I wouldn't necessarily recommend this flick to everybody, it's not for all tastes. If you have a certain affinity for Crispin Glover's extensive body of work, then hell yeah, buy the ticket, take the ride. Plunk your ass down and grab a seat. Prepare to be shocked, stunned, titillated, offended, but primarily, amused.
For the uniniated, "What Is It?" is the first installment of the eventual "It" trilogy, directed by quirky cult-hero, bit-part player extraordinaire, Crispin Glover. I caught the film over the weekend of January 22nd over at the good 'ole Clinton Street theater in Portland. The second offering, "It Is Fine, Everything Is Fine" was playing during the weekend as well, however, I had the misfortune of missing it. ("It"?) "What Is It?" definitely straddles the familiar, at least in the sense of what Glover's directorial sensibilities have to offer. Very much engaged in the oddball circuit of specialized filmmaking, it plays about as fragmented as a Harmony Korine flick, certainly akin to Werner Herzog or David Lynch's weirder output. (in fact, both are thanked in the end credits) 90% of the cast have mental or physical disabilities of some kind, and are depicted in a myriad of unglamourous, socially deviant roles. One could certainly accuse Mr. Glover of exploitation, but I'll get to that in a second. The basic plot takes place within the mind of a mentally-challenged youngster, and centers around the power struggle between two demi-gods(one of whom is played by Glover) buried inside his sub-conscious. Would I have gleaned this information alone from watching the film? Probably not, but like I said, I'll get to that later. Scatological, racist and nazi-inspired images abound during the aforementioned battle, with numerous actors placed in bizzare, uncomfortable circumstances. It sounds like a train wreck, or a moral abomination. Surprisingly, it's not.
The saving grace of "What Is It" is found in its presentation. What's remarkable about the film is that Crispin Glover has provided a framework for grass-roots, independent distribution. Glover has taken the option of being present at each viewing and provides a forum afterword for receiving questions. Basically, he books the film in a series of independent theaters, and tours with it, receiving a larger chunk of the profits. It's a new model for distribution, though Glover definitely benefits from the exposure that his name implies. Not only that, but Glover manages to evade most of the criticism the film generates on the sheer principle of just being present to address the issues. Thus, he articulated his casting of disabled actors as a way of confronting prejudice towards the mentally challenged and how they're generally depicted in film roles. Glover also holds a mirror to our own reactions with regards to racism, sexuality, and violence. He's able to spotlight how sanitized our culture has become, wary of its most brutal impulses, and flaunting a dismissal that they exist at all.
The film ain't perfect, that's for sure. (One could argue that without the moderator option, the movie tanks) But I'll place it a good deal higher over the virulent malaise that conventional filmmaking generally boasts.
Anyway, I soon as I have a chance I'll be posting my first short film at some point in the next week.