Crispin Glover’s experimental “What Is It?” will probably be the strangest film I ever see. Ten minutes into this fever dream of a movie, I realized the film had some sort of a plot. I believe it was about a boy trying to return a snail to a room he had accidentally locked himself out of. I’m almost certain it also involved an inner psyche, played by Crispin Glover himself, trying to kill him. Perhaps “what was the plot?” should have graced the Q+A.
It opens with a man playing with a pet snail and musing that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. He then slams the pleading, talking snail into its snail pen until its shell cracks and it dies. There’s a lot of things in this movie that are unstimulated, and snail death is one of them. A second snail rolls into view and witnesses its glued-together corpse of a friend before giving a bone-chilling scream.
The surrealism of the film peaks in a hellish landscape that might exist in the protagonist’s mind. Naked women in monkey masks climb out of dirt holes while a woman in an elephant mask pulls a giant clam shell behind her. Crispin Glover asks for a puppet show and loses his temper when the puppets begin to fight. Shirley Temple’s voice rings menacingly as a lewd illustration, with its fair share of swastikas and nazi imagery, is displayed. A doll very much resembling Shirley sits on a cloud and coldly brings its arm down to command unseemly deeds. A man wearing what I thought was black-face turns out to be turning into a snail, and injects himself in his cheek multiple times throughout the film to accomplish this.
Afterwards, Glover explained that the film was meant to spur a reaction of discomfort in the audience. The film makes the audience wonder, “why am I watching this? Should I be watching this? What is it about these images that makes it so appalling?”
The success of this film at this goal is indescribable. There was a tangible discomfort in the theater, and I think many began to feel trapped in the cramped seats. Glover explained that corporate interests would rather adult-only films like this never made their way to theaters, as they can’t appeal to larger audiences like R-rated or PG-13 films can.
The film, aside from one man with cerebral palsy, the nude women and Crispin Glover himself, is completely made up of actors with down syndrome. The characters don’t necessarily have down syndrome, Glover explained. This is admirable, but many would be forgiven for making the same presumptions I did.
This movie got its point across about disturbing imagery, but its actual quality is extremely questionable. One man, only there to see George Mcfly in person, told Glover the film was boring and disgusting. Another made his way to the back of the theater before yelling that the movie sucked.
Glover’s not easily offended, he explained, and is proud of the movie. It is a great argument against corporate interests and censorship in film.
You will probably never see this movie. Glover has destroyed all but his own personal copies of the film. If you do get the chance to see his presentation of this film, and you have the slightest interest to see it, do so. The movie’s only an hour and ten minutes long, but I couldn’t help but value the exclusivity and uniqueness of the production. It’s not a good film, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.