05 December 2007

LUNATICS YELLING IN THE STREETS

There is a quality to Crispin Glover's voice that makes it sound like he is smiling every time he talks; but he never does. There is a constant look of intense seriousness on his face at all times, but I do not think this is because he takes himself seriously. I think it is because he takes his audience seriously. This is what I felt while listening to him speak, anyway.

I saw Glover at a screening of his second film as a director, It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE., a collaboration with the scenic artist David Brothers in his directorial debut. Ordinarily, I don't especially like to mention when I see filmmakers in attendance at their movies - not just that it smacks of name-dropping, but also because I'm much happier when I don't need to have the director explain his film to me so I can write about it - but given that this particular film has never once been screened without the director present, and given how much of the experience of the film is the context of watching it with Glover, I think I will make this exception, especially given the fact, made clear in a screening I attended of Glover's first film What is it? only a couple of days before, that he intends for the films to never screen without him there.

So I'm not just reviewing It Is Fine!; I'm reviewing Crispin Glover himself, the things he says and the extraordinary absurdist slideshow he presents for an hour before the film begins in earnest. I'm reviewing an experience, which is not at all an easy thing to do - nor an appropriate one, really.

What the film is, is not nearly as interesting as what the director thinks it is, although I don't mean to set up some kind of false conflict; I'm very sure that the movie I watched was the movie Crispin Glover wanted me to see. But listening to him explain that is significantly more enjoyable than actually sitting through the thing.

It Is Fine! was written in 1986 by a man named Steven C. Stewart, who suffered from cerebral palsy. The central character, Paul, was essentially autobiographical, sharing Stewart's limitations and predilection towards women with long hair; though Stewart was not, so far as any of us know, a serial killer. The film follows Paul (played by Stewart) as he meets women in various forms of physical or emotional disability, charms them with his keen insights (spoken without subtitles, meaning that those of us who have a hard time making out the words of persons with cerebral palsy - including both Glover and myself - do not understand what he is saying), having sex with them, and choking them to death.

Only the first 20 minutes have anything really like a plot, after that it's just a series of nearly-identical meet-fuck-kill sequences, but I think anyone who gets hung up on that is well and truly missing the forest for the trees. The film is clearly not plot-driven, and it doesn't take Glover's looming presence to figure that out. Even setting aside the giant white elephant in the room that is "actor with cerebral palsy has sex onscreen," there's a lot of unmistakably bent cinema going on: Brothers's sets, in their infinite staginess, are a rough pastiche of the early 1960s, the 16mm cinematography is too hideous to be accidental and too well-framed to be condemned, and the soundtrack - peppered with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven - is a layer of artifice that makes the film a little bit easier to consider as a construct and not a mindfuck.

But since Glover's presence does loom, I'm willing to chip it to him: which requires backtracking. As he conceives it, What is it?, a film in which nearly every actor suffers from Down syndrome, and a film in which several snails are killed onscreen (Glover expressed sorrow over this, though not exactly regret), as an active experience for the viewer to confront very basic issues: is it right that this film was made? Is it right that I am watching it? Should I be very angry now? He didn't come around to saying it, quite, but I have the sense that he has similar expectations for It Is Fine!, or maybe I'm just extrapolating from my own thoughts during the film. As I sat there watching scenes of a man with cerebral palsy having explicit, graphic sex onscreen, I found myself wondering what the actresses involved felt about the scenes. Then I felt guilty at the foundational assumption that a man with cerebral palsy "shouldn't" be a sexual being, an assumption that It Is Fine! goes to great lengths to explode.

It comforted me a great deal that Glover himself obviously doesn't have a really good handle on what to think about the film. He mentioned, in what may have been a cute anecdote or may have been a confession, that he and co-director Brothers spent much time debating whether the entire project was just Stewart's excuse to nail several beautiful women in a short span. I'd be a liar if I said that the same idea hadn't crossed my mind. Actually, that describes my entire experience watching the film, really: oscillating between thinking about the filmmaking process instead of the film, and then feeling guilty that I harbored unsavory thoughts towards the man at the center of the project.

Certainly, Glover doesn't expect anyone to view the film as a triumph of overcoming adversity, and I don't doubt that he would be completely understanding of my reaction, although I have no idea if he'd be sympathetic. I do know that it isn't the point what Crispin Glover thinks. The point is what I think, and what I think is that there was a very quiet but very constant undercurrent of exploitation throughout the film, although it gets a little bit hard to explain who was exploiting whom. Most of all, I know that what I think doesn't have a damn thing to do with what anyone else thinks, and that's a comfort.

At any rate, I think I'm very glad that I saw the film as part of an experiential package, for surrounding this altogether discomfiting film with significantly easier material helps it a lot. The hour-long slideshow that Glover travels with is certainly weird, but very accessible, almost "hip" weird: the actor reads from heavily redacted field guides and short stories published early in the 20th century. It has nothing to do with It Is Fine! but it's sort of limbering anyway.

And as for the talk that Glover gave after the film - as long as the film itself! - well, maybe it did give me too many answers about what the film "is," but it was still one of the very few filmmaker Q&A's I've ever enjoyed. Glover is a through-and-through professional, going into great (too great, really) detail on why he made the choices he did, even in some of his more seemingly mainstream work - listening to him discuss how he developed his Charlie's Angels character was almost inspirational, given how upfront he was about how much of a naked cash-grab it was, but how he still engaged with the character and altered what he felt needed to be altered to make the role work as well as he knew how.

And now comes the point where I must be a professional, and try to put a number rating on this thing. I don't really want to - any response to this film is aggressively subjective (not that this isn't always the case). Now, the question I must ask is, Did I enjoy the film? I did not. It didn't get me worked up but it made me feel kind of bad inside. The thing is, I think if I told that to Crispin Glover, he would nod a bit and in a voice that sounded like a tiny smile, he would tell me that I should feel that way. Everything is not actually fine.

So, I guess 6/10.

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