Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Oh snap!

For my second installment of snaps, I would like to revisit a time, two years ago, when I attended a talk and screening with Crispin Glover, author and actor best known for his role as George McFly in Back to the Future.

Glover held a screening of a film he had wrote, directed, starred in entitled, "What Is It?" at the Castro Theatre here in San Francisco. It is described, via IMDB, as "The adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche." This film features: nude female porn stars wearing animal heads, music by Charles Manson, a talking snail, and--most controversially--a lead character played by an actor with Down Syndrome. As of yet, the only way to see this film is to attend a talk with Crispin Glover himself, which allows for a slide show and Q and A session. I hope it stays that way. At least his acting career will be salvaged if it's never released.

While I actually sat through the entire film, I couldn't get through the Q and A because I was so angry and disappointed at Crispin Glover. When someone asked him what he would say to charges that the use of Down Sydrome actors was exploitative, he said that he talked to an audience of people who had Down Syndrome and they were happy to see others like them on the screen. He even told the audience that he is friends with the lead actor, and knows a lot of people in that community. That is when I walked out. I was indulging in an enormous amount of open mindedness up until that point. This is what I would have wanted to say to him:

I'm sorry, but will all due respect you as an artist, your justification for using people with Down Syndrome is complete bullshit. My question is, Mr.Glover, are you conscientiously trying to give the cliche excuse of "I'm not a racist, some of my best friends are black"? Down Syndrome people are not black people, Mr. Glover, they are mentally vulnerable and it is more than possible that they have no concept of being exploited when they are. In my opinion, you've done a really stupid thing here. I know the point is that you're trying to be thought-provoking, an agitator of incendiary symbology in a surrealist context to place you in line with the elite of the American avant-garde. But you're no Harmony Korine, or David Lynch for that matter. You should go back to making Charlie's Angels movies, amatuer.


gjg said...

For me, "What Is It" didn't feel exploitative. I wouldn't say that it was making fun of people with Down's Syndrome - there wasn't anything in it that seemed meant to ridicule the actors or make us laugh at their condition.

Here's another statement Crispin Glover made about the film - I don't imagine you'll find it any more convincing, but it does approach it from a slightly different angle, anyway:

"I will often be asked why I chose to work with people with Down's Syndrome. I would say there are quite a few reasons but the one of the most important is that when I look in to the face of someone that has Down's Syndrome I see the history of someone who has genuinely lived outside of the culture. When peopling an entire film with actors that innately have that quality it affects the world of the film. As far as interpersonal experiences the most interesting element that people who do not work with or know people that have Down's Syndrome may not realize how perceptive they are about certain things. People with Down's Syndrome often do not develop a certain social mask that most people develop. This can be both interesting as actors on film and in real life it can often take one in to a certain emotional sensibility that can be ultra perceptive. It really is an interesting thing to be around."

amityb said...

Thanks for the additional quote, Gabe. I can respect how Glover personally views people with DS. However, these views were hardly present in the film. When all of the other characters are completely freakish and, conceptually, there are so many surreal, dream-like sequences, it seems that his casting choice was one based on novelty and provocative aesthetics. Which, to me, seems exploitative.

But I do wish he'd given this explanation at the talk. He honestly gave the explanation that he is friends with people with Down Syndrome who liked the film--and that's no justification.

gjg said...

Hey have you seen this show?