Yeah really, What Is It?: Crispin Glover’s New Film Debuts at Sundance (Press Screening Review)

Posted February 1, 2005 in
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With a barely-discernible plot, Crispin Glover's What Is It? unfolds itself with a dastardly barrage of disturbing images. The cast, with the exception of a few naked women in monkey masks and Crispin Glover himself, are people with mental retardation and/or physical deformities.

Over the course of the film, they finger bang each other, give each other head, incessantly kill snails (mostly with salt—lots of close-ups), and antagonize one another with verbal insults, physical domination, boulder throwing, and suffocation. Crude puppet shows erupt at random intervals, sometimes to the musical accompaniment of Johnny Rebel's uber-racist tune, "Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)." Pictures and effigies of Shirley Temple make appearances adorned with Nazi insignias, and the mentally challenged cast carries on faux-conversations over walkie talkies with sound bites of her lines from old films. A minstrel in greasy blackface injects himself in the cheek intravenously with snail secretions so that he too may become an invertebrate. An aging, shaking man with what appears to be cerebral palsy lies on an open gigantic clamshell and receives a hand job from one of the aforementioned women in a monkey mask—a veritable hand job on the half shell. And Crispin Glover sits on a Druid-esque throne in a full length fur coat overseeing all this madness without smiling once.

[Crispin on his throne]

When the first snail murder occurred about five minutes into the feature, a journalist walked out of the theater I was in. Over the next 75 minutes, about 30 percent of the attending journalists vacated the premises. I can't say that I blamed them, but I also can't say that I didn't enjoy this poisonous little monstrosity of freakshow cinema. See, I'm a jaded and cynical person and watching What Is It? sickened me to the point of nervous laughter and abject nausea. Only a labor of love (Crispin Glover worked on this film for 10 years) by a mad, and perhaps, genius individual could possibly disturb me this much. My nightmares the evening after watching this movie were vividly colorful, eerily lucid, and positively sweat-inducing. Yessir, load up the kiddies and get down to the local art-house theater as soon as this film comes to town. Just don't forget that pink tummy medicine and those air sickness bags you stole on your last airplane ride.

[A still from What Is It]