Thursday, October 10, 2013

What Is It? (2005): Horror of the other

The Other Films Classic

What is it? (2005)
dir: Crispin Glover

Original Review (circa 2005)
The mere mention of Crispin Glover is enough to send some geek's panties in a bunch. His landmark appearance in Back to the Future as George McFly has sealed him into the American conscience forever. More recently, he has been trying to get back into the culty subconscious with Bartleby and Willard.

This time, however, Crispin has made a 76-minute, cheap dada film. At times it reminded me of genius, while overall it almost insulted me, but not because of its content. Content?

What Is It? is a movie where, in one half of the movie, all of the actors have Down's Syndrome, giving it a freakshow feel to it. The other half of the movie includes Crispin Glover, Adam Parfrey, and a guy with cerebral palsy. This all had the feel of what John Waters was attempting to do with Desperate Living, and simultaneously feeling more successful and failing miserably.

The half with the Down's Syndrome actors also features many many killed snails. It is about a guy who has snails, and ends up killing one. He is also tormented by a bunch of other people, and a grasshopper. He falls in love with 2 girls, one of which he has sex with in a graveyard. He also has a falling out with a friend who teases him.

In a weird semi-interior set, Crispin Glover is the director of this show. He is something like the control of the guy's mind, and the cerebral palsy guy is something like the sexuality. Well, he at least gets masturbated in explicit scenes. There is other "shocking" imagery made humorous, like Nazi Swaztikas crossed with Shirley Temple, and minstrels in black face saying they're Michael Jackson.

In the outside world, the tormentor is still dealing with his love of killing snails and being beaten by the other people. They beat him with rocks, and such. Later, they beat the minstrel after putting him on trial.

Back to the interior, Crispin Glover is still the ruler of his set, and tries to control everybody, but fails miserably.

What Is It? makes less sense than Dr. Caligari, and has more than a passing style stolen from it. The claustrophobic mental space feels very much like the way the no-wall sets of Dr. Caligari felt claustrophobic. They also had some dialogue that was absolute nonsense. And, it was all wrapped up with absurdist imagery for humor.

The problem is, about 20 minutes into the movie...maybe a little more...What Is It? runs out of imagery. For the next 56 minutes, we keep running on the same sets of images, only introducing new imagery in the form of an absurdist puppet show. The movie seems little more than a movie which attempts to push the envelope in offensive and taboo imagery. It tries to mock and confuse the audience. But, the issue is that it only has enough different imagery for a 40 minute movie.

Even worse than that, the cinematography, set design, and everything else felt very very cheap and almost unplanned. It felt like "OK, this is the way we can do it and get it out of the way." It didn't feel interesting, and was quite...boring. Dr. Caligari, on the other hand, had amazing cinematography and framing. The difference between the two is quite astounding.

What Is It? is the first movie in a trilogy by Crispin Glover, who has only completed the first two movies, with the second being It is Fine. Everything is Fine! Having seen the second movie, It is Fine deals more with genre filmmaking and ripping apart expectations.  The only thing really linking the two are Crispin Glover and the actor with CP, who also wrote the screenplay for It is Fine.

What is It? will always suffer from the lack of original imagery to fill the running time.  In fact, I still believe in most of the review I wrote with little exception except for my take on the movie's nihilism and lack of meaning itself.  With a little bit more world view, one realizes Glover is using horrific imagery to create an absurdist normalization of horror movie tropes.  People with Down's Syndrome are automatically the other of society, and normally they would be the horror movie villains. Indeed, Glover is having them kill snails with impunity.

At the same time, Glover is attempting (though I still believe he was failing) in trying to show that the actual horror is selling out, and commercialization of the image.  This is why he had absurdist puppet shows with laundry boxes.  This is why he had Shirley Temple the Nazi, or the minstrel form of Michael Jackson.  It is all about crossing the horror with the commercialization.  In more recent times, he would be able to get away with showing images of Sandra Bullock with her Nazi boyfriend surrounded by satanic imagery.  It really doesn't add up to much except that Crispin Glover hates having to hock his image.

Ultimately, the Down's Syndrome people are the heroes and victims of the semi-existent horror imagery.  The villains are the society that sells people and makes everything into a taboo.  Because, by othering everything, including minstrels and Nazis, we are also othering those like the actors with Down's Syndrome.  This is an inversion of the usual imagery, which is why it seems so shocking. Well, that and the killing of snails.

It's still a movie whose intent is to shock, and it isn't shocking because it intends to.  Other people might be shocked by the loads of taboo imagery contained within, but the internet has been jading us. As an absurdist film, What is It? fails to keep things interesting for its relatively short running time, which is one of the worst things a film can do.

Available only as roadshow whenever Crispin Glover tours with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment