Crispin Glover’s ‘What Is It?’ Film & Privilege

After seeing Crispin Glover’s films, What Is It? & It’s Fine! Everything Is Fine., and then discussing the films with Sean McKeever on Twitter, there are a couple of issues that I have with both of these films. Today I’m going to focus on What Is It?

Glover has said in many interviews, as well as in his Q&A session after his films, that What Is It? is his psychological reaction to the corporate culture that surrounds the film industry. He says that anything that doesn’t fall within or between what is perceived as good and what is perceived as evil by these corporations gets excised from films.

Having said that, there is pretty obviously much controversial imagery in his film from a man in black face, to snails being salted, & people with down syndrome getting hit on the head with rocks, and nazi imagery to name a few.

The very point of the screenings & then the question & answer session after the showing of the film is to question what was just seen. Hence the title, What Is It? Considering question like “What the hell did I just watch?” and “Should I be watching this?” or “Is this morally right?” definitely get some sort of conversation started. But how much conversation? Personally, I’m not so sure the question that are being asked really address some deeper cultural issues that exist within What Is It?

First of all, let’s address the fact that this entire film is a product of Crispin Glover’s mind & psychological processes. A mind that has its own experiences with its own world view. Now, this where people might stop me and say “Wait a second! This wasn’t his intention!” But this needs to be addressed: Let’s take a look at the privilege that Crispin Glover has as a white male.

Much of what is shown in What Is It? is imagery that was rendered long ago to be socially unacceptable. For good reason. It’s not just merely ‘offensive’ to an audience. Much of the imagery is down right degrading to people of color, women, & other groups. Historically, black face was partly used to make people of color seem less than human the other seems possibly to make fun. Note: My fellow brothers and sisters of color, let me know if I’m missing something or call me out here if you need to. Of course audiences are not going to want to watch something like black face in a film ever again.

Note: ….Though I do personally wonder just how much Robert Downey Jr. got away with black face in Tropic Thunder…but that’s a different discussion for a different time in a different place.

Sean Mckeever, award winning comic book writer, pretty much nailed it in a conversation I had with him over twitter an hour before writing this review:

“One wonders what exposure to issues of race and gender exist in the mind that produced that.”

Bingo.

Not a whole lot of artists I’ve met really take into consideration the exposure they’ve had to issues or race, gender, & gender identity.

Again, of course it’s not Crispin Glover’s *intention” to have something come off as racist or misogynistic or ablist. No one is going to make something hateful for hateful sake. …Unless one is an asshole.

But take into consideration that it’s not so much as merely questioning why images that have been rendered taboo can’t or won’t be shown in films anymore. A better question that should be addressed is this:

What lenses of gender, race, able bodied, disabled, gender identity, or a combination of any of the above, is a film like What Is It? being viewed through?

And though this is a psychological product of the mind of a Caucasian male that is part of this modern western culture, just how much has this mind questioned or sat with these thoughts & images and questioned where they come from? What lens they’re viewed through? Or asked itself “How much of my actual psychological reaction IS a byproduct of my place in this current culture?”

Unfortunately, I had to leave right after What Is It? was finished due to a stomach ache I had. So, I did not get to ask him or address this issue.

Fortunately, Crispin is returning to NYC later this month to screen his films at the IFC theater. I will do my best to address these issues of privilege with him in his Q&A session of What Is It? when I see it again.

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