are on display, forcing the viewer to fully digest the scope of sexual activity that might be left implied in a different film. It's a challenging decision that is simultaneously alienating, intriguing, shocking, poignant and perhaps even blackly humorous.
Making this kind of movie from the perspective of a man with a pronounced disability opens up a whole world of dialogue, none of it comfortable. Is the movie a freakshow take on Hitchcock's "Frenzy?" Is this an important document of an individual's internal monologue, a voice that would have been heard by few and forever silenced at this person's passing? Is this an attempt to normalize visibly disabled people by proving that they can be just as petty and id-driven as those without disabilities? Matters are only complicated by the bookending scenes of Stewart in a nursing home (shot on-site in a hyper-realistic fashion), alone and unable to communicate with those around him. There's a lot to analyze--I've been mulling over this movie for the past two days and I'm not finding any easy answers.
In the Q&A following the screening of "IIF!EIF," Glover was candid in responding to inquiries about his film. He discussed the financing and production of his work, including the fact that both "WII?" and "IIF! EIF" took numerous years to produce. His art is very clearly a labor of love, and the professorial attitude he adopted during his two-hour-plus talk reflected his desire to make audiences ponder what they've seen. It's a remarkable privilege to hear a creative person talk about his or her work at all, and it's particularly fascinating to hear from someone as articulate and passionate as Glover. It's fantastic and inspiring to know that there are true originals out there, making the world a stranger and more beautiful place by sharing their singular visions.
For more information on Crispin Glover's art as well as upcoming performance dates, check out CrispinGlover.com
Addendum: Yes, I stood in line for close to three hours for a book signing and the opportunity to shake the man's hand after the screening. Mr. Glover--thank you for sharing your vision and your time, and for making people think. You're an inspiration.