Walking to Anthology Film Archives, down a street that stank strongly and strangely of Lipton soup, I was struck with a craving for a caramel macchiato, but I never thought a Starbucks would be so hard to find in that part of New York City. It makes sense when you think about it, and as the cold nipped my hands, I thought of CBGB—now gone but its doors still open when I passed it—having kept Starbucks away all these years. (With Mars Bar still kicking, if not necessarily screaming, does that mean the area is safe for a little while longer from the coffee chain's intoxicating pull?) After backtracking and finally finding a Starbucks, I ran back down to Anthology Film Archives past trailers for a motion picture shooting in the area and thought that at least Hollywood was unafraid of slumming this far downtown. I pulled on the door and, finding it locked, peered inside for a publicist. A man approached and, after opening the door, I could see that it was Crispin Glover. "Hello," he said, kindly but without introduction. Already I could tell this was going to be a surreal morning.
Glover's appearance took me by surprise, but that was only because I hadn't read the press release for the film thoroughly. Glover was there not only to introduce his first film, 72 minutes of avant garde madness that recalls everything from Un Chien Andalou and The Holy Mountain to Even Dwarfs Started Small and the collected works of David Lynch, but to narrate "The Big Slide Show," a collection of text and illustrations from the man's books, which include Concrete Inspections, Rat Catching, The Backward Swing, and Round My House. Standing on the stage, his body obscured by darkness except for the part of his face that caught the light from the projector, Glover looked like Hannibal Lecter reading from pages of novels styled in the tradition of Southern fictions and early-20th-century medical journals. My eyes darting back and forth between the screen and Glover's face, I would sometimes catch the actor's gaze in this small room of maybe two dozen people. Damn if there's any through line to follow here—all I can remember is something about rats, a dog named Sal, a "negroid" slave, a trial, and a backstabbing friend by the name of Tom Wiswell—but the actor's "performance" is so convincing it invites surrender.
I thought I could never write a review about this film (assuming, that is, we ever got to it), but a blog entry might suffice: one that would detail how the film began backward and had to be stopped and started again before coming to another less screeching halt, the soundtrack of warped voices over the opening credits suggesting that celluloid might just catch fire at any second and explode before our eyes. Glover came up to apologize for the delay and I wondered if the public showings of the film would be as full of surprises, or if Glover would collect his laptop and other slide-show accessories during the screening as he did here, or if other audiences would entertain the idea of the actor working full-time as an usher at the theater. If so, how much do you think Jonas Mekas would pay him per hour?
What Is It? could be a mash-up of shout-outs to the films of Buñuel, Lynch, Jodorowsky, Herzog, and Kuchar. This came to my mind before Glover, during an effusive speech after the film, indicated that Lynch was once attached to produce the project. (The credits also revealed a thank you to Herzog.) The film, for all of its very explicit connections to other works, is still a thing of unique madness. It is the story of a community of people with Down Syndromes whose bipolar relationship to snails is linked to an underworld where Glover reigns supreme as a Caligula-esque "auteur" with castration anxiety and one of many naked monkey women (!) sits on a watermelon (!!) while slowly stroking the cock (!!!) of a man with cerebral palsy (!!!!) who lies in the fetal position inside a big oyster (!!!!!). This all happens before a Nazi Shirley Temple doll begins to communicate telepathically with the mental handicaps above ground, commanding them to do away with a black-faced Mr. Bojangles-type who claims to be Michael-fucking-Jackson. My mind is, by now, exploding, wondering if Glover even knows that Jackson, at the height of the public's scrutiny over his diminishing blackness, wrote a great song called "Who Is It."
Like Inland Empire, which features toward the end of its three-hour freak-out a ridiculously funny exchange between a trio of homeless people as Laura Dern bleeds all over a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, What Is It? is perfectly content peering at us from the fringes of our moviemaking universe. Lynch's empathy for his characters is more apparent, and in spite of its crummy (but appropriate) appearance, Inland Empire is more elegant, but Glover shares with his former director an interest in reacting against the Hollywood status quo and an obvious disaffection for the way the system operates, from its relationship to actors and the media to the way it panders to audiences. What Is It is not exactly enjoyable, but its caustic ridiculousness is, if not visionary, at least liberating; its fearlessness feels like an antidote to the claptrap Paramount Pictures was no doubt making two blocks away. Walking out of the theater, Glover still rambling for the press, I thought about how wonderful it is that anyone can still walk off the street and into Anthology Film Archives and absorb such strange visions, just as they can walk into Mars Bar and ask for a three-dollar screwdriver.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.