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Anton Sirius journeys into Crispin Glover's WHAT IS IT'

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with our man up in Canada-land, Anton Sirius, and his review of Crispin Glover's glimpse inside his own brain, WHAT IS IT?. Every little bit I hear about this film makes me both scared and interested. Probably more scared, but you know what I mean. Sirius' review is really funny, so I hope you enjoy!

What Is It? (2005, directed by Crispin Hellion Glover)

Greetings, starkinder! Anton Sirius here, with a nice little primer for the Toronto International Film Festival (which is coming up in a couple of weeks) - Crispin Hellion Glover’s infamous What Is It?

This is a dark day for me though. Sometimes, normal reviewing techniques fail you, and you have to resort to gimmicks to get your point across - and this is one of those times. To properly convey the impression Glover’s magnum opus might have on the fragile minds of an unsuspecting public, I had no choice but to fall back on Hercules’ 20 Questions schtick... may Goddess have mercy on my soul for using such a hackneyed device.

No offense, Herc.

- So, What Is It?

It... umm... it’s it, as Mike Patton once said.

- Is that the best you can do?

Pretty much, yeah.

- OK, space boy, let’s try an easier one. What’s it about?

I thought you said easier? Fine, whatever. What Is It? seems to be about a young man with a thing for snails. It may also be about the Freudian struggle between id, ego and superego going on in his head. It may also be about Glover’s affinity for the marginalized, and his desire to have them seen as real, fully-realized human beings who are as capable of starring in weirdo art house flicks as anyone this side of Amanda Plummer. It may also be about Glover’s middle finger, pointing skyward and facing knuckle-first towards the Hollywood establishment and/or the audience.

- Can’t you pick one?

I wouldn’t dare.

- Coward. Given its rep, what makes it so controversial?

Man, what doesn’t? All the actors in the ‘external’ world of the film have Down’s Syndrome. Two of them neck on the grass in a cemetery, and they get to at least second base. I can see some people taking umbrage at that and thinking it’s exploitive or something. Other people might find it gross.

Other people might be just a wee bit offended by the fact that the Ego-substitute character (played by Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey) wears blackface, or the atrociously, over-the-toply racist country song Glover’s Id-substitute character plays on his little phonograph.

The way the young man’s mother (apparently an abusive crack ho or something) is portrayed could raise some hackles. Shirley Temple fans certainly aren’t going to leave the theater happy either.

I can also picture one or two angry reactions to the guy with Cerebral Palsy (who plays the Superego-substitute character) getting a hand job from a woman wearing a monkey mask.

And then of course there’s the Snailocaust throughout the film, mostly via salt but also including a couple of smashings and one decapitation by razor blade.

Oh, and the soundtrack includes recordings by Charlie Manson, plus some organ music by Anton LaVey. Those guys tend to be a bug in some folks’ bonnets.

- Snails get melted? Cool!

I guess. If you’ve never seen it, salt does to snails what that chemical weapon in The Rock does to humans. So if you think horrible agonizing bubbly death is cool... well, you’re pretty sick actually.

- Are you saying that the movie is just an exercise in riling up an audience then?

Not necessarily. While the actions of the ‘external’ world make little narrative sense, the ‘internal’ world hangs together fairly well if you’ve got a framework to view it with. Like the films of Jodorowsky and Lynch, What Is It? isn’t really aimed at the left side of your brain. This is pure, mainlined right-brain stuff.

- Wait a minute. Jodorowsky? Lynch? It’s that good?

Oh hell no. If anything it’s too overtly derivative of both of those master nightmarists. But how many first-time filmmakers manage to avoid mimicking their influences? If falling into that trap were a capital offense no one would ever get a chance to be a second-time filmmaker.

- I heard Fairuza Balk is in it too?

“Heard” is the right word. Fairuza supplies voices for the voiceless in the movie - the snails, the monkey-mask women, a praying mantis. Watching... err, listening to her work gives you a whole new appreciation for her screaming talents.

- How do the actors with Down’s Syndrome acquit themselves?

Well enough, all things considered. If you’ll permit me a horribly obscure reference, their casting and performances reminded me of Kim Ki-duk’s use of American servicemen in Address Unknown. While there might have been perfectly legitimate extra-textual reasons for casting them, the fact that they really can’t act is a tough hurdle to overcome at times. (Their Down’s Syndrome ‘accents’ also take getting used to as well, but no more so than the accents in your average Ken Loach film.)

- Anything else worth noting?

I’d like to think the watermelons were a nod to Buckaroo Banzai. And again, if you need someone to unleash a scream that contains all the pain and loss and rage in the entire universe (to use as a ring tone or whatever) track down Fairuza.

- If I want to download that country song, how would I find it?

You need some tunes for your next KKK mixer? The thing was called “Some N*ggers Ain’t Dead (They Just Smell That Way.)” No, I’m not making it up. Beyond that you’re on your own - but then, you could say that about the entire film.

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