Thursday, October 19, 2006

What Is It? and other questions


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This weekend is Crispin Hellion Glover weekend here in Frisco. Not only is the multifaceted artist bringing to the Castro Theatre three evening presentations of his controversial, finally-complete experimental film What Is It?, accompanied by his slide show presentation and a question-and-answer session with the audience, but there will also be an eight-film retrospective of his acting work matinees and midnights. From his Reagan-era roles in River's Edge and the jaw-dropping the Orkly Kid to more recent starring roles in the Herman Melville update Bartleby and the Willard remake, Glover's career highlights will finally be shown together on the largest screen possible. And if you can't bear a Crispin Glover weekend without seeing David Lynch's Wild At Heart, it will be playing at the Clay Theatre midnights Friday and Saturday (unfortunately, unless you can enlist the aid of Doc Brown and his Delorean, you'll have to give up one of the Castro midnight screenings to see it.)

I was invited to interview Glover about What Is It? on the Castro Theatre balcony a couple weeks ago. What follows is the first-ever Hell On Frisco Bay artist interview. I've edited out my star-struck stammering but have tried my best to leave the conversation very close to the way it actually happened:

Hell on Frisco Bay: You've been working for years on this film.

Crispin Glover: Yes.

HoFB: Did it evolve in shape and scope, or is it how you envisioned it from the get-go?

CG: Both, because originally it was going to be a short film to promote the concept of working with a cast the majority of whom would be actors with Down's syndrome. I was interested in selling a certain script to a corporation to another film I was going to direct, and they were concerned about the concept, so I wrote a short movie to promote this idea. The initial structure of a simple hero's journey story structure: somebody in their normal world being disturbed, having to go out of that world into a special world, find allies and enemies, and in the end learn a lesson...all of that sits within this film. What the character was going through changed vastly as it turned into a feature film, and then again when I put myself in, and the Steven Stewart character who is the fellow with cerebral palsy that chokes me to death. He's the main character and author of the second film [It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!], which I'm very close to finishing.

HoFB: So after What Is It? we can look forward to that.

CG: I'm hoping. I never really like to say specifically because things can take longer than you think, but I'm hoping it will be relatively soon.

HoFB: It sounds like What Is It? started with an almost ideological desire to make a film with a particular kind of cast. It's certainly a rare thing to see characters with Down's syndrome played by actors with Down's syndrome in a feature film.

CG: Well, that's something I differentiate specifically though. When I was casting, I made it very clear to the people that I was working with that the film isn't about Down's syndrome and they're not playing characters that have Down's syndrome. It isn't about Down's syndrome. I was questioned about it a lot because the screenplay always had a lot of violence in it, and a lot of the guardians were concerned about the inaccurate portrayal of people with Down's syndrome as violent and the truth of it is that they're generally very genteel people and very nice people to work with. So I always make it exceedingly clear.

The fact of it is that really, the film is about my psychological reaction to certain restraints that are going on in corporate-financed film and the lack of taboo that I think is an extremely important barometer of what the culture is generally thinking about. It's being averted by corporate entities concerned that they're going to make audiences uncomfortable and lose money in the long run, and it ends up stupefying the culture. It's not a good thing. What's unusual is to see people with Down's syndrome making up the majority of the cast of a film and playing the lead roles. When I look into the face of somebody that has Down's syndrome I see, automatically, the history of someone who has lived really outside of the culture, and you can feel something from that when almost the whole film is made up of actors who have that quality.

HoFB: It seems like the film is an opposite of what we normally see in American films. Aesthetically, thematically, structurally, it's the complete opposite.

CG: A lot of people have said that. I agree, because there is the taboo element; it is what is not allowed and it genuinely does feel quite different because it is ubiquitous; you cannot at this point in time get funding from corporations if a film has any of those qualities at all. If you have one element they will not, even just one. This film has way more than one, so that makes it feel very different.

HoFB: Do you feel you're part of a tradition of oppositional cinema?

CG: Yes, absolutely. I don't feel like I'm breaking ground at all. I feel like I am reacting to this culture specifically. It is not something that has necessarily happened so much. I know there are people that want to react, and it's very difficult in this culture because it's expensive, and then you have to have distribution. I'm in a unique position from having worked in corporately-funded media so it does make it easier for me to contact media. If I didn't have that history and I made this very same film there's no way I would be able to get the kind of attention from media that I'm able to get. It's unfortunate because I'd still stand by the film if I was not. But there is definitely an integral part that I'm reacting to, and I've been part of that. It's been a part of my life so there's a genuine truth to it and genuine frustration that I've dealt with first-hand so it doesn't feel fake.

