PICK WHAT IS IT? Its only fitting that 1980s cult icon Crispin Glovers decade-in-the-making directorial debut should have its local premiere the same weekend as Mel Gibsons Apocalypto. Despite their obvious disparities in budget and distribution (Glovers film was shot largely in his own home, on 16 mm film, and is being hand-carried from city to city by Glover himself), both are the work of singular, impassioned moviemakers working entirely outside of (and, to an extent, in opposition to) the corporate studio system. Both confront viewers with images and ideas from which they would ordinarily recoil. And both will be dismissed out of hand by many, despite the ample evidence that they deserve to be taken seriously. So, what is What Is It? exactly? Partly, its a provocation. Glover assaults us with one politically incorrect image after another: Down-syndrome actors (who constitute most of the films cast) engage in foreplay; a man with severe cerebral palsy (the late Steven C. Stewart, who also stars in Glovers next film, It Is Fine, Everything Is Fine!, already announced for next years Sundance Film Festival) gets a hand job from a bosomy African-American woman in a monkey mask; a blackface minstrel does a jig to a Johnny Rebel race record; and multiple snails (one of them voiced by Fairuza Balk) meet their onscreen deaths by salt-induced dehydration. (Call it the worlds first snail snuff film.) There is a story of sorts, described by Glover in the press notes as being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home as tormented by an hubristic racist inner psyche. But its clear that Glover is less interested in narrative than in rekindling a rich midnight-movie/avant-garde tradition that encompasses everything from Maya Deren and Jack Smith to Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch movies that baffled and intrigued audiences in galleries and salons and Greenwich Village cinemas, but which had more on their minds than mere shock value. So, too, Glover wants to have his say about the stigma of disability, about the latent racism that lurks in society and occasionally bursts forth in Michael Richardsesque bouts of rage, and about all sorts of other things you almost never see dealt with honestly in mainstream films. Glover is such a canny self-promoter that he isnt just shouting into the wilderness. In cities where it has already played, usually on a double bill with a Glover-hosted slide show, What Is It? has enjoyed capacity crowds, and there is no reason to doubt that in Glovers hometown, the trend will continue. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; Fri.Sun., Dec. 810.) (Scott Foundas)
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THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING We are living in the time of deformity, screams the very drunk Zaki Pasha one night in the middle of old Cairo, a sentiment first-time director Marwan Hamed underlines with a crane shot and Edith Piaf in full cry. Based on a taboo-breaking 2002 best-seller by Alaa el Aswani, this sweeping melodrama is nothing less than an Egyptian state-of-the-nation address. Its central metaphor is the once ritzy, now faded Yacoubian, home to most of the films half-dozen principals: the world-weary roué Zaki Pasha, an aristocrat now sleeping in his office; the pretty, menial Bosnaina, who lives with her family in one of the hovels on the buildings roof; her former beau, Taha, seeking refuge in Islamic fundamentalism after being tortured by the very police force he once tried to join; Haj, an ambitious, pragmatically devout entrepreneur; Hatem, a predatory but sympathetic homosexual journalist; and so on and so forth. Even at 165 minutes, there is a sense of overcrowding though for Cairo, that might be considered appropriate. Its all as compelling as a good soap and sometimes as glib, but audiences looking to glean insights into the Arab world wont feel shortchanged and might even recognize prevailing themes of social exclusion, religious hypocrisy and political corruption from somewhere closer to home. (Sunset 5) (Tom Charity)