Is It Weird?
Crispin Hellion Glover’s The Big Slide Show
Act I –
When Americans try to be different, weird, outré, it’s always so obvious. Tattoos on your forehead. Carrying albino pythons around your neck. Getting married from bungee ropes. Being Trent Raznor. It's as subtle as a sledgehammer. I say this as an Australian, coming from a place that everyone in the world thinks is full of quirky people. Believe me: there are no quirky people here. (They’re in England, and profoundly dull.) Those quirky Australians beloved by Americans are simply the product of mind-numbingly boring Australian filmmakers trotting out bad parodies of out-dated middle-class behaviour.
But there is root, cause and reason for America’s over-rationalised ‘weirdness’. As is the case with much of America, it can make peculiar sense when localised and situated within its cultural history. Contrary to assumption, the US of A is not as universalising and imperialising as the 1960s-’70s counter-culture critics would have you believe. Each American state is its own universe which remains locked within its state boundaries. Each city is full of strange customs whose deeper weirdness lies in how mundanely they are accepted by its townsfolk.
Mundanely accepting weirdness. That is a cryptic phrase that can help you understand the strangely not-strange phenomenon of Crispin Glover. Like you, I have seen his myriad ‘cameos’ in films. Fulsome comedic aberrations (Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future, 1985). Tersely tragic apparitions (James Foley’s At Close Range and Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, both 1986). And gratuitously ‘weird’ pantomimes, collapsing into narcissistic detritus (Michael Almereyda’s Twister, 1989; David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, 1990; Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, 1993; Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, 1995). I always looked out for his parts, half hoping I would catch a riveting performance to enliven or rupture the film. Like karate-kicking Letterman’s head or simply melting-down on live TV, both in 1987. But I half-knew that the weirdness would be uncomfortably forced, obviously placed and tediously rationalised. This is the thing called Crispin Glover: a white-face minstrel, a veritable Michael Jackson of cinema, enveloped in his private freak-show world of performance, and smothered by garish tabloid staging.
I also heard about his books. Pretentiously weird. I read occasional interviews. Garrulously weird. The more I encountered his work or presence, the more convinced I was that Crispin Glover was nothing more than walking talking Weird 101.
But something made me buy a ticket to his first tour of Australia back in 2009. He was showing his films, reading from his books, and doing Q&A. Counter-intuitively, I felt that if he was making his own films and had ended up in Melbourne to screen them, there could be something more to him than I had presumed. Like being in an American city and soaking up its aura, maybe by being in his presence, his weirdness would be illuminated.
How fortunate for me that I acted against my own judgement and went to this thing called Crispin Glover.
Act II – It Came From
When actors appear in the real, they really are fleshy. Crispin Glover took to the stage like an arc of electricity. He opened his mouth and everything was turned on. A radio mic picked up his breath, his spittle, his wheeze. He read selected pieces from his books at break-neck pace; the power point presentation tried to keep up with him. At times he spoke ahead of the images, like he was prophesising what was happening in the strange fictional worlds he described. He gulped. Coughed. Sweated.
But, all the time, he was undeniably, physically present. I studied his face and wondered: is this really Crispin Glover? He played Andy Warhol in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) with aplomb (better than Bowie in Mary Harron’s I Killed Andy Warhol, 1996). And Warhol used Superstar Allen Midgette to impersonate him on a US college lecture tour in 1967. Looking at Crispin live on stage was like seeing a wax dummy come to life. His distinctive features were rendered in live motion. The sensation was compounded by two notable occurrences. The first is the infamous lawsuit Crispin brought against Universal Pictures and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Crispin successfully argued that producers must secure permission to use a likeness of an actor even if that actor himself is not in a film’s sequel. That is what producers attempted in Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future II (1989). The second is Crispin’s appearance as a mo-cap avatar in Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007). The horrible child-like monster of Grendel is clearly modelled on Crispin’s angular face and contorted posture. Those two markers frame Crispin’s life within the Hollywood dream machine. He has consistently been a fleshy corruption of visual perfection and bodily form, which in turn has allowed him to thrive as a grotesque figure determined to declare his status on his own terms.
