The appropriately titled “What is it?,” a surreal and disturbing feature written and directed by actor Crispin Glover, debuted at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, where the Memphis-made “Forty Shades of Blue” and “Hustle & Flow” took top honors.
Even so, “What is it?” — described in the festival program as “bewildering” and “unnerving” — bears about as much resemblance to the typical Sundance-validated “indie” film as a Komodo dragon does to that cute insurance-company gecko. Glover’s movie was guaranteed not to start a bidding battle or distribution fight among the studios scouting Sundance; a war of words, however, is almost certain to flare up after every screening.
In what is likely to be the most unusual movie-related arts event of the year (or just about any other year) in Memphis, actor/filmmaker Crispin Hellion Glover — as he calls himself — will be in town to screen “What is it?” at 7 p.m Sept 2-4 at the Palace Cinema at 5117 Old Summer Road. (The venue is appropriate: In its heyday, the Palace — then known as the Fare Four, and later the Cinema Showcase — was the only East Memphis hardtop theater to show such non-mainstream fare as David Cronenberg’s “They Came from Within,” “Debbie Does Dallas” and “The Bad Lieutenant.”)
In addition to screening his movie, Glover each night will answer questions, sign books and perform what he calls a “dramatic narration”-plus-slide-show drawn from the contents of the eight art books he’s created since 1987.
Tickets are $20 per night at the door or $17 in advance, available only at Black Lodge Video, 831 S. Cooper. The event was coordinated by Black Lodge and local concert promoter Chris Walker. (Walker also organized the most recent precedent to Glover’s appearance: “Shock Value: An Evening with John Waters,” which took place in 1997 at the New Daisy on Beale Street and included a screening of “Pink Flamingos.”)
Admission to the Glover programs will be limited to people 18 and older, “due to the strong adult themes and just the general (screwed) up nature” of the film, according to the Black Lodge Web site, which also promises that when Glover arrives, “the dark clouds of mediocrity forever looming over the city of Memphis will part for three days.”
Glover — who was in Memphis in 1996 to act in Milos Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” — is popularly known as an eccentric character actor who specializes in nervous or unnerving characters.
He was Marty McFly’s dad, George McFly, in his biggest hit, “Back to the Future” (1985). He was the master of rats in “Willard” (2003), Andy Warhol in “The Doors” (1991), a troubled teenager in “River’s Edge” (1986) and the grotesque monster Grendel in the CGI “Beowulf” (2007). He’s worked with David Lynch (“Wild at Heart”) and Jim Jarmusch (“Dead Man”). When he guest-starred on an episode of “Happy Days,” his character was named “Roach.”
Famously, in 1987, when he was a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman,” Glover directed a karate-style kick at the host’s gap-toothed smile that seemed to stop mere inches from its target. The 72-minute “What is it?” and its 74-minute sequel (titled “It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.”) are intended to deliver similar roundhouse kicks to the culture.
A movie inhabited by actors with Down syndrome, an ill-fated snail (voiced by Fairuza Balk), the scary refrain of a shockingly racist old Johnny Rebel country record and Glover himself (according to the official cast list, he portrays a “Dueling Demi-God Auteur and The young man’s inner psyche”), “What is it?” is Glover’s response to what he sees as a timid, even moribund arts culture.
Viewers of the movie likely ask themselves whether Glover is exploiting his Down syndrome actors, or providing them with opportunities typically denied them. That’s one reason the question-and-answer sessions that follow the screenings are “extremely important,” said Glover, 44, in a written response to questions sent via E-mail.
“I make it quite clear that ‘What is it?’ is not a film about Down’s syndrome but my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking,” Glover wrote.
“Specifically, anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed,” he continued. “This is damaging to the culture...”
In fact, according to Glvoer, it is healthy for an audience member to look up at the screen and think: “‘Is this right what I am watching? Is this wrong what I am watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have made this? What is it?’ — and that is the title of the film.”
Glover not only financed his films, which were created over several years in between acting jobs, he is “distributing” them himself through a series of public programs. (He appears in Nashville Sept. 5-6.) This places Glover in the tradition of such other taboo-breaking (if less artistically inclined) movie showmen as producer Kroger Babb, whose “Mom and Dad” (1945) contained shocking documentary footage of a mother giving birth, and Dwain Esper, director of the proto-gore film, “Maniac” (1934).
“ ‘What is it?’ is a direct reaction to the contents of this culture’s media,” said Glover, who admits his fame and success from his work in the “corporate media” is what draws his audience and what enables him to finance his projects. (He is planning a third film in his “It” trilogy, to be titled “IT IS MINE.”) However, he also admits: “It is very rare that I have been in a film that I truly enjoy as an audience member.”
Whether or not viewers “enjoy” the experience of “What is it?,” they’re unlikely to forget it. Said Glover: “I would like for people to think for themselves.”
“What is it?” plays at 7 p.m Sept. 2-4 (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) at the Palace Cinema, 5117 Old Summer Road. Tickets are $20 per night at the door or $17 in advance, available only at Black Lodge Video, 831 S. Cooper. For more information, visit crispinglover.com, or call Black Lodge at 272-7744.
-- John Beifuss: 529-2394