Saturday, February 02, 2008

What is it?

[Updated at the bottom of the post]

(This post contains some descriptions of a film that I attended last night - featuring a cast comprised almost entirely of people with Down syndrome - which might offend some of my readers.)

I got into an argument with Crispin Glover last night.

Most people remember him from Back to the Future and Charlie's Angels, but he's trying to change that.

He's here in Minneapolis showing his film What Is It?, a surrealist film featuring a cast comprised almost entirely of people (most are non-actors) with Down syndrome. Preceding the film, Crispin performed an hour-long live dramatic presentation of his "Big Slide Show" which features readings and illustrations from eight of his books.

The NC-17 film centers around the exterior and interior journey of a young man with Down syndrome. Glover appears in the film playing the role of "Dueling Demi-God Auteur and The young man's inner psyche." The main character is on a quest to replace his pet snail that he killed by smashing it against a pane of glass. He has an obsession with snails, and spends much of the film pouring salt over them and watching them shrivel up and die or cutting them with a razor blade. During this quest, his inner life of torment is represented by two dueling Demi-Gods - Chrispin, sitting on a throne surrounded by concubines with Down syndrome, and a white man in black face paint who injects the blood from snails into his face. The main actor's mind is represented by a cloudy realm with naked women on all fours in elephant masks, a shot of Shirley Temple juxtaposed over swastikas, a graphic sex scene involving a man with cerebral palsy, with music composed of Klan racist country songs and tracks by late Church of Satan high priest Anton LaVey as well as Charles Manson. Back in the "real world," the main character visits his other friends, all with Down syndrome, puts snails on their arms and then "burns" them with salt, and the film ends when the boy kills many of his friends by hitting them over the head with a shovel or bricks.

After the film, Glover opened the room to Q & A. I asked the first question. "I have a young son with Down syndrome. Could you please help me understand how you can believe that you did not exploit all the actors with Down syndrome?"

Glover has been showing this film to audiences across the US and he said that this was the first time anyone had asked him that question [during the Q & A; he has been asked about it by film critics and by individuals, but usually the questions center around why he used actors with Down syndrome, not the ethical choice of showing them in that light]. He said that everyone is usually up-in-arms about the killing of live snails. He went on to justify his motives by saying that he wanted to show a world seen from an outsider's perspective and that people with Down syndrome have this perspective. He also said that he had gotten permission to use the mostly non-actors from their "caregivers."

I followed up his response. "If I show an image of George W. Bush followed by an image of an oil well followed by a shot of a dollar bill, then I am making connections by simply creating a visual relationship between the images. When you place an person with Down syndrome in a world of sadistic cruelty to animals, explicit sex, racist sentiments, Nazi symbols and a circus-like atmosphere, isn't it possible that you are creating a relationship between these images?"

He answered that he wasn't making a film about Down syndrome, and that Down syndrome is never addressed in the film, but that he was showing actors with Down syndrome in a positive light, like when he showed the scene of real-life boyfriend and girlfriend in a prolonged kiss followed by simulated fellatio.

Other people began to speak up against the ideas put forth in the film. At least five other articulate viewers (some a bit annoying) asked good questions about the social responsibility of the filmmaker, the flippant or uncreative use of racism and Nazi symbols (which he denied) and the lack of a coherent statement or viewpoint. Glover got more animated by each question, although he kept assuring the audience that he liked the questions. But he also kept reiterating that while he had encountered some angry people in the past, that most times they weren't quite such a hostile audience.

I asked a third question a little later. "You keep saying that you are trying to address the nature of taboos, and the "simple" good versus evil lines that are drawn by most corporately-made films. You want this film to, as you quoted from Nietzsche, go Beyond Good and Evil. Do you think the actors with Down syndrome were able to understand how you were portraying them since it is difficult for many people with mental disabilities to grasp the abstract concepts you are addressing? If they couldn't grasp these concepts, I believe you are responsible for exploiting these people."

By this time, I felt like Glover was getting tired of my questions, but he remained calm, respectful and articulate, if a bit long-winded. He again said that he has been showing this film for over a year and that he wanted to show the people with Down syndrome's perspective and that the New York Times called him an Auteur. He said that he didn't hurt the "actors," that they had fun on the set playing around and that their guardians signed off on the film.

I blurted out, "The guardians were wrong." (I was getting a bit worked up by this point, but I do hate it when I let my emotions take over.)