And let’s not forget theatre. Crispin prowled the stage. He responded equally to the projected images, the audience’s presence, and the sound of his own voice. This is what made me realise the obvious: here in front of me was not the Crispin Glover I had presumptively constructed for myself out of his cinematic roles and extra-cinematic publicity. Here was a physical actor, an audible performer, an energised raconteur. Dressed in a retro skinny suit and tie, he projected himself as a huckster, a trickster, a grifter, peddling his wares – books, movies, himself. His books were steeped in a distinctive mid-1800s vernacular which, in any other situation, would have smelt British. But here it smelt like cooked beans, a sack of salt, and tarred black coffee. For Crispin was channelling the peculiar American mythology of the frontier adventurer, the snake-oil salesman, the tent show orator, the New Era maverick.
It all made sense. This was how Crispin had reconfigured himself after being extruded by the Hollywood machinery through which he had willingly compromised himself. This was not your standard rejection of Hollywood – because Crispin knows more than anyone that the Hollywood entertainment industry is nothing but snake oil. Always was and always will be. And this rare special insider knowledge – something only unleashed posthumously in the likes of Kenneth Anger’s similarly knowing insider-Hollywood post-mortem fantasia Hollywood Babylon (1959) – filtered all of Crispin’s spoken texts. Most startling was Round My House. It came off like a wild mix of conspiracy theory, paranoid delusional accusations, and what could be termed ‘ectoplasmic writing’. It is an impassioned yet loony tale of invented devices, shared trust, betrayed allegiances and legal denunciation, set in a phantasmal Olde Worlde courtesy of Crispin’s surrealistic ‘un-writing’ of a found mid-19thC book by randomly blocking out sections of text and scrawling additional words here and there. It would all be textbook weirdness, if it weren’t for the suspicion that it sounded like a coded discourse on just another day of dealing with management and production in Hollywood for Crispin Hellion Glover.
Act III – O, Horrible Cinema
The cinematised Crispin Glover is not what cinema made him: it (‘he’) is what Crispin makes of himself to demonstrate how cinema makes ‘him’ into the Crispin Glover we presume him to be. He isn't on Oprah or Inside the Actors Studio showing us the man behind the mask, for he knows – and declares – that once you’ve had the mask placed upon you, there is no man behind it anymore. So if Crispin’s self-remodelling is a demonstration of this process, then it logically follows that Crispin’s cinema – the films he makes as a director – would not be cinema as either confirmation or rejection of the institution of cinema, as if he could claim a ‘reality’ in opposition to the fabrication of cinema.
Crispin obtusely and polemically outlined this in his amazing essay ‘What Is It? (An essay concerning the subtext of the film by the same title)’, published on his website in 2005. Querying why the public is prevented from seeing the videos made by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the lead-up to their mass murder spree in what was coined the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999, Crispin goes on to ponder (by inference) what kind of cinema could be made by the likes of now-convicted stalker Jonathan Norman, who in 1997 attempted to enter Steven Spielberg’s home with intent to sodomise him in front of Spielberg’s wife. (1) Apparently Norman was convinced that Spielberg was pure evil, communicating his evil through his cinema. His bizarre necro-sexual plan was devised in retribution for being subjected to Spielberg’s ‘universalising vision’ in his movies. By listening to this kind of voice of desperation, Crispin reframes the notion of ‘Spielbergian fantasy’ as a reality-effect, which in turn could generate a contra-cinema which is disallowed to exist.
So what is this film? It’s co-directed by Crispin and David Brothers, the latter who also designed the sets for the film. The script is by Steven C. Stewart, a long-time sufferer of cerebral palsy, and the subject of an earlier documentary by Brothers. And the script? It features Paul, a handsome man afflicted with cerebral palsy who is invited to society functions all over town, and to whom women are uncontrollably attracted. Naturally, he entertains them and engages in wild sex with them all – but he knows deep down they find him repulsive. So he strangles them after having had sex with them. Brothers apparently alerted Crispin to Stewart’s script. To Crispin, the script was disallowed cinema incarnate, waiting to be actualised. From the untethered sexual fantasies of a man wracked by the inability to engage in cathartic sexual pleasure, here was a story that needed to be told.
1. ‘Would the culture benefit from Steven Spielberg’s murder, or would it be lessened by making him a martyr? Or would people then begin to realize their lives had become less banal and more interesting due to his departure? Because I think it is possible a beautiful piece of non-lingual music could well be written by an angry victim once Steven Spielberg becomes a corpse. It could be that this angry victim of banal and ruinous propaganda will have written an anthem signalling a new era, a new thought process, a new music, and a new culture that is desperately needed in the coming days, and forevermore’. Crispin Glover, www.crispinglover.com, c. 2003. This text has been removed from his website, but is available via Wayback Machine.
