Sunday, February 26, 2006



I was waiting outside the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor at 7:30 p.m. on April 16th, 2005, when I saw a co-worker from my last landscum job coming towards me up the street. I waved him over and asked where he was going. He said he had tickets for Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at Hill Auditorium, and he asked whether I wanted to come, as he had an extra ticket. He expressed a fear that he might fall asleep during the presentation. I guess he wanted me there to jab him awake.

I was not tempted. I informed him I had tickets to see CRISPIN GLOVER tonight and that I was only killing time until the other two operatives in my group arrived. Unwisely, instead of dropping his own plans, he headed down the sidewalk to listen to Mahler. He did not recognize Crispin Glover’s name or know why I would choose to miss a sleep-in at the symphony to see him. A copy of Bartleby slipped into his mailbox the same week took care of that.

Well, let me just start by saying that there is no pleasanter person to spend an evening than with Crispin Glover, doing his best to show me a good time. I wish it had never ended.

The evening began with The Big Slide Show. This involved excerpts from 10 of his books (available for sale in 3 volumes at his website,
Volcanic Eruptions. Our host narrated every story as he meant it to be heard, under the glare of a tiny red spotlight. Each set of slides ended with wild applause, as our host caught his breath and smiled just a little in what appeared to be veiled delight. This part of the show alone would have made my evening, but there was much more in store.

We moved from there to What Is It?, his feature film. OK, how do I describe this story? On one level it’s about a guy getting locked out of his house after accidentally crushing a snail. By that token, though, Eraserhead is about a guy named Henry who gets married to his girlfriend because they’ve had a baby. And I’m here to tell you that What Is It? ranges much, much farther afield from its basic storyline than Eraserhead ever dreamed. We see romance of a sort; considerable violence involving shovels, hammers, and thrown rocks; puppet shows; a succession of Snails getting crushed, decapitated, defenestrated, and bubbled to death with salt; the enthroning, and later deposing, of a potentate of some sort. Oh, and nearly all the actors have Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy or other serious handicaps.

Eventually, the protagonist obtains a key and gets back into his place.

One of the powerful messages in this movie was that everything alive has a point of view and even feelings, even if the average Naked Ape prefers not to see it that way. The director uses all kinds of different forms of maltreatment and exploitation directed at all kinds of people and animals to make that point. Some would say that he was exploiting the handicapped in using them as his actors, but I disagree. He does not hand you any answers, but he certainly poses some intriguing questions.

For instance, the movie starts with a Snail getting killed. The guy who killed him says he feels bad about it, even tries to repair the shattered shell, but then he goes about his business. A second Snail who happens on the scene does not find it this easy to dismiss; she finds the victim and spends the rest of the film emitting piercing fire-engine screams full of horror and grief. This does not stop the other human characters from killing Snails right and left, but one of them does give thanks towards the end to all the Snails who gave their lives in the course of the story. The Gastropods, in short, are given about the same amount of consideration and dignity as the landscum give each other. It goes to the heart of WHY WE ARE UP HERE ON LAND, converting the shaved monkeys back into fish and returning them to the water. WE CANNOT LET THEM DO THIS TO EACH OTHER.

There is a sex scene between one of the handicapped actors, rolled up to the camera in an immense Oyster shell, and a naked woman in a monkey mask. This sight impelled the friend sitting on my right to lean over and hiss at me, "I am so totally picking the next movie." I'm not sure what his problem was, but what I was noticing was the Oyster shell. It certainly looked comfy. Even rather regal. That makes sense in retrospect, because the man in the Oyster shell proved to be a major force behind the creation of this story, and I gather he wrote this specific scene. He also wrote the sequel. He didn’t have a single line in the movie, but we found out more about him than we ever planned to.

In other scenes, there is a white man in blackface giving himself injections of Snail juice in hopes of someday becoming an invertebrate. He makes it sound his life’s goal. Now what do you make of that? It’s a fine thing to become a Gastropod, of course. Many of our operatives look forward with joy to this happy fate. But what does the director mean here? Let’s bear in mind that the man was filmed in a hideous dungeonlike setting with a tooth-curling old KKK song playing in the background. He seems to be aiming lower and lower on the food chain, according to the KKK heirarchy – white guy acting like a black guy and trying to be a Snail (which is not only an invertebrate, but a hermaphrodite. Surely the KKK would consider all Snails to be a bunch of queers. What could be more despicable than that?)

While all this is going on, the Crispin, playing some sort of potentate in a fur coat, decides who among the mentally-handicapped women in his entourage will be his girlfriend. An image of Shirley Temple stands smiling by a swastika, as if presiding over the scene. One girl wins, and one girl loses. There is absolutely no show of emotion or affection attached to this scene – this is just a debate about who gets the privilege, and a unilateral decision on the question. No follow-through, either. Did they live happily ever after or what? That's about all your average Naked Ape worries about: the happily-ever-after part.