HoFB: It seems like a big part of the genesis of the themes and structure of the film is your place in the world, which is of course marked by your life in Hollywood as an actor.

CG: That's right. There is definitely an autobiographical element to the film, and there should be. People should make movies about what their experiences are. Often actors will write books or they'll make movies and it generally isn't about what their genuine experience is, and this one is really about that. Of course, it's poetically done so it's not like me walking into a casting office or a business meeting and having a particular discussion but I think the concepts -- ultimately it depends on the person, it seems like you're particularly sensitive to it, and some people just can't make any sense out of it all. It's rarer; most people do make some kind of sense of it, but it sounds like you're picking up on very specific things.

HoFB: I think it's definitely helped for me to have heard and read and talked about the film beforehand, and then I was able to view the film through that lens.

CG: That's one of the reasons that I go and talk about it. On some level, it's cheating because really a film should stand on its own one hundred per cent. It's one of the reasons why Rainer Werner Fassbinder's sensibilities are interesting to me. I discovered his filmmaking while I was working on this. I hadn't locked the film, but I was late in the process. Among the many things I admire about his filmmaking are the socio-economic, political, psychological commentaries that exist within the structures of his films, how clearly he understood those structures and how well he was able to illustrate those psychologies, the political/monetary backgrounds, and what they meant. It's extremely intelligent, extremely perceptive. I haven't seen another filmmaker that's come anywhere near the dynamic realms that he's gone into. It's unusual how intelligent that filmmaking is.

HoFB: You're making me think of Fox and His Friends.

CG: Fox and His Friends has it, Berlin Alexanderplatz has it, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven has it. He has it all the time, and I felt an obligation to ask myself, "what is this meaning specifically within the culture?" I felt the obligation to clarify in my own mind what some of these poetic things mean, because often I'll view something with an emotional reaction. I ask myself, "why am I reacting to that?"

HoFB: Fassbinder is definitely a kind of oppositional filmmaker, but aesthetically he's a lot less radical than what you're doing.

CG: Maybe. Cinematically, Herzog, Kubrick and Buñuel, really those filmmakers are more cinematic filmmakers, particularly Kubrick and Herzog.

HoFB: Fassbinder is cinematic, he's just not as...

CG: Fantastical.

HoFB: Yeah, exactly.

CG: But you can see later on he started working with sets, in his last film, Querelle. It's not my favorite of his films. Also he didn't finish it. There's a narration in it. When he narrates his own films, like the narration he does in Berlin Alexanderplatz which I think is my favorite narration I've ever heard in film, it's just so psychologically integrated into the moments, and he's a great performer, and intelligent. It's just phenomenal. In Querelle they have like an American narrator voice narrating this stuff. You just know if he'd finished the film it would've been a very different thing. His last film I think he was alive to finish was Veronika Voss, which had a beautiful look to it. He was so young when he died. It's really a tragedy. The amount of work that he did in his life; he made more films than years he lived, and one of those films is Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is fifteen hours long. I feel that if he had remained alive the face of cinema at this point in time would be totally different because he would have reacted to these very things that I believe are going on right now. I really do admire him very much.

HoFB: Is there anyone you would point to in the tradition you're operating in psychologically?

CG: Buñuel. L'Age D'Or specifically. I have my analysis of that film, and I think he was very much reacting to a Catholic-based situation. I feel these reactions in the film. It's maybe overlooked now, because these reactions are not necessary at this point in time. At that time when he was in Europe, Catholicism was pretty overwhelming. He grew up in Spain, so he definitely had that reaction his whole life, and it was a valuable thing for him to do, and it made sense for him. I don't live in a Catholic culture. It wouldn't make sense for me to be reacting to that. I live in a very different, maybe a little bit more difficult to define, or maybe certain things shouldn't be defined because if you define them you can get in real trouble, but there are different things that I'm reacting to, different control elements other than Catholicism.

HoFB: It's interesting how Buñuel did it in different ways at different points in his career. At first he was doing it very aesthetically radically with Dali, but later in films like Viridiana it's a more a narrative approach.

CG: And they're fantastic. I hesitate to call things narrative or non-narrative. All of Buñuel's films are narrative. What is It? was at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the oldest experimental film festival in the US, and it won Best Narrative Film. This is a narrative film, but it is in the tradition of the vocabulary that Buñuel was working with in his early career. I see clearly those poetic realms, but you have to work in those poetic realms if you really feel that you could be offending people sometimes. Buñuel had to work poetically because if he just made a film that specifically attacked Catholicism he would have been in even much greater peril. There was some genuine peril. People got mad! They didn't just think this was a nice little fun film. He produced the film in Spain and then he had to leave Spain because of Franco. That's why he went to Mexico and that's when he started directing films again. And it is great to see how he changed. And it's something that I've thought about a lot. Certainly, all of the films that I'm interested in making are not in this exact same kind of vocabulary.