He shot back, "Maybe, but I stand by the film. The only wrong thing, if there is such a thing, that I did when making this film, is kill the snails. That was wrong. This film is part of a trilogy. In the final film, which I am still writing, and will feature more people with Down syndrome, I think then it will be evident what I am trying to say."

Fade to black.

(All the quotes are summaries that attempt to capture the spirit of the questions. Some of the questions and answers have been condensed. If you want to see the trailer, which features disturbing imagery and nudity, you can see it here. Glover's website, also provocative, is here. I also want to make sure I represent Crispin Glover's reasons for making the film accurately; I believe the best way to engage people and ideas is not to turn them into caricatures. He talked about his film in detail and the reasons why he made it here. To see a short excerpt from his "Big Slide Show," see here.)


Laurie said...

Good for you for speaking up. I can't imagine that NOBODY has ever brought up the idea that the actors were exploited.

I don't know if I would have made it through the entire film.

Terri said...

wow. that's all i've got.

Tricia said...

I have been wondering about this film. Wondering just HOW C. Glover intended to portray people with DS, and just HOW it was not about people with DS. If he were looking for people to use as representatives of the "outsider" class, why not all sorts of "other" people. Why ONLY those with DS?

I have a lot to process in regards to this film idea. I am not sure what it brings up in me beyond the sickening feelings from the image associations. That are SO RIGHT about the juxtaposition of images.

And what an annoying and ignorant response, "Well no one else said that," so what? It must be wrong?

Sadly, IF no one else said these things, IF the only thing people took offense at were the killing of snails...I think he must have a morally bankrupt viewing crowd. (And I typically don't like talk of morals.)

They had fun on the set playing around? How is that an answer to your question of exploitation? You can give someone a lollipop while you (unknowingly to them) take their picture and use it on the internet with the word fatass written across it and no matter how much fun they had eating the lollipop it is still exploitation. Even if they didn't know you were doing it, even if they don't understand it when they see it. I can think of million MUCH MORE DISTURBING examples involving pornography, racism, Nazi-era torture and the like.

And finally, what a cop out! In so many ways, what a copout! I don't care WHO called him an Auteur. How easy is it to dance Shirley Temple over some images of swastikas to rile up some feathers? Isn't that what kids in high school did to rile up their teachers? It is where I come from. Un-inventive and immature at best.

Get a grip, McFly.

FBF Rothkopf said...

Go Tom Go! But wow, I'm floored that you were the first complaint he'd heard. I can expect one silly "auteur" to behave like an ass. But has no one else who has seen the piece really cared enough to ask this question? That's frightening.

Tammy and Parker said...

This makes me sick to my stomach.

I hope you kicked him in the balls for me too. Tammy and Parker

Elizabeth said...

I applaud you for remaining as composed as you did. I'd be livid. I hate when "Art" is used as a cover for "do whatever crap I want to get attention".

My guess is that you were the first one brave enough to ask the question and that your forthrightness set the tone for the evening because you opened the gate for others. I am very proud that you are my cousin.

And the snails? It boggles my mind that with all that imagery people focused in on the snails. Lines from The Screwtape Letters come to mind.

Michelle said...

Good for you for saying something!

I doubt I could have sat through the movie, let alone formed a question. It sounds truly horrible. I try not to judge until I see for myself - but this just hits too close to home.

Monica said...

I can't even think of any other words than sadend........I am sandend for all those exploited (because that is what they were) and I am sadend that a whole year of showing this and NO ONE ever questioned this????!!!??? I am sickend (not sure if that is even a word) of the explotion of those with ANY disability... I got an email today informing me about the "suicide" bombing which happened fri. in Baghdad was not actually a "suicide" bombing but murder... turns out that the media just left out the fact that the 2 women that were the "suicide " bombers happened to have down syndrome, and this is not the fist time people with down syndrome have been used. I got this email from the NDSC so, although I did not "snope" it out , seemed very legite. Okay, sorry I'm changing the subject, just seemed to fit in with what has already got me frustrated about today. Thank you Tom, for standing up, not just for Ian but also for my son. Sincerely , Monica

Kim Ayres said...

I'm all for reasoned, intelligent debate and I'm impressed, proud and grateful that you challenged this guy.

Personally I would probably have gone down the "rouse the mob and lynch the bastard" route.

Anne said...

You go, Tom!

Elbog said...

