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Movie Review: What Is It?

Movie poster with Crispin Glover and two Down Syndrome actors

I caught a screening of Crispin Glover’s directorial debut on Sunday Dec. 9 at the American Cinematheque‘s Egyptian theater in Los Angeles. I’m mentioning the specific date and place because the only way to catch the film is if Glover shows up with it as part of his multimedia extravaganza, which includes a live performance of his Big Slideshow, the film and a Q&A with him afterwards.

The occasion of the screening ws that Glover has completed his second film, It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE., which played for a few nights at the Egyptian. I saw that as well and you can read the review here. The two films plus an upcoming third movie he hasn’t shot yet all make up what Glover calls the “It” trilogy and each film explores different types of taboos on-screen.

I saw It Is Fine! first, which is basically a straight-forward narrative about a murderous Lothario who suffers from cerebral palsy, played by the late Steven C. Stewart who also appears briefly in What Is It? and serves as a kind of bridge between the two movies. However, the two films are connected only thematically, so watching them in reverse order doesn’t really matter.

What Is It? is more experimental in structure without a really clear story. The film basically exists just for Glover to string together some of the most offensive, repulsive acts caught on film. I’m not even quite sure how to write about the movie since doing so would consist of me utilizing the most abhorrent search terms imaginable that would drive exactly the wrong kind of traffic to this site. I don’t need the hassle.

The film, however, is most famous for featuring a majority of a cast that has Down syndrome. In particular, one young man (Michael Blevis) has a peculiar fascination with snails. Although he tells the snails that he loves them, he pours salt on most of them, killing them. As he goes on an epic journey around his neighborhood to get back inside his house, we peer into and meet his psyche, played by Glover. This is a cruel, mocking, racist, miserable psyche who is entertained by a black-faced minstrel (Adam Parfrey) and who wars with a more innocent ego (Steven C. Stewart). Meanwhile, the young man meets a gang of other Down syndrome folks who viciously torture each other and some of whom double as the psyche’s concubines. A bunch of other crazy shit goes on as well, but that’s mostly the gist of it.

The use of Down syndrome actors is an interesting touch and Glover seems genuinely concerned about having them experience a full range of human emotions, from mean-spirited cruelty to tender sexuality. However, I can’t help but to feel that he’s ultimately done them a disservice by surrounding them with such patented offensiveness since it limits the kinds of audiences who will be inspired by seeing people with disabilities actually acting the roles of characters with disabilities. There’s one (fully-clothed) lovemaking scene with two of the Down syndrome actors that comes off as being really touching. However, it’s surrounded by multiple scenes of snail murdering and the most horribly racist song I’ve ever heard in my entire life, which kind of overpowers any positive statement Glover is also trying to make.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t successful for what it is. The “It” the title refers to is the ambiguous “it” of certain situations that makes people feel uncomfortable. I keep using the word “offensive” to describe certain aspects of the film, but that’s not quite an accurate descriptor. It’s not difficult to film something offensive, but it takes a real skill to make an audience feel genuinely uneasy, which is the feeling that permeates just about every frame of this film. While sometimes it appears as if Glover is just throwing things out there randomly to get under people’s skin, much of his reprehensive symbology takes on multiple meanings, such as his repeated use of a Nazi-fied Shirley Temple. So, maybe none of it is random, but simply begs to be picked up on repeated viewings, which I’d have to do if Glover ever blows through town with it again. Hopefully that will at least be when the third part of his trilogy, It Is Mine, is finished.

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