Perhaps there was a time in my life when I needed to see a mustached cerebral palsy victim receive an aggressive hand job from a buxom negress while stuffed oh-so-gingerly into an oversized clam shell, but those days are long gone, as is the need to watch a retarded gentleman and retarded young miss simulate oral sex in a graveyard. But only after making out as if the mouths of each contained a golden key to a long-lost trunk filled with reams of velvet. Perhaps. But it just isn’t funny anymore, and at about the halfway point of Crispin “Hellion” Glover’s What Is It?, I made a bolt for the exits, a move that would have been unthinkable a decade before. Glover’s genuine madness (reaffirmed most dramatically in a pre-show “reading,” where words and images clashed in a war for the souls of the damned) did not titillate, nor did it strike me as particularly entertaining. Instead, the film — which, according to hastily scribbled notes, has been a work in progress for years on end — shocked and appalled, putting me in the unenviable position of humorless scold. For the first time in my adult life, I uttered aloud the phrase, “If this isn’t wrong, nothing is.” Here before me were the nude bodies of the broken and the belligerent; afflicted parasites of mental deformities and physical devastations that should not be exploited for profit. Or entertainment. Or even the masturbatory fantasies of George McFly.
Based on the film’s tagline — Being 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 — it stands to reason that an escargot metaphor is replete throughout, including the standard image of salt being poured on one of their bodies. Scenes were edited as if by dull scissors, and at the moment when I thought I understood why a provocatively dressed retarded girl was asking Glover to take her upstairs, the film jarringly placed me on some boulevard, where a retarded man was shoving another to the ground. Dialogue is exchanged to be sure, but without subtitles, they were the grunts and groans of misplaced minds; the wails of wounded animals gnawing away the flesh and bone of escape. Graves are dug, minstrels appear, puppet shows spring forth, and swastikas are used to condemn Shirley Temple to a life of torment. Or something. It could very well be a dream, and is most assuredly performance art of some kind, but why on earth use the retarded? Could they possibly consent to being fondled and groped? Could a grown man with the intellect of a toddler understand the implications of removing articles of clothing or dry humping on a headstone? And don’t “artists” use the inner psyche as a convenient cover for an overall lack of sense? Where’s the accountability?
In the end, it was impossible to endure. Repeatedly violated, I walked into the night air wondering whether or not the use of retards for perverted ends was the true pinnacle of a free society, or simply the last stop of civilization’s decline. Of course, the show must go on — and will, if the packed house was any indication — but is it enough to throw together debased images and call it a movie? And what might anyone have to say about it? I’m not sure when the fringes assumed that incoherence was the surest road to misunderstood genius, but Glover is leading the way; cackling and wheezing through an underground party of only the most exclusive clientele. Daniel Johnston might be there, or Miranda July, or some currently unknown lesbian activist preparing her excrement and menstrual blood-laden attack on patriarchy, but few will match Glover’s lack of guile. He hasn’t any wool to pull over your eyes, and what’s more, it’s not even a consideration. Never before have I felt so genuine a cuckoo; a sick, diseased mind that functions, yes, but can no longer distinguish between the world in his head and the world outside his window. He’s not playing the cult hero, or pushing the proverbial envelope for more attention. He’s serious, folks, and he has his merry band of the developmentally disabled to prove it.