HoFB: It seems like even your acting work in the past has sometimes dealt with the audience's stance in regard to celebrity, like in The Orkly Kid, or Nurse Betty, or even that line in Rubin & Ed where Rubin talks about "famous frauds". It seems that, especially in The Orkly Kid, you haven't been afraid of looking at ways the general public relates to celebrity.

CG: Yeah, and What Is It? definitely has something about celebrity. It's a funny thing, because I've known people that are, you know, very well-known, and there is a business to celebrity-dom. It's peculiar to me if somebody doesn't realize that. Celebrity does change one's reality; even I see that there's kind of a warped sensibility of things. Everybody to a certain extent is warped by whatever their own reality is, if you want to call it "warped". It's a pejorative but it doesn't need to be. There is something that can be played with. I think Andy Kaufman played with celebrity in ultimately a very intelligent fashion, but if one plays with it people can become very confused.

I feel like the persona that is put forth by some of the most well-known celebrities, who are very much in control of that persona, is often quite the opposite of what their real self is, and probably their own mind's eye of themselves, and that one of the reasons that they want to put this other persona so far forward is because they really don't feel like that about themselves. I feel that often, though not always, people that constantly play a heroic type of persona are actually cowardly, whereas I feel like it's a very brave person who plays the cowardly person, or the person that is not viewed as the best person or the good person or the person that one wants to be. Of course it isn't one hundred percent true. There are great performers who have played heroic people, but I think that often times it isn't that way.

HoFB: I think that everyone, celebrity or not, does it to some degree. Takes on a persona.

CG: Sure, sure. And there are positive things to it too. You want to be the best person you can be, hopefully. Or you want to be the worst person, if that's your persona.

HoFB: It seems you tend to play characters that are not always the "best person". They're often very subversive.

CG: Yeah, I find those characters really interesting to play. Sometimes when I play the characters that are a little less eccentric or something, I wonder, is that as interesting to me personally? I mean, I should do those. Sometimes it's good for me. I mean, like the Nurse Betty character I played was definitely an example, but I enjoyed very much working with Neil LaBute. He was really a great director and I'm really glad I did that film, but I remember thinking, "this good guy I'm playing isn't that...odd."

HoFB: Do you feel closer to the eccentrics?

CG: It depends. On some levels I don't feel eccentric at all. I dress fairly conservatively. I actually I have a good standard of living, my property in the Czech Republic, my house. I have some nice antique cars. I've acquired a certain amount of things, but really most of my monies are going toward making my films now. But, I try to go to nice restaurants if I'm going to go out, or cook food for myself that's healthy. You know, those kinds of things that are normal.

HoFB: You've got a niche in American acting, where you draw people who wouldn't normally be drawn to Hollywood films like Charlie's Angels.

CG: That I consider a positive, definitely. That is a good thing and it's something that I count on for this film, for touring around. I know there are people that have become interested in seeing me, and I'm very grateful for that. Now I'm touring around with the film and I really am cutting out the middleman. I'm working directly with the audience that is coming in and paying the money to the box office. Ultimately those people are paying me back directly for the investment I've made in this film. I don't have a corporate, intervening middleman that comes between me and the audience. So I am extremely understanding that each one of those people that comes in is helping me out, and it's a very direct relationship. When I'm doing the book signings and I'm personally talking to each person, I'm quite grateful to that person. It's a very direct working relationship with -- I don't even like the word "fan base", but whatever you want to call it. People that are interested in your work.

HoFB: One last question: It seems that, increasingly, the way that economic transactions take place in the film world is through the sale of DVDs. I understand you're not going to be making a DVD of What Is It? available.

CG: It's hard to know what will happen, but right now I have zero plans for it. I want to continue touring around with it for years to come, and I have a concept of growing a library that I can keep touring around with, because I know everybody that wants to won't be able to see it on those three days in San Francisco that I'm here. If I come back next year or later with another film and I have this film with it, some other people can come that didn't get to see What Is It? before. Or, if somebody's interested in seeing it again. Because I know I like looking at a certain kind of film over and over again, and I want to make films to see over and over again, that you want to see projected in a theatre like the Castro.

End of interview.

What Is It? screens at the Castro Theatre with Crispin Glover appearing in person at 7:30 PM on October 20, 21 and 22. The Crispin Glover Film Festival will be held at the same theatre on those dates.