On Friday night, through the offices of the James River Film Society and the Byrd Theatre, Crispin Hellion Glover (yes, that’s his real middle name) unleashed his book/art/slide-show/performance/film event for an audience of about 1,000.
Later, more than 100 people stood in a line snaking from the lobby to the mezzanine waiting until 4 a.m. to get his signature.
If you’re of a certain age, you probably recall Glover as the quirky father character George McFly in the 25-year-old popcorn classic Back to the Future. And there was that bizarre 1987 appearance on David Letterman (and he’s been back since). He was Andy Warhol in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. A new generation learned of him as a creepy villain in the first Charlie’s Angels movie.
Glover is an actor and artist, and to him, much of what is passed off as mere entertainment is subtle propaganda for a corporatist state. Most cinemaplex movies don’t ask real questions. This frustrates him to the extent that he’s been touring around in supports of his books and films for years, and he’s seeking to crank up his own movie studio in the Czech Republic.
Glover had long been in the habit of asquiring old books about obscure topics, and using cut-and-paste methods and drawings, he remakes them. His performance piece was entertaining and had that Wow, this is really Crispin Glover effect (somewhat marred by overexuberant misbehaving fans in the audience).
Then came the movie.
One problem, according to Glover, was that a shipping mixup sent to Richmond a film he’d not intended to show. Instead of the somewhat more linear but nonetheless tortured It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE!, what Brown did for Glover was to send to RVA his way-beyond-artyWhat Is It?, part one of a projected trilogy.
It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! features the late Steven C. Stewart, a cerebral-palsy-afflicted writer, as a suave leading man. He’s also in What Is It? but spends his scenes naked, curled up in a clamshell and serviced by a woman wearing an elephant head while Wagner’s Ride of the Vallkyries roars on the soundtrack.
In the epic Q&A session that followed, Glover explained that What Is It? is a "reactive" work to, as he said several times, “corporatelyfundedanddistributedfilms.” This might explain the juxtaposition of Shirley Temple and swastikas, as well as his decision to make her the evil overlord of What Is It?'s fouled-up world. The movie presses every button.
The title What Is It? is apt: It uses actors with Down syndrome — but not played that way — in a story that's vaguely about seduction, subversion of will, and physical and spiritual death. A character in blackface bemoans his loathing of the human form. At one point he gets led around a graveyard with a noose. He’s beaten and buried while a jolly Ku Klax Klan song plays. In one of the film’s only real laughs, an actor — in an improvised bit, Glover said — starts moving and singing to imitate Michael Jackson.
Glover related how he’s never gotten as strong a reaction as in San Francisco when he was yelled at about the killing of snails with salt. (Snails were for certain harmed in the making of this motion picture. They were sent to sizzling bubbling deaths.) But, as my partner-in-art, Amie Oliver, pointed out, people eat them. And this is probably the only film in which Fairuza Balk voices a screaming, grieving snail.
The partner-in-art said to me, “It’s David Lynch, Dalí and Matthew Barney.” Glover said his influences included Bunuel, Fassbinder and Herzog.
During the Q&A, Glover spoke at length about his Back to the Future experience, which for him was ultimately an unpleasant one that culminated in a successful lawsuit. He said he's seen the film just once.
In Glover’s telling, the 20-year-old idealistic artist landed in the middle of what sounds like a David Mamet play about the artist-crushing machinery of Hollywood.
Eric Stoltz was originally hired to play Marty McFly, and Glover shot all his scenes with him, but Stoltz was later fired and replaced with Michael J Fox, meaning that Glover had to start over. Glover was troubled by what he thought was the film’s message: Money makes everything better. (Although, one should remember, all that money comes because George McFly pursues his dream and writes a science-fiction bestseller.)
Just as Charlie Fox in Mamet's Speed-the-Plow declares he wants to earn "great big jolly s---loads of money," so, said Glover, did Zemeckis declare about Back to the Future.
When Glover tried discussing script points with Zemeckis, recalled Glover, Zemeckis blurted, "You like weird movies. Hell, I made a weird movie — Used Cars — but this isn't one of those weird movies. I want to make lots of money. I want to be rich!" Glover paused and with shy half-smile said, “I'll never forget that."
Glover sued after the movie's producers sought to use another actor for his role in the Back to the Future sequel, after Glover refused to be in it due to salary dispute (which Glover explained in detail he found excruciating but necessary to provide).
The human side of it, though, was that another actor was made up with prosthetics to look like Glover — and even hanged upside down to obscure his features. Due to Glover’s suit, this misuse of an actor’s identity is no longer allowed.
Zemeckis went on to direct some huge icons in the popular cultural canon: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, Cast Away and Contact. One presumes, too, that he got rich.
And Glover is fortunate to have attained enough independence through his art to do what he wants, his way. That's an ending most of us can appreciate.