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What Is It? We're Still Not Sure

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 20, 2006 4:16PM

2006_11_crispin_glover.jpgCrispin Hellion Glover's appearance in Chicago this weekend at The Music Box promised to be a unique experience, but even a full knowledge of the man's past history, and a genuine appreciation for his independently released book and recordings, could not prepare us for his film What Is It?.

Glover's slideshow/book reading was entertaining for the most part, though he could've cut two or three selections and tightened the whole thing up a lot more. We will say that his writing makes a lot more sense when you have him there to personally present it, and we think that we will revisit some of his books with this new contextual information in mind.

Contextual information would have really helped during the viewing of What Is It? though. As a matter of fact, during the credits, when each character's role is more clearly defined, you could hear gasps and murmurs of understanding as certain events clicked into place. Though perhaps that's as Glover intended.

As for the movie's actual content, it is rare that something is billed as provocatively offensive and actual delivers on that threat. What Is It? takes provocation a step further to create a film experience that is at times intensely (both physically and mentally) uncomfortable. Unless, of course, you consider a scene with a naked woman in a monkey mask giving a man with severe cerebral palsy a rather graphic hand job with an omnipotent Nazi-esque Shirley Temple overseeing the whole operation to be light comedy ... in which case maybe none of the material will catch you off-guard.

It was after the film that we understood just why Glover is touring with the movie and entertaining a post-screening question-and-answer period . Much like the cast credits, a few words of explanation from Glover help to at least provide a roadmap for the movie's intentions. He described the film as primarily a response to the corporate movie mentality that anything that might offend or turn off an audience must be excised in order to create a product that will make as much money as possible.

Fair enough, but Glover believes that a true education - a true testing of one's beliefs and thoughts of the world around them - occurs at unpleasant moments where an individual is forced to ask themselves deep questions about an experience that challenges their notions of right and wrong; what is acceptable and what is not. What Is It? provides catalyst after catalyst for that sort of questioning, and Glover admitted that while much of the movie's content does not mirror his own personal beliefs, he thinks that the movie raises issues and pokes at deeply visceral reactions that deserve to be explored.

After much thought, we agree with him. But we’re not sure that the movie succeeded solely on its own. It certainly did provoke deep reactions within us, but we’re not sure we would have processed them the way Glover intended if he hadn't been there to explain his intentions. We don't know if that's a comment on our own mental faculties, so many years removed from the more fully artistic milieu of our art school years, being dulled and eroded by time and the influence of corporate mores and imagery; or if it's merely the shortcoming of a first-time filmmaker trying to accomplish too much without the self-editing necessary to create a more fully realized dialog with the viewer. We’re going to venture the notion that it's a little of both, and trust that the sequels (which appear to have actually been more or less developed prior to What Is It?, which itself seems to have been more the result of a happy accident encountered while Glover was trying to procure funding for his first feature) will carry through the artist's intent more fully.

The bottom line is this. We wouldn’t recommend the movie to our mother, but we don’t think she would be worse off for viewing it either.