Last night kleenexwoman and I had a surprisingly involved conversation about Crispin in which I realized how my feelings about him and about art in general have changed throughout the years, probably in such a way that they've become less fun but more artistically mature. On some level all this may sound very pretentious, but of course it's arising out of my own education in academia and in various cultural and artistic studies. If you don't care or if that's not your bag, I'm sorry.
What I began thinking about was Feral House and similar ventures, the status of the "atrocity tourism" industry, and the subculture's basic hostility toward "the other" even as they remain fascinated by it. The original train of thought was based upon the question of why a subculture centered around strangeness would be so hostile to members of outsider groups. But of course, in objectifying strangeness, it then becomes imperative that the observing group is as normalized as possible in comparison--aside from the whole gawking at strange or morbid things business, of course.
Which is an interesting little tidbit, especially since atrocity tourism sites (e.g. Portal of Evil) and publishers seem to be drifting off toward irrelevance as the Internet itself grows wider. It is somewhat telling that Apocalypse Culture II (which is the book that also contains Crispin's short essay "What Is It?") has an article on slash fiction called "The Pornography of Romance." It was written by Adam Parfrey of Feral House (also the editor of the book) and it describes slash writers as "middle-aged women, the kind you're likely to see pushing a cart at a Target outside of Des Moines" (147). The book's copyright is from 2000, and the convention he attended was in 1998. So, in this case, you can see that his concept of the subculture was woefully out of date even when he wrote it, as by the year 2000 young women in their teens and twenties were already dominating the slash and yaoi subcultures. They just didn't go to this sort of con. Gotta keep up, Parfrey.
So atrocity tourism has become not just less cool, but less meaningful and less socially relevant. How does this connect to Crispin Glover? The fact is that Crispin necessarily socializes with and gets lumped into the atrocity tourism subculture, because he often deals with the same images and appeals to a similar pool of viewers/consumers. Moreover, I think that for some people the act of atrocity tourism is as much about confronting the strangeness within ourselves as it is about confronting the strangeness in the world around us. I would venture this is how Crispin operates, rather than being a passive consumer of horrors. Well, I hope, anyway.
I'm not denying the cultural influence of underground publishing like Feral House, but I find it interesting to see how their era seems to be ending. What is the future? I don't know. Interestingly, this line of thought originally came up because I noticed that Crispin Glover--weirdo, crazy, out there, strange guy--has never had an actual gay role. And yet his father, Bruce Glover, absolutely and unambiguously did, when he played a gay hitman in Diamonds Are Forever. It's especially funny because it made me think of something an article said about Crispin: "Besides, in the age of AIDS, when most young male actors are trying to establish impeccably macho, more heterosexual-than-thou credentials (viz Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, et cetera), Glover's sexually ambiguous characterizations take guts." (Here.) Sexually ambiguous, really? Okay, Layne is. Sort of. And he did dress up as Olivia Newton-John for The Orkley Kid. But both roles are less gay than than his dad as Mr. Wint holding hands with Mr. Kidd as they walk off into the sunset in 1971. To me, that dichotomy really underscores the resurgence of homophobia during the eighties, even during a time of greater visibility. And let's not forget that Crispin played a character whose role was downright homophobic: his character, Lionel, in Where the Heart Is (1990), fakes being gay to get respect as a fashion designer. In the end, he's just another "nice boy," too shy to tell the girl that he likes her until the film's end. It comes off as a cop-out, as the character gets the girl he likes and appeases his obviously homophobic father. All conflict can be solved by being straight!
Then there's Crispin himself, in an interview done by Adam Parfrey (curiouser and curiouser): "There are people of this nature who are not into morbidity. Doesn't that sound gay? It's hard to say. Unusual? Not the norm? People who can see the absurdity of that which is considered the norm."
But hey, that was in 1992. People change. One of the wonderful things about being human and being observant is that you are allowed to change your mind over time.
I moved away from following Crispin too closely a couple of years ago as I started to realize that it's far too easy, as an artist and as an observer, to remain in the shadow of others. Artistically speaking, I don't want this. Sometime I feel like a child who is playing at being serious about the future when I talk about this, but I do think and I do produce art and writing and I do have ideas about what I want my future to be. I stopped following Crispin closely because I stopped feeling challenged by what he was doing. I outgrew him. It happens. But, looking back, I realize there are aspects of him and of What Is It? that I do find problematic, and did find problematic at the time.
I feel like, aside from the problematic use of the disabled in What Is It? and It Is Fine! (something I recognize as being potentially problematic but, really, have no firm opinion on), what is most lacking in the movies he's made is a kind of communication of depth and breadth of thought. Keep in mind, I'm coming out of art history classes, now, that are looking at modern and post-modern artwork. I feel like his emulation of art films and conceptual art in What Is It? basically lacked the kind of rigorous and central idea that more mature artwork has dealt with. In a way, it's almost discomfiting because the film almost resembles outsider art; but while Crispin may be something of an outsider to the fine arts culture, his Hollywood status assures him that he can never actually have that outsider artist identity. Perhaps it's not fair, but coming out of Hollywood the way he does imbues what he's doing with a different meaning, because of what Hollywood is, and I think this is an issue he needs to address and deal with in some way.
I'm also bothered by his coyness when talking about meaning or intent. He seems most interested in watching people's reactions to the film, which would be fine except that, by way of its subject matter and inherent strangeness, the film then hearkens back to the phenomenon of atrocity tourism or even "shock" images. Yes, trying to stir a reaction in the audience can be legitimate, but is it only meant to see who gets shocked and who projects meaning onto it? I would be more comfortable with it if in a lot of ways it didn't seem like he just wanted to push boundaries for the sake of pushing them. And I do think he has a cohesive meaning in What Is It?, but that's not what he chooses to discuss.
I've also been bothered by him referencing Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and then admitting that he'd never actually read the work (this was at a Q+A). With something of this scale, you really need to do the research and be firm about your plan and your meaning. At the same time, I feel that what's he really interested in are the images he's taking--and there are some lovely shots in What Is It? But if that's the case, I want him to come out and say it, not obfuscate it with this "What do you think it's about?" nonsense. It's like he's trying to have it both ways, having a certain "depth" while at the same time remaining shallow enough for viewers to imprint upon, and it's the fence-straddling that comes off as amateurish.
As far as I know, Crispin never went to university or college (if I'm wrong, tell me). Being self-taught, then, and able to realize a project like this one is admirable, but at the same time I think he's hampered by not having gone through a formal art or film program of some kind. Or just a liberal arts education. Maybe this is my own academia bias or classism showing--although hell, you know he'd be able to afford it. Besides, Crispin has always been good for class-related pretension and snobbery. As in: "I feel that any music that has stanzas or refrains is procultural because it comes from a proletariat working class history that started at least from the serfs in the Middle Ages when they would sing in that fashion. It represents a middle class point of view and it makes people feel emotionally feel good about being a working class person. I feel that rock music is all procultural and people tend to get really mad about it." From this interview. Of course, Crispin's definition of "procultural" is often nebulous, and hampered by a lack of definition for the polar opposite: is it "counterculture"? "Anticulture"? What? Without strong, specific definitions, the term is meaningless.
I'm still loyal to Crispin, because he's been with me as I've grown up and he's been kind to me on the occasions when I've spoken with him in person. I have a lot of good memories centered around my enjoyment of his movies, books, etc. But life moves on, I guess. The people you had as heroes at age eighteen shouldn't be your heroes forever. I suppose that's the most meaningful thing Crispin taught me (though unwittingly)--aside from the fact that I'm not alone in my strangeness. And for that much, I do thank him and wish him well.