We learned only as the credits rolled why all the characters were doing what they did, because the credits finally told you who all these people were. Better late than never.

The friend sitting on my left was groaning in horror at the Snail massacre when she wasn’t laughing helplessly at the other action on the screen. I specifically asked her to go because she counsels the handicapped for a living. She went in not really even knowing who Crispin Glover is, by the way. She was well entertained by the Big Slide show and started out quite appalled by the movie. By the end of the evening she was entirely converted. Another satisfied customer!

This was rough viewing for me, in part because I like Snails, but also because I am so used to those movies that are aimed intellectually at 15-year-olds. Gee, you want me to make an effort or something? I also wanted to know as each frame flickered past whether this was all kosher, legal, and fully consented to by the actors involved. I should have considered the source. It was OK.

The director set the issue of kosherosity straight in the Q & A afterwards. He noted that one point of making the film was to show people with disabilities living lives like yours and mine, not straitjacketed in the ultra-bland roles usually reserved for them in the mainstream media. Was he ever right. The fans in the autograph line muttered very anxiously about this issue all through the movie and while we waited to meet the director. It was a measure of how badly they needed to see these images.

OK-- the lives depicted on screen DON'T MATCH UP TOO WELL to mine. But whatever.

He did NOT mention during the discussion that this film also shows Gastropods struggling with life and death issues, just like the average Naked Ape – hoping for the best in the face of large, violent forces beyond their control. It is, however, RIGHT BEFORE YOUR EYES in the film. This is the first time I have ever seen a Snail suffer and die on screen, and then be honored for the sacrifice. This is PROGRESS OF A SORT. Our host even called them "sentient" during the Q & A. Make of that what you will. (Dang, I knew I liked that guy.)
Of course this film has not seen a wide theatrical release. That would be too bold, I guess.
Our host for the evening was apparently intent on keeping us happy no matter what it took, and if that meant answering each fan’s questions for 20 minutes while he signed our books, that was what he did. This kept the line from moving very fast, and there were 200 or 300 people in front of me. I finally got to speak with him at a little after 3 a.m., and while he had to be running out of steam after 3 or 4 hours of small talk, and the conversations had dwindled from 25 minutes each to less than 5, he didn’t make me feel as if I were getting short shrift. He was 100% gracious and answered every question in detail. And he must have been at least as wiped out as I was.
He isn't used to Eastern Time.

I was already extremely sleep-deprived when I woke up that morning, and I was dead on my feet after a half-day at work, and there was the usual Quest For Parking once I got to Ann Arbor. The content of the evening reversed this effect entirely. I not only stayed up effortlessly until the wee hours of the morning, but I read both the books I bought from him before finally hitting the hay.



Now, about those books. This column would be as long as War And Peace if I went through every delightful item in every book. (At this writing I have Rat Catching, Oak Mot, and What It Is And How It Is Done. More to come, I sincerely hope. I never get tired of re-reading these books.) But let me hit A MAJOR HIGHLIGHT for you: Part III of What It Is And How It Is Done, called "A Son Of Mother." This heavily-illustrated short story, EPIC IN ITS SCOPE, describes the disjointed journey of a character named Tom, as he converts from the life of a landlubber to a fully aquatic existence. I think. The author leaves out a couple of steps in there as Tom somehow goes from admiring a pregnant girl he meets in the road to being the unborn child, and from there being cast adrift to make his way in the open ocean.

Now, who are these people? Who is this girl who somehow becomes Tom’s mother? Who is Tom? Who is the mysterious Mr. Grimes, whose appearance somehow brings the story to a happy conclusion? We may never know, but the closing illustration of a beaming Tom riding the back of a flying fish says it all, I think.

Who are the other characters, for that matter? The little sister? The little brother? The dead fish? The menacing sea otter?

But notice, ladies, how NOT A SINGLE STEP IS LEFT OUT when you read it through the eyes of a Piscatorial Operative working for the Great Cause. The new contact (Tom) meets the operative (the girl). Next thing he knows he is in an aquatic realm he never expected to be in (the womb, in this case). Then the operative bids him a tender adieu as she sets him free in the ocean. And after some adjustment issues, Tom lives happily ever after. No further explanation is needed if you are ONE OF US.

The appearance of the little sister and brother suggests that the operative goes right on winning new recruits. Her great sadness suggests that she is very envious of their happiness in the ocean. Not everyone enjoys recruiting work, of course.

I love that way this Glover fella makes me laugh and puzzle at the same time. The Fish part of me laughs, and the remaining scraps of human are sorely puzzled indeed. For this reason I am happy to recommend his books to anyone. If Crispin Hellion Glover knows any of our secrets, they appear to be quite safe with him.

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