It sounds Spielbergian, doesn’t it? The whole shtick of ‘bringing this important story to the silver screen’. I can't help but sense a perverse yet justifiable drollness in Crispin putting Spielbergian drive into filmic practice. To ram this reality effect to those dreamers who laud the Spielbergian ethos of filmmaking. Hollywood is always droning on about ‘stories that need to be told’. Stewart certainly held that view when he worked on his script. His sanity no doubt depended on him ‘holding onto his dream’, as they say so often in America. So what did Crispin do? Not only did he decide to make the film with unerring commitment to its accurate realisation; he also cast Stewart in the lead role of Paul. A devastatingly handsome ‘cripple’ fated to kill those beautiful, lecherous women again. And again. And again.
Think Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) with not a drop of blood, recurring erect penises, ugly faces fucking beautiful bodies, bad hair everywhere, astounding fake sets, blaring lo-fi Tchaikovsky, and hardly a single line of legible dialogue. Instead of a toffee Pommy actor hamming it up in a grotesquery of Nietzschean pomposity: Stephen S. Stewart in the flesh, drooling and grunting, desperately trying to hold a porn actress’ hair so as to pretend he’s actually strangling her. Anthony Hopkins channels the Bard. Stephen S. Stewart channels his penis.
Act IV – Radical Bad Hair
And so this disallowed film is actualised. And so, this is cinema. Shot on 16mm, it first seems archaic. It feels like I’m at a cinema society print-screening in a university common room. The grain makes me imagine the sound of sprocketed film going though the gate. But this is no video-clip retro-simulation. Some no doubt think this is an affectation, or that’s it’s a reactionary Luddite bring-back-true-independent-cinema façade. It’s neither. This is the medium of film doing what it does best: it tries to be cinema. Just because you shoot a film, doesn't mean you’ve made a movie, let along made cinema. Yes, it becomes cinema, but only through forces completely beyond your control. It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. tries hard on every level to be cinema, and in its pathetic machinations and within the swimming grain of its amateur aesthetics, it succeeds gloriously.
My head is spinning trying to work out what is unfolding in front of me. Just as I presumed Crispin to be ‘just weird’ and was wrong, I knew that all the references being thrown up before me were equally wrong. Ed Wood Jr’s delusional vision of reality, the Kuchar Brothers’ amped-up melodrama, Andy Warhol’s conscious exploitation of underground sensibilities, Werner Herzog’s use of marginalised people, Fassbinder’s theatrical artifice, John Waters’ salacious embrace of outré behaviour, David Lynch’s Weird Americana aesthetics, even some of Stan Brakhage’s early psychodramas. It could be a disastrous recipe for sophomoric hipster cinema. But even though Crispin declares some of these influences, he has delivered something entirely different – and potentially more radical.
The first thing that alerts me to this radicalism? Hair. Bad hair. And lots of it. I am squirming in my seat trying to figure what is so palpably repulsive about the sexual grain of this film, and then I realise that everyone has lank, dank, dirty hair. Not just unkempt, but pathologically fiddled-with. Like self-immolating teenagers nervously fidgeting with oily strands. Or: someone with cerebral palsy who can’t comb their own hair. It’s not a look: it’s a state of existence. The cast is moulded by the physical reality of Stewart’s world. This is cinema created in the image of all it cannot bear to be, for if there is one thing you hardly ever see in Hollywood cinema, it’s bad hair. (This is so much the case that television became film-hair on blow-waved steroids: think Charlie’s Angels, 1976; Battlestar Galactica, 1978; Falcon Crest, 1981.)
The radicalism is sublime in its simplicity: this was Hollywood’s mortician’s gaze staring at itself in the mirror the morning after the ball. The serial killer Paul often comments on how beautiful a woman’s hair is: cue to the actress fondling scraggy tendrils of gloopy hair. It’s like watching pimples on flesh in porn movies; you can’t take your eyes off the very thing that is destroying the image. One of ‘Fassbinder’s women’, Margit Carstensen, appears early in the film as Linda. She looks like a fag hag on crack. Her rich voice and wizened visage express a tantalizing Aryan haughtiness, but her collapsed volcano of hair transforms into Joan Collins dragged in by dogs. It’s a heady brew. When Paul (the character) strangles her, she has to hold her head in place because Stewart (the actor) does not have enough muscular control to hold anything in place, let alone apply such force. Again, this is a film completely moulded by the physicality of Stewart’s world.
