The Inmate Takes Over the Asylum

From the now defunct Popsmear, issue #19, March/April 1999

By Tip McPartland & Marc Price

Photos by Steven Dewall, David Brothers, & Scott Peterson

Text and most of the images stolen from the original article.



"I don’t want to say what the film is about, but it infected my mind and my mind infected the film, you know, back and forth, the whole thought process behind the film ended up being my own thought process and I couldn’t help it, but that’s kind of what I like about the film ultimately."

"Well, I describe it this way: bringing the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home, is tormented by a hubristic, racist, inner psyche."

-Crispin Glover , on his new film, What is It?

What is It? It is both the question and the answer. It is a strikingly effective example of Crispin Glover's unique sensibility. How many films have you seen lately —or, for that matter, ever that star actors afflicted with Down's syndrome ? And how many have featured a surrealistic sequence of an elderly muscular dystrophy patient being masturbated by a well - built woman wearing only a mask?

While his newest feature film is certainly destined for the art house circuit rather than the neighborhood multiplex, it should also establish Crispin as an emergent filmmaker. Which is not to say that this film — or Crispin himself — is for everyone.

We met Crispin at his mansion in picturesque Silverlake. Set on the corner of two quiet streets, the home is partially concealed by the largest bloom of bouganvillea either of us had ever seen. Entering up a steep driveway we immediately had the feeling that we were passing through a threshold into a very special world.

Crispin invited us in for tea.

From the kitchen we ascended a tightly-curving stairway to an open-air landing, and it was as if we were transported into the eye of the hurricane. Suddenly the air was clear, the sun brightened everything, the view reminded us that there was a city and a world out there, and we talked of things that were, well, normal. But let’s not take that too far, because nothing this extraordinary presence housed in the body of one young man named Crispin Glover does or says is normal. His voice is unmistakable and unique. He draws out the vowels of certain words and his tonal register gives him a sound of perpetual adolescence.

Glover is a Beverly Hills High School graduate whose father is actor and acting teacher Bruce Glover. Crispin was brought up in a world where the craft of acting and filmmaking were taken seriously. Of course, to become a serious actor one must take some less than serious roles.

Glover's first film experience was in the 1983 teen comedy My Tutor . In his pivotal scene he's strapped to a bondage wheel spinning around in his jockey shorts.

"That’s kind of embarrassing," Crispin said. "My philosophy when I was starting acting was whatever I could get as an actor I was very excited to do. I had watched my father struggle as an actor. I knew how the business worked on certain levels, so I knew it was just a very good thing to be acting, particularly in movies. I was always very excited about movies as opposed to television . For me, on television I always felt extremely, extremely confined. I felt that way about film as well, but I felt that way even more about television. Basically I stopped doing television when I was 18 and I was glad to."

A string of standard fare flicks followed and then in 1985 Glover landed the role of Larry in The Orkly Kid, a character based on a real person; an impressionist who thought of himself as the Beaver mixed with Rich Little.

"That was the best performance I think I’ve done ever," Glover said. "The aesthetic of discomfort runs throughout, and that’s about my favorite aesthetic."

In the years that followed, Crispin's characters have become increasingly unusual and often discomforting.

What could prepare us? We see a young boy, his features and demeanor affected with the unmistakable characteristics of Down’s syndrome. He’s admiring a pet snail . He is petting it, adoring it. In macro-close we see the other-worldly beauty of the snail as he does. We see the gracefully extending pseudopodial antennae, the way its every convoluted motion expresses the animation of its life force, the beauty of its unique place in creation. Suddenly, the auteur has us seeing through the wonder-struck eyes of his very special actor, and we quickly understand that his use of actors with Down’s syndrome is no gimmick, but rather a daring dramatic modality which drives an express journey to the center of human experience. Now we are without pretense, the hopeless vulnerability and insurmountable naivete of our souls naked to the world. We are like these actors, bewildered without noticing it, amazed by the ordinary without self-consciousness. And we are also so much like the snail, squirming for comfort within our confining shells, timidly reaching out for contact.

"You’re so beautiful," the boy tells the snail, "so perfect." A subtle shifting of mood, and we sense the boy’s God-like power over the snail. Clearly this power is total, our sense of his obvious disempowerment within the human family notwithstanding. We glean a sense of just how stratified our world really is, and we watch in horror as power briefly and terribly corrupts.

