By Raj Ranade
2:40 PM EST, March 5, 2013
Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show
Film screening, Q&A, and book signing
Friday and Saturday, March 8 & 9, $20, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org
You can say what you will about Crispin Glover, but artistically, he has certainly achieved that Joe Strummer dream — complete control. The scene-stealing character actor (most famous as the geeky dad from Back to the Future or the megalomaniacal stoner in River's Edge) now turned director isn't the first to self-finance his productions, but few filmmakers have attempted to also control the means of distribution the way Glover has. His films What is It? and It is Fine! Everything is Fine were never given a theatrical release nor will they ever be released on DVD. The only way to see them is as part of "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show," a touring roadshow which, along with the films, includes a Q&A session and a dramatic reading of selections from his eight illustrated books (cut-and-paste creations combining bindings and text from nineteenth-century publications with his own words and pictures). Glover is bringing the show to Hartford for two nights this week.
That total control extends to Glover's approach to interviews — maybe not a surprise considering that Glover is still infamous for a 1987 interview gone wrong with David Letterman, which ended with Glover nearly kicking his host in the head. Glover declined requests for a phone interview and asked for questions by e-mail. His answers consisted of either huge chunks of text pasted from his other interviews and press materials (fittingly enough for a cut-and-paste artist) or concise yet baroquely worded sentences. On why he prefers celluloid film to digital, for example: "The qualities of unique grain pattern as opposed to rigid pixels and subtle light variations caused [by] the opening and closing of the shutter as opposed to the constancy of light flow in the electronic capture [are] very apparent to my eye."
So why does Glover tour with the films and books instead of doing a conventional release? "I consider what I am doing to be following in the steps of vaudeville performers," said Glover, who also noted that "it is apparent that [vaudeville] is sorely missed." Asked why he thinks that, he said "I understand [it] is missed because I have been able to recoup on my films by distributing in this fashion." There are other factors — Glover is deeply concerned about Internet piracy, and he also resists the tendency of corporate financed films to categorize things as good and evil.
The content of the films probably has something to do with it as well. Glover's first film What is It? is a sort of avant-garde narrative piece with a cast mostly composed of actors with Down Syndrome — recurring motifs include the members of this cast violently attacking each other, the melting of snails with salt, graphic sex acts, drawings of Shirley Temple in a Nazi uniform, and a man in blackface who declares that he is Michael Jackson. Speaking with Empire Magazine, Glover said that the film is his "psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have been imposed in … filmmaking. Anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. What does it mean for a culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media?" (Ed Gonzalez, reviewing the film for Slant Magazine, said the film was "not exactly enjoyable, but its caustic ridiculousness is, if not visionary, at least liberating.")
Glover has called his second film It is Fine! Everything is Fine, "the best film I'll have anything to do with in my whole career." The film was written by Steven C. Stewart, a man with cerebral palsy who died soon after filming completed, who also stars as a wheelchair-bound serial-killing lothario who beds and then strangles a series of women. With its graphic, occasionally un-simulated sex, the psychological horror film caused plenty of walkouts during its Sundance premiere, but it also received praise from critics like Gothamist's John Del Signore, who wondered "if there has ever been such a faithful rendition of a handicapped person's artistic vision in cinema."
That these films are not for everyone goes without saying. But it's hard not to at least admire Glover's dedication to his art. Due to budget constraints and technical problems, it took Glover nine-and-a-half years to finish What is It?; though he first received the screenplay for It is Fine in 1987, it wasn't until 2001 that he was able to make the film. According to an interview with The AV Club, it took him a full six years of independent touring to make back his investment on the films. And he's far from done — he's working on the scripts for several films, including a companion piece to the first two called It is Mine, and is refurbishing a chateau in the Czech Republic that will act as a reusable set for future productions. (He likes the low property taxes in the country, and the quarter-Czech actor also said that the country is "the place I felt like I looked like the people most.")
By all accounts, he is also a gracious presence at his slideshow appearances, thoughtfully addressing all queries (and grievances) in his Q&A and spending hours after the show to sign books and take photos with fans. It's certainly a little odd that, in an era where technology has made it easier than ever before for an artist to distribute their raw vision, Glover has chosen to cut himself off from most of his potential audience. But then there's also something to be said for the personal touch.