What Is It? (2005)

Starring Michael Bevis, Rikky Wittman, John Insinna, Kelly Swiderski

Directed by Crispin Hellion Glover

Hang on, let me put this into the old computer…clackety, clackety, clack. Yep, it’s right here…Crispin Glover’s first movie is pretty fucked up. You’ve probably not heard of What Is It?, since it’s not likely to ever get a theatrical release, and according to Glover a DVD release isn’t happening anytime soon, either. If you have heard of the film, it’s likely because of the fact that nearly all the actors in it have Down’s Syndrome. Engaging in this kind of renegade casting certainly helps What Is It? generate an art house buzz, but if the film was made without McFly and bunch of retarded kids, the answer to the titular question might just be “Boring.”

What Is It? is an exploitation film in the most literal sense. While Glover’s intentions may be to depict how the mentally challenged exist outside the boundaries of “good and evil” (as he puts it, apparently unaware that the rest of us discovered Nietzsche after reading liner notes to a Doors CD sometime in high school), there’s no question that the performers are pretty interchangeable, and that Glover is milking all the discomfort and titillation he can by putting the handicapped on film.

For example; at one point early on, we are shown two young and mentally challenged people making out in a park. It’s clear that Glover is trying to confront us with our society’s desexualization of the handicapped. As the scene moves horizontal, the young man whispers, thick tongued into his paramour’s ear, “I want to be in you”, removes her top and starts dry humping her. Clearly this kind of thing is going to have an impact on an audience used to Corky from
“Life Goes On”, but it all feels a little bit contrived to shock the audience and have them looking at each other for permission to laugh.

It’s almost as if Glover is keeping a scorecard of all the taboos he can break on screen during the film’s swift 72 minute running time. In addition to all the Down’s Syndrome stuff, he packs in a naked lady wearing an ape mask jerking off the co-writer, who has cerebral palsy, while he’s laying in an oversize clamshell (!), Shirley Temple wearing an SS cap standing in front of a massive swastika masturbating herself with a riding crop, the creative mass murder of a dozen or so snails, and the most insanely racist song you’re ever likely to hear. I enjoy a good jaunt to the far side of good taste as much as the next genre aficionado, but given that Glover’s intent is artistic, and not merely exploitative, the lack of intellectual depth masquerading as “surrealism” is the film’s major flaw.

You might be asking yourself at this point, “Yeah, but what’s it all about?” To that I would refer you to Glover’s own explanation. He says What Is It? is a film “being the adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche.”

Uh, whatever.

In actuality, What Is It? is a freakshow, and Glover is the carnival barker. One shocking or nonsensical montage follows another, retaining the viewer’s interest due solely to its professional presentation and short running time. That said, the film is clearly a labor of love for Glover. He spent nine years making it, acting as the writer, director, producer, star and sole financier. He plans to tour with his fresh spanking 35mm print, and present the film as a companion piece to his performance “An Evening with Crispin Hellion Glover”, which includes a spoken word/book reading, and post-screening Q&A. While I appreciated, and enjoyed the expansive 3+ hour meta-movie experience, on it’s own as a film, What Is It? is really only worth mentioning because of the bizarre casting, and Glover’s own odd persona. Still, the fact that a film with copulating retarded kids, handicapped handjobs, and snail torture was made with money earned on Charlie’s Angels is pretty damned funny…

2 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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