Accordingly, the physicality of the film’s fantasy realm, as expressed through David Brothers’ set design, conveys this liminal transition zone between the disallowed and the actualised. Each scene looks like a network of props, furniture, half-walls and occasional prac-lights, all arranged with a haunting sterility. There is no sign that we are engaging with a social reality of any kind. It feels like we have been shrunk to inhabit a Hollywood prop-world like that traversed by the actors in Ernest B. Schoedsack’s Dr Cyclops (1940): it’s utterly unconvincing yet irrationally beguiling. And it’s all lit brightly, flatly, clinically. The indoor and outdoor scenes bear the slightest differentiation. There’s one scene where Paul waits in his wheelchair on an empty ‘street corner’ at night; the shop window he looks into seems to me a replica of a scene in Ed Wood Jr’s Glen Or Glenda (1953), where Glenda (Ed Wood) longingly looks at female mannequins in a store window in Hollywood. It’s shot with bright Hollywood sunlight, magically transforming documentary into fantasy, despite its veracity. It’s an effect Tim Burton magisterially achieves in his replication of the scene with Johnny Depp in Ed Wood (1994), and which David Lynch evokes in the extended near-death scene of Laura Dern in Inland Empire (2006) on a Hollywood Street corner, shot on DV-Cam at around 3am, using available street lights.
Act V – Read My Lips
Stewart wrote lots of dialogue in his script. In his mind as he wrote, he would have heard his inner voice, lucidly and eloquently delivering caustic lines, wryly amused by his fawning ingénues, cursorily condemning them as he audits their last gasps. But when Stewart himself performs on screen, he’s no Hannibal Lecter. He sounds like Mercedes McCambridge growling through the body of Linda Blair in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Played on an old warbling VHS tape. Backwards. Consonants sink to the bottom of a vocal swamp. Vowels provide a frail canoe to traverse these dark waters of expression. But if you were Stewart’s mother, lover, carer – you would perfectly understand him. Clearly Crispin and David Brothers could understand him. The audience can’t understand him? Tough. Listen harder.
If the use of bad hair is sublime in It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine., the refusal to post-dub Stewart’s voice or provide subtitling is the clearest marker of how this disallowed cinema has been actualised and why. Not only are you subjected to the physical parameters and defining limitations of Stewart’s cerebral-palsy environment. And not only are you trapped in the mind of the most unexplored terrain of sexual fantasy – that of the physically handicapped. You are also refused the privileged space which audiences always occupy: that of judge, assessor, evaluator, critic. So much cinema – so much art – plays out the tawdry erotics of you being a high court judge handing down a verdict for the art you encounter. A film’s voice – its cry of reason, its plea to humanism, its call to arms – is paramount in levering a positive assessment from you, the judge. Cinema so often dances around this ethical legalese, where it seduces and sensationalises with the aura of its phenomenal effects, then recapitulates to rationally, dramatically, morally, socially justify its existence to you, the presiding viewer. It’s the ugly reality of Auteur Theory put into practice: movies are pressured into being authorial, into declaring their ‘voice’.
Stewart’s voice is doubly ‘de-authored’ in It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine.. Not only is it completely subsumed within his sexual reveries, never rising above any discursive explication for their drive; but it also problematises comprehensible justification, because it refutes elucidation at the moment he expels breath through his mouth. After initially struggling with his dialogue in the opening party scene where Paul meets Linda, I realised I had to apply real-world acoustic listening measures. I relaxed and followed the vowels. His dialogue then became simply speech, not ‘film dialogue’. For this was not just the character Paul on screen. It was Stewart himself. Crispin’s approach to ‘de-authoring’ Stewart was predicated on him performing in his own words, literally and sonically. His illegibility embeds his voice without recourse to authorial delivery.