Well done, Tom.
Mr. Glover, in my experience, is a provocateur with no conscience at all, particularly in the context of his "art." That his schizophrenia would be funded and lauded isn't to be completely bemoaned. He is "different" - in a way that is abhorrent to us.
The fact that his 'disability' - and it certainly could be labeled as such by a few juries in this country, lol - is enabled by his ability to be articulate merely affords him the label "auteur". The man has made his life by encouraging people to ostracize him, contradicting social norms. This has brought him a measure of popularity, which probably feeds his demons as much as it feeds his ego. He deserves inclusion, too, but he's also subject to the norms and market forces of our society. Let his film exist with "La Chien Andalou" (which I also think is crap, sorry), to be discussed in film schools and among the ever-shrinking intelligentia. I don't think he'll do all that well there, either. He just used those people as provocative, intellectual props, conned their caregivers, and everyone in the room knows it. You pointed it out, and he displayed the depth of his inanity.
I could go on, uh-huh uh-huh uh-huh, but I won't. Wierd experience. I'm glad you wrote about it. I'm not gonna let the **insert inappropriate descriptive** provoke my thoughts any more, if you wanna know how I really feel about it. Man!

waldenhouse said...

Thanks for speaking up so thoughtfully and calmly, for advocating for all our kids. I would have either walked out or been too emotional to get my point across.

Brett said...

I am with Kim.

Aunt B said...

What tripe. I do not know how you put up with it. I would have thrown things or something.
I am glad you spoke up and challenged him, but I am sorry you had to do it.
You did speak up for those who will not or cannot, and I am glad to have you for a nephew.

God is Great Beauty Salon said...

Great that you spoke up and questioned the film and the thoughts behind it. Sad that Glover did not really have any answers.

I agree a lot with Tricia.

Also, Glover made a choice when he decided to use mainly people with DS. Just like he would have done by choosing mainly actors from any other social category. If his point is that them having DS doesn't matter, then he need to explain a bit further. Because choosing only/mainly actors with DS does the total opposite. He does make it a point. He is the one that makes it matter. And then he needs to be able to explain his thought process.

I watched a dance performance not that long ago. One of the dancers had DS. Another one sat in a wheel chair. Two others had no sort of "handicap" as far as I know. THEY were making a point. And they spoke out about it. They wanted to challenge the idea about dancers and dance performances, about how they and it are supposed to be, act and look.

That's all I can say, as I wasn't there and I haven't watched the movie. From what you've written and what the trailer showed, I doubt that I will enjoy it, but I definitely will watch it anyway...

Thanks for sharing!

Leticia said...

Friends, I agree with you in spirit, and I applaud your outrage on behalf of the individuals with Down syndrome.
I have a question, however: in a world where overf 90% of babies with Down syndrome are aborted, the greatest possible form of rejection, why should anyone be suprised that people with Down syndrome are treated as objects of derision?
At least they're alive to be mocked. They're the lucky ones.

Tom said...

Laurie: Crispin Glover went to great lengths to explain WHY he used people with ds. But he hasn't (to my knowledge in all the interviews I've read so far) explained IF it was ok to show these people in this light at all in the first place. And it definitely a tough film to take in.

Terri: That's enough.

Tricia: I wanted to ask him how he thinks his film would be received if he had instead used all African Americans or Jewish people or people from the Middle East, but thought that would have been too provocative and he would have HEARD me, if he did.

If it comes to your area, I hope you do see it and that you do engage with him. He is sincere and accessible, although I think he is sincerely wrong.

I wish I had been a little more clear in my post (I have since added a few words to clarify myself) that people HAVE brought up the ds issue, but that no one in the Q & A's have asked him if it was OK to portray people with ds in that light. I also added a link to an interview he did where he explains himself.

I think a lot of people saw the auteur statement that way... but he was getting a lot of negative feedback and I think he was trying to justify himself that way. Which is never a good way to do it, but he was getting a little flustered (I think)

Thanks for your very insightful thoughts; they've given me more to work through.

FBF: Tricia said the same thing; check out what I said to her about it. I should have been more clear in my initial post. (hate it when I do that :) )

And I agree... it is scary that not many people address this issue at all.

Tammy: :) Made me laugh out loud.

Elsie: I kept thinking about how the French would perceive this film since escargot is on many restaurant menus. I only went to see the film because I knew he would be there and I wanted to engage him. I hope others will do so as well, but as respectfully as he was with me (for the most part.)

But it was hard not to get too emotional. :)

Michelle: It hit home for me too. One thing I left out of my post is that I told him that none of his scenes with the actors with ds was the least bit "shocking" to me; at least not the way he intended it to be shocking. I mentioned that it might have been "shocking" five months ago before my son was born, but now it was rather benign.

Monica: See my response to Tricia about the "no one bringing up this before."

