Spending time with Crispin Glover | Bleader

Friday, January 13, 2012

Spending time with Crispin Glover

Posted By on 01.13.12 at 05:00 PM

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As noted earlier today in our Movie Action post, Crispin Glover will be at the Music Box Theatre tonight and tomorrow to present his two directorial efforts. It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. (2007) screens tonight, while What Is It? (2005) screens tomorrow; both events begin at 7:30 PM. Virtually every piece of writing on these films mentions that most of the players in What Is It? had Down Syndrome and that the writer and star of It Is Fine!, Steven C. Stewart, had such severe cerebral palsy that his speech was often unintelligible. Yet Glover offsets the provocative nature of both works through the obvious care he took in making them. Indeed, when I spoke with him the other day, I was struck most by his sensitivity and his outspoken concern for marginalized individuals.

Glover is a gracious conversationalist: if possible, he’s accommodating to a fault. The roundtable discussion in which I took part lasted nearly an hour and a half, as Glover explained his working methods in great detail, elaborating on both his influences and what he hopes to achieve with his art. Apparently, this thoroughness marks all of his public appearances, which last (according to him) no less than four hours. He precedes his films with an hour-long performance piece that incorporates texts and images from his art books, then follows the film with a Q-and-A session that lasts 75 minutes to two hours. Glover then continues to answer questions in the theater lobby as he signs copies of his books and speaks with viewers one on one. He claims that these sessions can run upwards of six hours.

That may sound excessive, but then, Glover’s stated mission is to engage his viewers on a personal level. During the roundtable discussion, he spoke admiringly of art films from the 60s and 70s that sought to challenge taboos and stimulate conversation (which explains why he cast Margit Carstensen, one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s favorite actresses, in It Is Fine!). He also explained how every aspect of his films betrays a high degree of intimacy—from the often handmade sets to the close relationships he forms with his collaborators. Indeed, his stories about Steven Stewart were especially heartfelt. Glover was so moved by the It Is Fine! screenplay that he spent more than a decade trying to realize it; while Stewart was so eager to act for Glover that he risked his health in order to take part in the production (he died shortly after shooting completed).

Ironically, Stewart was most excited to make the film because it would present him in a negative light. In contrast to the exalted portraits of physically or developmentally disabled individuals that one gets from TV movies, Stewart’s character in It Is Fine! is a fetishist and a serial murderer. It was important to him, Glover noted, that people recognize the disabled as being capable of “dark thoughts,” rather than maintain a two-dimensional concept of that population. Glover advanced a similar sentiment in What Is It? (whose title, he said, refers to the question any engaged spectator asks when confronting difficult art) by casting actors with Down syndrome to play characters “who didn’t necessarily have Down syndrome.” By defining the characters through qualities other than their disabilities, Glover encourages the viewer to consider how we characterize the disabled in everyday life.

That isn’t the explicit theme of Glover’s “Big Slide Show,” though the performance is unnerving in other ways. Glover’s books reconfigure obscure early-20th-century texts with images from that period and blotches of india ink. He recites each page as though it were a discrete little drama, disconnected from anything before or after, contorting his delivery, seemingly at random, from plaintive to enraged. If the books suggest the personal talismans of a Henry Darger-like recluse, Glover’s performances suggest how those works might read to such an individual. What emerges is an image of mental illness devoid of any context that might help one understand it analytically. Like Glover’s films, this art straddles exploitation and empathy, denying the spectator easy interpretation so that he approaches the subject matter in a new way.

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