When Paul and Linda engage in witty repartee at the opening of the film, the scene is played out as if nothing is wrong at all. Linda – indeed, all other characters in the film – respond to Paul, perfectly understanding anything he says. In the audience, it’s like you’ve been left out of this communicative loop. It’s a thrilling feeling of exclusion in a purportedly enchanted medium like cinema which, at its most Spielbergian, claims infinite inclusivity. Crispin has often referred to Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) as an influence upon this film and its precursor, What Is It? (2005). But I was reminded of more interesting and less validated moments in art cinema. The tinny, squealing voices of the little people in Sam Newfield’s The Terror Of Tiny Town (1938), riding Shetland ponies, attempting to have their speech recorded by ineffective boom mics which could not get near enough to their mouths to capture their strained dialogue at a decent record level. The arch Brechtian devices employed in Straub & Huillet’s Othon (1970), where non-actors performing a 17th century play by Corneille were rendered doubly illegible by their ineptitude in vocal projection, and the unending impingement of extraneous location noise surrounding the Roman Forum where the film was shot. The hyper-cryptic, meta-argot verbose noise of Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979), which throws the viewer into the alternative universe of African-American penal life, where physicality and orality coalesce into a type of brute dramaturgy of screams, grunts and coded dialogue.
Act VI – Wither Cinema?
When film breaks down in any way, it shows its limits, its peripheries, its trembling epidermis. The usual trajectory of this is through the theatrically destructive impulses of Modernism, cinematically translated into all manner of scratching, burning, blurring, overlapping, multiplying, overloading, etc. anything from the celluloid surface to the projector lens to the white screen. It’s a thin trajectory, childishly drawn. It presumes that cinema is some oppressively grand machine of automatic communication. Dude – that’s what novels were invented for. Cinema never ‘communicates’ like that, despite how desperately authorial it dresses itself up to be. From anti-cinema to acinema to other cinema, the same story is told of moving beyond film language, as if such a thing exists or even communicates in such an overdetermining way in the first place.
When It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. breaks down – and it sure does, numerous times – it generates a tension by not desiring such a break-down. When we see Paul/Stewart’s hard-on as Playboy Playmate Jami Ferrell mounts him, the film breaks down into porn. When Paul/Stewart delivers long lines of dialogue, the film breaks down into an ‘angry non-lingual music’ of psychotic rambling. When Paul/Stewart attempts anything physical, all time, space and action break down, shuttling us from the comfort of artfully controlled film language into a Twilight Zone of interment, entrapment, enclosure. Watching Paul/Stewart attempt simple on-screen tasks gave me time-warping flashes of Bazin, Metz, Bellour and Wollen, and their valiant attempts to comprehend a linguistic base for filmic operations. It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. confirmed for me what I intuited upon first reading those semioticians of cinema: that language as either model or metaphor for analysing and formulating a thesis of cinema loops you back to where you started. These models and metaphors are based on the notion that communication pre-exists. It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. exemplifies that things can exist which are not predicated on communication, and that indeed their inability to communicate can be both their governing reality and their determining form.
Crispin seeks to do a quite clichéd thing: break boundaries, cover new ground, expose existing limitations, oppose repressive forces, etc. When he discursively discusses his methods and practice, he often falls back on tropes that could fit any number of mythologised radicals of cinema – most of whom are entirely unradical, un-abnormal, un-weird. Yet somehow Crispin has achieved so much more than polish the extant trophy bearers of radical cinema. He demonstrates a sensitivity to both the meta-structure which contextualises his operations, and the nuanced materiality of filmmaking. Traditional cineastes seem to have dismissed Crispin’s efforts – for reasons I can comprehend, yet not support. Somehow – though not surprisingly – he has been ostracised into select one-off screenings outside of the established, international film festival circuit. But this indicates how cinema has not been effectively monitored by either mainstream or alternative channels of exhibition for a very long time, and that the Pyrrhic victories of their binary battles are as pompous as any awards ceremony. The bigger picture of cinema is always a narrative of how cinema can never capture a sense of itself through its own channels of description. It continually needs things beyond its own comprehension – but, of course, rarely realises this.
In It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine., Stephen C. Stewart’s cerebral palsy and Crispin Glover’s cinematised persona have been conjoined in their states of affliction to breed a type of cinema channelled outside of cinema’s sense of self. While so many trail-blazing art house movies declare ‘I dare to speak of what cinema could and should say’, It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. declares ‘I’m compelled to speak of what cinema cannot bring itself to say’. Crispin seems to have seen and heard himself in Stewart’s near-deluded private visions of scriptwriting, projecting himself into an unliveable fantasy predicated on an unliveable life. And only someone like Crispin who has danced continually with Hollywood as its resident court jester, performing pantomimes of ‘weirdness’, would be most capable of treating this story in a strangely non-strange way, mundanely accepting its weirdness, and actualising that which cinema disallows.
© Philip Brophy 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.