Driven by the demon of power, the boy impulsively crushes the snail. He’s immediately swept away by a tidal wave of regret, and we resonate with his sorrow, perhaps remembering all the things, promises and people we’ve broken — so many beyond repair or retribution. We can’t avoid a flood of private regret and secret sorrow as we watch the boy pathetically attempting to glue the shattered snail back together, all blind hope and blinder good intentions in a harsh world where Humpty Dumpty stays broken.

And then she arrives. Another snail. Yes, a snail exactly like those we poison and crush by the millions in a typical day in suburbia.

Just a snail. But this snail pleads for one simple answer which brings these already touching events to a new depth, "Where is our friend, have you seen our friend?"

She slowly crawls closer, and then we see from her point-of-view the grotesquely reassembled, Frankenstein image of her friend, a disjointed cubist monstrosity immobilized deadly still as no living snail could ever be.

She releases one of the most heart-rending screams in the history of film. This is a scream which evokes the real, inconsolable anguish of losing a dearly loved one to death’s terrible finality. And Crispin doesn’t let us off the hook easily. The screaming deepens, taking us farther into the unspeakable horror of the inevitable death and dissolution of our loved ones, of ourselves, of our world, of our universe.

All too often in today’s films, death is little more than a plot point, an action which drives the story forward, quickly forgotten by characters and audience alike. But Crispin doesn’t let us forget. We periodically revisit the room where this monstrous sequence played out, and the bereaved snail continues to scream uncomforted by the passage of time.

"It’s almost like using somebody in blackface to play somebody that’s black," Glover said. "You know, why not just have somebody who is retarded?"

The film soon leads us into the personal, social and sexual world of a group of Down's syndrome adolescents. Some of this imagery is difficult, as one child in particular is cruelly and profoundly deformed. But Crispin uses this imagery not just to shock but instead to shatter our defenses, to remind us that we live in a world where the terrible is really the ordinary.

We also see a pair of Down's syndrome actors, (who happen to be a couple in real life) engaged in sex play. Again, their sexuality is so much like our own, but is stripped of all pretense. We sense the galvanic attraction of their bodies, we see the instinctive interplay of their motions, and we resonate with a deepened understanding of our own sexuality that rises far above condescension.

After some tender and shocking moments which develop the story and characters, we move to another plane, a parallel reality. Here the film shifts from the starkly, microscopically real to the fluidly surreal . There’s no doubt that Crispin captures the classic surrealist feeling and sensibility.

In this surrealistic dimension we see Crispin playing an immobilized and helpless lord — a disempowered, disenfranchised deity who continually tries to act, but can’t escape the self-imposed limitations of his deep passivity and flaccid spirit. At one point he parallels the impotence of his will and personality with his lack of phallic potency . Viewing this imagery, we can’t help but ask ourselves if our God is also this helpless. It would explain a lot.

After viewing the film, we retired to the breezy landing above Crispin’s home. We relaxed as we sat in the sun looking down at the view of the bustling city of Los Angeles, so beautiful at a distance, but so ugly up close. We couldn’t help but reflect that Crispin’s film is in some ways like that view, so beautiful in its totality at the comfortable distance we now found ourselves, yet so disturbing when you look too closely.

We asked Crispin about the filmmakers he admired, and their influences on his work. He mentioned Luis Bunuel as perhaps his primary influence.

"There’s other filmmakers that people would call surrealistic, but really Bunuel is truly the father of surrealistic filmmaking."

As we continued to discuss surrealism, he mentioned that Bunuel would often allow chance to dictate some of the various turns in his stories. Crispin clearly understood Bunuel’s intent — to make art follow life, where so much is dictated by chance.

But in spite of his reverence for Bunuel, Crispin takes issue with the surrealist master’s view of the artistic process. Crispin made the point that storytelling is fundamental to the art of making motion pictures, and that he broke with the vagaries of surrealist tradition.

"Surrealism and story structure complement each other very well," he said. "They’re very worthy of each other."

He mentioned the influence of Christopher Vogler , author of The Writer’s Journey who also popularized the work of Joseph Campbell (Hero With a Thousand Faces) . We think Crispin has succeeded in bringing a greater focus on storytelling into his take on surrealistic filmmaking without abandoning the surrealist ethic, tone and sensibility. He pointed out that he had the flexibility to introduce "found art" into his film. He observed the Down’s syndrome couple engaging in some off-camera affection and realized that without integrating their sexuality into his film he would be portraying them with less than full dimensionality.

"It’s not about Down's syndrome at all," Glover said. "I think there is a sensibility and a respect for a different state of mind being that, for me, the film is about a certain kind of thought process, which isn’t necessarily a mainstream thought process."

Back to interviews