[Note: If the video plays slowly for you, feel free to download it straight from Netscape. Also, the running time is just over 10 minutes.]
Cinematical recently attended a screening of What Is It?, which was written and directed by Crispin Glover. He also plays a small role in the film, and has been touring (it also screened at Sundance last year) with a print and his "Big Slide Show", where he reads and shows images from several of the books he has published. He's an extremely interesting guy, very well-spoken, highly intelligent, and couldn't have been nicer. It presents a real conundrum, because on one hand you have a really strange film, but on the other you have an intelligent person telling you why they made the choices they did in making the film. With Crispin Glover, it was like yin and yang / night and day.
Now having said that, What Is It? is without a doubt one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen. There is a lot of stuff in here that will make you queasy, uncomfortable, and possibly even offended. A word of warning to the wise: if you're offended by people killing live snails in pretty graphic ways, you're going to want to avoid this one. Also, if you're disturbed by scenes of graphic sexuality, you'll want to skip this. Additionally, the use of a cast made up almost entirely of actors with Down's syndrome feels exploitative at times, and that could be bothersome to some people. If you can get through all of that, there's also a fair amount of swastikas on display, nude women wearing animal masks, a character in blackface, a mom forcing her disabled son to inhale smoke from a pipe through a tube, and Shirley Temple as you've never seen her before.
So, if you can imagine all of that thrown together into a blender, and then projected on a screen, you'll get something close to this film. You can check out a trailer for the film here to see what we mean (warning: contains nudity). Strangely enough, after seeing this, I really expected Crispin to be as kooky as I've heard. While he's semi-famous for his appearance on The Late Show where he threatened to kick David Letterman in the head (and came damn near to doing it), he really wowed me with his candor and insight. He wants to create a film where people are uncomfortable, although not for shock value. He believes that insight and learning occurs when a viewer is confronted with something that they find disturbing, and it causes them to examine exactly why it is disturbing.
Granted, I find murder disturbing, and I don't need to see it happening on film to know why I find it disturbing, but his ideas go a bit deeper than that. He doesn't like the current way that studio films will seize on something and basically clobber the audience over the head with the idea that "Hey. This thing on screen right here. It's bad. We think it's bad. You should think it's bad too." It opens an extremely interesting dialogue about the relationship with the director, the film and the message they both bring to the audience. In the end, he presents What Is It? as an art piece. He doesn't defend it, or try to explain any meaning in it to the audience, he lets them decide that for themselves.
What Is It? is part of a planned trilogy, and the next film, It Is Fine, Everything Is Fine, will be premiering at Sundance in January. Crispin Glover will be screening What Is It? at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood through December 10, along with the "Big Slide Show." If you're in Los Angeles, and want to see something truly bizarre, check it out and make sure you stay for the Q&A. One thing is for sure, you'll find yourself talking about it for quite awhile afterwards.
Producer: Kim Voynar
Host: Kevin Kelly
Video: Kevin Kelly
Music: Hypatia Lake, used with permission
All trailer excerpts from "What is It?", written and directed by Crispin Glover