2½ stars (out of four)
If you're looking for the ultimate in non-mainstream moviemaking this season, Crispin Hellion Glover's bizarre cinematic bad dream "What Is It?" -- playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Music Box Theatre, together with Glover's live performance of the "Big Slide Show" -- probably takes the poisoned cake. Whatever you think of the film, though, you can't complain that Glover doesn't take chances. How many Hollywood movie stars, of whatever stripe, would cast their first film largely with actors with Down syndrome, along with nude women wearing monkey heads, and then use a soundtrack of Richard Wagner's classical music and racist rock n' roll by Klan favorite Johnny Rebel? At his most extreme, Glover makes "Borat" look like a rowdier-than-usual session on "The Tonight Show."
The director-star here is better known as Crispin Glover (without the "Hellion"), the often brilliantly nutty character actor in movies such as "Back to the Future," "River's Edge" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." But Glover does his best here to expose his other side: the avant-garde cinema provocateur. In Glover's film, his protagonist (Michael Blevis) wanders through a graveyard and sylvan landscapes, bumping into one feverish tableau after another, while other characters cavort in his inner psyche's realm, an underworld run by Glover as the Dueling Demi-God Auteur. In either place, the scenes keep juxtaposing tenderness and violence, sex and the macabre.
Clearly, Glover wants to work in the twisted, anti-establishment traditions of Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali or Werner Herzog, and he's made a film that looks and sounds crazier than Bunuel's and Dali's "Un Chien Andalou" or Herzog's "Even Dwarfs Started Small."
"What Is It?" -- which took Glover many years to complete and which he has announced as the first part of a trilogy -- is a deliberately jaw-dropping and mind-messing experience. Johnny Rebel, whose song here seems to have been composed to accompany cross-burnings and maybe even lynchings, is a nasty, bigoted piece of work. And it isn't much fun to watch the movie's abuse of snails and repeated images of Shirley Temple and swastikas.
Glover wants to make sure that his movie can't possibly be mistaken for anything Steven Spielberg might want to produce. He also wants "What" to be weird and to provoke outrage. Unfortunately, he's working in an era when the mainstream includes "South Park." "What Is It?" is a shocker, but not a world-class one.
Glover showed his "Big Slide Show" in part to local movie critics here at the preview of "What Is It?" It's avant-garde too, but in a gentler way. For the slide show, Glover has cut up and rewritten very old children's books -- with their antique, delicate illustrations -- and turned them into a kind of imaginary spiritual autobiography. If you don't like "What," "The Big Slide Show" may compensate, as may Glover's lively post-film discussion. As for Bunuel and Dali, they remain unsurpassed -- even by Glover at his most hellionish.
'What Is It?'
Directed, edited and written by Crispin Hellion Glover; photographed by Wyatt Troll; art direction by Floyd Albee; produced by Glover, Matt Devlen, Ryan Page. A Volcanic Eruptions release; Friday and Saturday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:12.
The young man -- Michael Blevis
Dueling Demi-God Auteur and young man's inner psyche -- Crispin Glover
Snail (voice) -- Fairuza Balk
Monkey women -- Zoryna Dreams, Kiva, Muffy, Karin OdellCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun