From the December 1998 issue of Spin , pages 116-118:

Crispin Glover, Enemy of Snails

by Darius James

Crispin Glover is lounging in the frosty, red-lit interior of the Good Luck Bar, near Sunset and Hollywood in Los Angeles. The place has the relaxed, boho feel of a downtown Manhattan dive, with only a minimum of movie-industry hustle. Glover sits in a corner, empty-handed. He doesn't drink to any great extent or do drugs. When one of his companions orders a non-alcoholic Shirley Temple for him-an ironic gesture (Temple figures in Glover's new film project) -and the waitress offers him the brimming pear-shaped glass on a lacquered tray, he waves it away. "I really used to like them when I was a kid," he says. "But, no. Thank you though." His smile is sheepish and apologetic. Maybe its the sugar. His diet largely consists of soy-bean by-products, somewhere in the macro-vegan zone. Tofu. Tempeh. Seitan. Miso. How clean and sober can he be? A few moments later a distinctively psychedelic guitar solo plays over the Good Luck sound system. "This sounds pretty good," he says, grinning. "Who is it?" It's Jimi Hendrix.

You reach Crispin Glover's three-story, Spanish-style villa through a short, dark stone tunnel. The surrounding wall is covered in abundant, blazing red bougainvillea blossoms; inside there is a circular cobblestoned driveway occupied by a beige Mercedes and a 1962 Studebaker convertible. His villa, where he's lived alone for the past five years, isn't anything like the penthouse he previously occupied, a place Arsenio Hall once described as "Dracula's bachelor pad." His current home looks like a medieval monastery decorated with the expressionistic sets from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - high, vaulted ceilings; a grand sweep of stairs with a wrought-iron banister; sparse antique furnishings; paintings and art objects; oddly shaped doorways with narrow corridors leading into a catacomb of rooms. "It was built in the '20s," he says. "It belonged to Tom Mix, the silent-era cowboy star."

Glover is in the final editing stages of What is It?, the first film in a projected trilogy he's been writing and directing over the last three years. He is offering a sneak peek at an early cut. There's been precious little reported about this project, other than that it is going to be really weird. The cast is allegedly made up of actors with Down syndrome, and the actress Fairuza Balk is also said to be involved. It all sounds appealingly strange in that very Crispin Glover-ish kind of way.

The 34-year-old actor and cult fave is most famous for his roles in Back to the Future, River's Edge, and Wild at Heart. But he also has a separate creative existenceas a true and active proponent of the D.I.Y. ethos, as the author of four limited-edition, collage-style art books and two spastic garage CDs, which he wrote and sang the lyrics for. His song "Auto-Manipulator" begins "Women are sweet and girls are honey/But beat your meat and save your money."

He even sells his own works via a web site, Volcanic Eruptions ( Eruptions.html). "My career has been a mixture of having to make money and doing things I feel okay about," he says. "If I didn't think about the contents of the scripts so much, if I just went and did a lot of things, I would make a lot more money. If I could just get a lobotomy, I'd be a lot better off. I have actor friends who work for money and say other things come from that. Ultimately, I find it ugly."

Glover has done some test screenings of the film in various parts of the country as part of his live, one-man performance act, Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show. ("Hellion" is the middle name he was given at birth by his father, a film actor named Bruce Herbert Glover.) He didn't elaborate on the live show or the film because he fears that too much media exposure might finish off an act he hopes to sustain in comfortable demi-anonymity for years to come. That, he says, is why he will not perform it in New York City or Los Angeles. "Many vaudevillians were able to go for years doing the same act over and over," he says, "just playing small cities around the country. But once they did New York or L.A., because of the press they then had to come up with a new act or their careers were over."

There are descriptions of the entire show on the various unofficial Web sites devoted to Glover. A performance in Ybor City, Florida, was called "a night of sinister cinema and wordplay" involving visual projections and readings from Glover's books, after which audience members were "rewarded," we are told cryptically, "by some intimate one-on-one time with Crispin."

What Is It? begins with a prologue. Glover dry-whispers, "Let me tell you a story. Before you meet me, we will start with the lotus of the story. The navel, so to speak. All that is forthcoming emanates from this one person, whom we shall call the Young Man." A snail swirls across green leaf spears, trailing its secretions. The Young Man, who indeed has Down syndrome, picks up the snail and examines it with a mixture of awe and incomprehension. In the following scenes, which flow like a fever dream, the Young Man retrieves a pipe from its hiding place. There is a sequence of shots involving a wrinkled old woman and the Young Man smoking the pipe. In between puffs, the old woman sucks on a plastic tube. Mexican porno music blares on the soundtrack with much cooing and squealing. Then, in what might be construed as a hallucination, there is a visit to an Aztec temple, where another character, also with Down syndrome, holds a bright red rose swarming with ladybugs. A snail is sliced in half with a razorblade.

Many snails foam to death in showers of salt. Eventually, we return to the Young Man in his room, professing his love to a snail, whom he betrays by reducing it to pulp and shell shards. Guilt and remorse set in. As the Young Man attempts Frankensteinian reconstruction on the univalve with a tube of airplane glue, the snail's mate slithers over the windowsill and, in Fairuza Balk's voice, asks, "Where's my friend?" "I don't know," the Young Man replies. Fairuza Snail spots the snail that was once her friend and wails mournfully. The Young Man flees the house. The screen fades to black. A red question mark appears. And, finally, we are given the film's title.

What Is It? is an outre, bewildering, unnerving, surreal, blackly comic film. It is brilliant in its sensitivity and humanity and infantile in its excess. For some, the surface narrative will seem confusing, but only because the film represents the interior life of its author. It's not a movie with speeding car chases and explosions (though it has its share of large naked breasts). It reflects how Crispin Glover processes his thoughts and feelings and how he reinterprets that information. What Is It? , like Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition , invites you inside a musical UFO, the spaceship that is Crispin Glover's brain.

"It's the point of view of a neurotic mind-set," he says. "My mind-set. It's not meant to represent the mind-set of a Down syndrome person." He insists the film follows the narrative structure setailed by mythologist Jseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. "The Hero's Journey," he says, "is the most basic story form. All stories and myths are, on some level, a Hero's Journey. It is almost impossible to relay any kind of story without utilizing some pattern from the structure of a Hero's Journey. One could simply say, 'He went across the street.' And this would be the hero leaving his normal world to set out upon his quest.

"It can come forth," he continues, "from the psyche in many different patterns, still work within a greater pattern, and still be good structure, as long as it is reflective of an inner psychic truth. I can feel good story structure when I'm acting because there is a psychological truth revealed when something is properly structured."

Glover's view may be less than truly trailblazing, if only because the "hero's quest" story structure is a particularly Hollywood idea. In every story conference with studio development people, they're going to talk structure and it's going to be Syd Field's three-act puzzlebox, or the principles of Robert McKee, or Christopher Vogler's rereading of Joseph Campbell for the movies. And What Is It? is about as far from Hollywood as a film can get. It's closer to Warner Herzog's Even Dwarves Started Small , the films of the Kuchar Brothers, or the work of New York's underground genius Nick Zedd, than it is to sharing a box of chocolates with Forrest Gump. What Is It? is an act of poetic terror that operates on the same associative level one experiences while dreaming.

The issues raised by the film's confrontational imagery pose an interesting problem. Given our society's current polite vocabulary, how does one discuss this work in an insightful and nonreactionary fashion? How does one deal with the Minstrel, a white actor in blackface who aspires to be other than who he is and injects himself with snail enzymes? Or the nude, golden-locked Shirley Temple lookalike standing before a Nazi flag, [...] with the handle of a riding crop? Or the naked man with cerebral palsy lying in a giant sea shell and being [...] by a monkey-masked woman while Johnny Rebel croons "[..] Never Die, They Only Smell That Way"?

The dialog between artist and audience about problems such as these, and their potential resolution, is really what the function of myth is all about. This film may, in fact, conform to the hero's quest story structure, but it does so in a genuine way, one that inspires independent thought, as opposed to simple connect-the-dots storytelling designed to sell popcorn. All reasons why What Is It? won't be coming soon to a multiplex near you or anybody else. Instead, like early D.I.Y. "All-Colored Cast" filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who traveled the the country in the '20s and '30s booking moviehouses in which to screen his cinematic productions for African-Americans, Crispin Glover is taking his film on the road this winter, booking it into theaters across the country, where he'll personally tear your ticket stub at the door.