And I'm still hoping that the women used in the suicide bombings did not have ds (as reported again today). Because it would be too horrible to face otherwise. (as horrible as it is anyway)

Kim and Anne: :)

To the rest: I've run out of time but will be back shortly...

Chris said...

Thank you for being the voice that needed to be heard.

Don't stop the dialogue. Know that with each word you write and say, you are making a difference.

Tom said...

Elbog: See, there you go making me think again. I said that the last few days have been heavy, man, and now just one little sentence (..."enabled by his ability to be articulate") makes me think of a whole post I could write.

In fact, I think you hit a lot of good points that make me ponder and muse. Just recently the video for the Nine Inch Nails song, Closer to God, was added to the permanent collection at the Museum for Modern Art in New York. There are so many things that I find offensive in that video (monkey tied to a cross being only one) but... When I first saw the video years ago I thought it was a work of art... awful and degenerate, but...

So there you go. I could start a whole new blog on art but ...

Thanks for the insights. (and for those who may be/are worried about me, I'm not endorsing Mark Romanek's video, but...)

Waldenhouse: I started to get pretty emotional but was glad there were other's in the audience who voiced their thoughts as well.

Brett: :)

Aunt B: What exactly IS tripe, anyway? :) Part of a pig?

Thanks for the kind words.

GIGBS: I thought Tricia hit some pretty good points, too. And I think you hit on another key point that I brought out in my questions to Glover. I asked him if the actors knew what his message was (or I insinuated that they probably didn't know what the message was) and because of that, they were exploited.

Either way, as you know because you are married to a filmmaker, it is the filmmaker's responsibility to use judgment when addressing such explosive issues. Thanks for you're thoughts and I think he said he was going to Europe to show the film (right now you can only see it when he presents it.)

Take some antacids with you.

Leticia: Appreciate you taking a few minutes to comment. I think I get what you're trying to say, although I wouldn't go as far as saying that a life of mockery is "lucky." (I'm assuming you meant that they are lucky to have not been aborted, and not lucky to be in the film because they are alive.) :) Annnnywaaay, I get what you're saying. Thanks.

Chris: Appreciate the kudos.

FallingDown said...

Tom, I come from the North of England. Tripe is stomach lining. (can be sheept, pig, cow). Often cooked in milk. With onions. Not nice. I have only smelled and not tasted! Nasty.

Leticia said...

Tom, thanks for understanding my sarcasm in saying the actors were the lucky ones.
As the proud mother of a 5 year old with Down syndrome, I cringed while reading of the filmaker's demeaning actors with Down syndrome, and now I am posting on this film, the suicide bombings, and Hillary Clinton using a child with DS in her commercial. She has never done a thing for children with DS born or pre-born, she has no right to pose with them as if she cares.
I have spent a year promoting the wonderful film "Mr Blue Sky" which portrays a young woman with DS falling in love and getting married. THAT's how our children should be seen in the media. If you live in Texas, look for "Mr Blue Sky" in theatres near you.

Tom said...

Falling on a clearer day: :)

Thanks for that info first thing in the morning. Now I have to eat breakfast. :)

Leticia: I'll look for your post and thanks for the heads up on the film; I hadn't heard of it.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you got him to say, "Maybe..." is good enough for me. That's victory, in my eyes. You see, I've held a private grudge for a while, or at least wished I were articulate enough and emotionally controlled enough to bring up some questions to C.G., so thank you for speaking on my behalf and doing so. Even your flustered outburst was fine - it was the best part, actually, and the "Maybe" made it all worthwhile, in my opinion.

Kristen said...

I-am-stunned. I am not sure if I should cry or throw up first as both were welling up as I read. That this man is placated by others to continue his "art" is beyond demented. That's all I've got. I am just shocked. Shocked...Abuse is now

bella said...

catching up a bit on my reading so I'm a little late to the game on this post.
but holy shit.
i'm impressed you were able to keep your thoughts coherent and not just lose it.
You willingness to enter true debate,your intelligence matched by your honesty, was what made me knew we would be friends.

Tara Marie said...

Thank you for raising your voice........

Tom said...

Anonymous: Thanks for popping over... glad I didn't come across as too much of a prude. Hope he'll have a few second thoughts about doing another film with "actors" who may not understand what they are part of.

Kristen: Pretty disturbing stuff; he was approachable, though, so I hope others will also engage him. Not much "art" going on, IMHO.

Isabel: Like I mentioned above, I hope that others will "chat" with him when he comes to town... appreciate it.

Tara Marie: thanks