"I think most people have an experience when they look at the face of someone with Down syndrome," says Crispin Hellion Glover, whose new film, What Is It?, is cast almost entirely with actors who have the condition. "They see a history of someone who has lived outside of the culture."
"Living outside of the culture" could easily describe Glover himself, if the culture referred to is that of popular cinema and the society that surrounds it. An actor, writer, director and visual artist, Glover began his film career with promise inside the established system in fare including Back to the Future, but quickly grew dissatisfied artistically with the boundaries that system prescribed. While he's recently been embraced again into the fold (Charlie's Angels), he's leveraged that acceptance and accompanying benefits to produce his own work, which ventures far beyond the mainstream. The feature-length What Is It?, making its Pittsburgh debut with three screenings presented by Glover himself, has been birthed via distinctly non-Hollywood methods, and grows on terms that are no one's but the 41-year-old Glover's.
What Is It? -- the middle segment of a planned trilogy -- began more than 10 years ago as a short film, essentially a coming-of-age story featuring actors with Down syndrome. Glover's funding pitches drew interest, but it came accompanied with the assumption that the condition was the movie's theme.
That was never Glover's point. His experience of similar characters in films and television was that they were handled with kid gloves and condescension. When you regard the differently abled as separate, "[t]hey're muppetized," he says. "They're not treated as people." Rather than reshape his ideas, Glover chose to fund the film himself, working on other people's projects to raise cash, prodding his return to the mass market.
Work on What Is It? began in 1995. After six months of editing, his 20-minute film was running 83 minutes. "I could see that it could become a feature," he says. "And I knew it was worthwhile." Since then he's alternated between writing, shooting and producing his work (through his own company, Volcanic Eruptions) and the outside employment that makes it possible.
When one actor in a movie has Down syndrome, it becomes the focus. He or she is the facet that is different, the outsider in that film's world. When almost all of the actors in a film have Down syndrome, their place is on the inside; the part of the outsider goes to the audience. This is not the usual role of the moviegoer. Typically nothing more is required than to sit back, gorge on oily popcorn, and enjoy the exploits of people we'd like to look and be like. When the lights come up, the only real question we face is how to get the grease off our fingers.
Not so with What Is It? "It can have a controversial element," Glover says. "I'm interested in things that can genuinely make audiences think about things, and sometimes that can make people uncomfortable." Glover describes the film as "being the adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home[,] who is tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche."
The film is designed to prompt thought and discussion, and the filmmaker wants to be there for those exchanges. So it hasn't had national theatrical distribution, and won't any time soon. Instead, Glover has been present at each screening -- including at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- and when it ends, his interaction with the audience begins in a question-and-answer forum.
Response to What Is It? has varied from proclamations of Glover's genius -- The Ann Arbor Film Festival named it Best Narrative Film -- to assertions that it is unwatchable. Glover says it's not his place to inform audiences what they should feel during the movie or what they should carry away. "I don't like to tell people they're wrong," he says. "It's up for interpretation."
Along with the screening, Glover will narrate "The Big Slide Show," a collection of visuals from several books he's released over the past few decades. The volumes, originally made for him and friends, are found texts from the 1800s that he reworked and illustrated.
An unexpected bonus of Glover's signing up for the money jobs (Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) is that the money jobs offered have become more interesting (Bartleby, based on Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener;" a version of Crime and Punishment opposite Vanessa Redgrave). Glover will continue to appear onscreen at the local multiplex. What Is It?, and Glover's future projects as captain, likely won't, and that's all right. "I have an interest in things outside of the message the mainstream media is sending out," Glover says. "This is probably the best work I'll ever do in my career."