A young couple, both with Down syndrome, are in the throws of passionate lovemaking. “I want to be inside you,” says the boy flatly. And pretty soon they’re floating on a cloud — literally — which carries them into another, much darker place, full of twisted trees, mysterious topographies and a perpetual fog. Below them sits a large oyster, which opens to reveal an older man — the Chosen One — on a bed of fleece. He has cerebral palsy and he’s naked, save for a pair of dime-store glasses. Soon he’s joined by a gaggle of naked women, or Monkey Girls, who crawl out of the ground and carry him over to Crispin Hellion Glover (wearing a full-length fur coat), who plays the Dueling Demi-God/Auteur. This Demi-God, who seems obsessed with swastikas, turns the handle-crank of a small turntable, which plays a traditional song by Johnny Rebel called “Niggers Never Die.” A child’s doll appears next, shaking and gesticulating, while the Demi-God’s minstrel in blackface does a jig. A short time later, one of the Monkey Girls begins to caress the Chosen One’s cock. This is a sequence from actor Glover’s long-awaited directorial debut, What Is It?
Now imagine this setting: You’re in Glover’s darkened bedroom, which has been turned for the day into a makeshift screening room complete with red drapes, red-velvet chaises, flickering candle bulbs and thrift-store paintings. It’s only fitting, says Glover, who informs me that his 1927 Silver Lake house was possibly once the screening facility for a larger house up the hill, and that this very same bedroom might have been the projection booth.
“There’s a window right there,” he says, pointing to a small, now blackened piece of glass overlooking the cavernous living room. “It would make sense that this was used for projections of some sort.”
After the screening, which includes an hourlong performance in which Glover (who seems utterly at home in a three-piece black suit and tie) reads a series of cut-up texts as if they were Shakespeare (“Oh how it burns!”), we descend a creaky stairwell and I take a seat on yet another red-velvet chaise. The living room has 20-foot ceilings and follows a strict color scheme of red, black and gold (the colors of the German Confederation). A dusty organ rests against a wall, along with a wax-eyeball collection and a number of dark, faded paintings of volcanoes, lions and tigers. A faux, half-finished catwalk juts out from the north wall, literally leading nowhere.
At this point I can’t help but think of Joel Stein’s Time magazine article in which he claims that no one in the industry will work with Glover any longer because he’s absolutely “nuts.” But if you spend time with him, you’ll come away with a very different impression. Yes, this is the same Crispin Glover who used to ride his bike around Hollywood in a pinstriped suit; yes, this is the same Crispin Glover who called for Steven Spielberg’s head in Adam Parfrey’s Apocalypse Culture II. But this Crispin Glover is also articulate, charming and clearly impassioned about what he does. Michael Musto once wrote that Glover is not so much weird as obsessive: “He lives and feels extremely. So it’s no wonder that his work hurtles beyond the bounds of ridiculousness into the land of the inspired.”
One of Glover’s obsessions is Europe’s aristocratic age and all that comes with it: figurative painting, classical music, Freudian analysis and, on occasion, imported absinthe. He even owns a 16th-century Zamek “castle”/hunting lodge, in the Czech Republic, which he explains is the former Bohemia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “As frustrating as elements must have been in an aristocratically run culture,” he says, “there are things that are interesting about it.”
He’s also interested in Baroque art and its more recent cousin, the Decadent movement, and wants his own work to explore moral questions, which in turn may lead to a reassessment of what Glover calls the “corporate film.”
“Corporate culture demands that good and evil be pointed at,” he says, clutching an imaginary chunk of evil in his left hand. “And it’s absolutely imperative that the audience understand that the filmmakers believe that this thing, this evil, is just that. It’s evil. And they are not to think of it in any other way.”
The tension in Glover’s hand now runs up his arm and into his face as he fixes a blue-eyed stare on a distant point across the room. “But a film that goes beyond that,” he continues, “which allows an audience to interpret this thing for themselves, will not get funded by corporately controlled film distributors .?.?. And that’s very damaging to culture.”
Provocation, counterculturalism, nostalgia and decadence. Those were the very same factors that inspired L.A.’s early film avant-garde of the 1940s and ’50s. Maya Deren, for example, was a scholar on Symbolist works, and both Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington could quote Romantic and Decadent texts with ease. Consequently, their films were defined by a feverish hedonism, exaggerated erotic sensibilities, an emphasis on performance, and recurring themes of death, androgyny and artificiality.
Glover admits to being blissfully unaware of such filmmakers, and he certainly doesn’t share their sense of form. But does he know that What Is It? will only add fuel to his already eccentric image? No question. In fact, he’s smart enough to know that his image is also his business. And right now, business is better than ever. He just finished acting in three mainstream — make that corporate — films back to back, including Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, which has allowed him in turn to finish what is going to be a trilogy of films. What Is It? — debuting this weekend at the American Cinematheque — is merely the first installment. (For Scott Foundas’ review, see Film, page 106.)
“I’m probably happier now than ever before,” he says, “because I’ve always been torn between making work that I didn’t necessarily believe in and making my art. [Now] I can separate the two and pursue what I’m truly passionate about. And that puts everything else into perspective.”