Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

This past Thursday, I took in quite a different cinematic experience than I’ve ever had before when I went down to the Plaza Theater in downtown Atlanta to watch “Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show (Part 1).” Unfortunately, I missed “Part 2,” which was on Wednesday, but it’s probably for the best; this was already a pretty surreal experience.

For those of you who may not know, Crispin Glover (as he’s better known) is the eccentric actor best known for his work as: George McFly in the first “Back to the Future”; the “Thin Man” in the “Charlie’s Angels” films; the oddball rat enthusiast in “Willard”; the Knave of Hearts in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” as well a rogue’s gallery of quirky characters in films such as “Wild at Heart,” “The Doors,” “Nurse Betty,” “Dead Man,” and “Beowulf.” If that list doesn’t give you a good idea of what to expect at the actor’s “Big Slide Show,” well, it’s probably a good idea that you won’t know what to expect.

First up on the evening’s program was a series of dramatic readings, and a slideshow, culled from Glover’s books: Concrete Inspection; Rat Catching; The Backyard Swing; A New World; Round My House; and What It Is, and How It Is Done, among others. As you can probably tell by the titles, Glover’s books are fascinating, filled with intriguing images, blacked-out passages, and all sorts of bizarre details that add a few wrinkles to the narrative. The slideshow that accompanies these readings are a glimpse of the pages from the books, giving us a chance to see the madness behind his method. It was a riveting performance to watch: admittedly, the person running the slides didn’t seem all that used to the pacing of Glover’s readings, and the microphone didn’t always cooperate with the performer, but he took it all in stride, giving the audience brilliant insight into his perversely funny mind, and setting us up for what’s to come.

After the reading, next up on the “Big Slide Show (Part 1)” was a screening of Glover’s directorial debut, “What is it?”. “What is it?” has been the highlight of the “Big Slide Show” since it debuted in 2005, although in the past year, it has been accompanied by his second feature film, “It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.”, which is the second part of a trilogy Glover is making.

So, what is “What is it?”? Even a day after seeing it, I’m still wrapping my head around it. Shot on 16mm film, on a $150,000 budget, the film features: snails with salt poured on them; a fixation on Shirley Temple and Nazis; a black-faced minstrel who thinks he’s Michael Jackson; and a man with cerebral palsy (Steven C. Stewart, who wrote “It is Fine!”, which is autobiographical about his time in a nursing home) being given a handjob by porn stars with animal masks on them. And did I mention that all of the main characters are played by actors with Down Syndrome? Is it any wonder I’m still not entirely certain about the film?

Glover provided his own insights about his philosophy in making the film during the Q&A that followed, but rather than recycle his words (which can be found elsewhere online), I’m going to put this in my own words. First of all, despite what I’ve described above, it is not Glover’s intention to exploit the individuals in this film. Instead, he is challenging the audience in a way filmmakers are afraid of doing nowadays. The characters the actors are playing are intended to be normal individuals, just being played by actors with Down Syndrome, and from what I know of people with DS (one of my aunts has Down Syndrome), I can see where Glover is coming from by putting these actors in roles that go against the nature of people who have the disease; these characters are cruel and violent, which is not how Down Syndrome people behave. Using Down Syndrome actors makes for a really surreal experience, since it’s hard to make out a lot of the dialogue, but Glover doesn’t give us any subtitles to make the narrative more palpable; instead, he forces us to figure things out for ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch, but that’s part of Glover’s point; he doesn’t like how sanitized Hollywood has become, even when it deals with controversial subject matter. “What is it?” is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, and perhaps, will ever see. And honestly, I can’t wait to see what Glover has up his sleeve with the rest of this unusual trilogy.

After the film, as well as a trailer for “It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.”, Glover took questions from the audience in a Q&A session that went over a broad set of topics, from the actor’s political views to his directorial work to the story behind why he didn’t appear in the “Back to the Future” sequels to what convinced him to take the role in the “Charlie’s Angels” films. It was a long, exhaustive Q&A that lasted longer than “What is it?” did. (The film’s only 72 minutes long.) Still, even when the actor seemed to ramble, he always had something interesting to say.

When that was over, the actor went off-stage to allow us a chance to get in line for a meet-and-greet with him, while others left. I can’t say I blame those who left (after all, the complete program was pushing five hours), but I was more than happy to stick around, say hello, and get my picture taken with the man who has been one of the most original, and enjoyable, fixtures in both mainstream and independent cinema the 30 or so years.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

Author’s Note: To read more about Crispin Glover, go here to an interview my friend, Jeffery Bützer, did with the actor for Creative Loafing Atlanta. I hope you enjoy!

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