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What Is It? (2005)

 -  Drama  -  27 January 2005 (USA)
6.0
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What Is It? is a bewildering, unnerving, surreal, blackly comic film from the visionary mind of Crispin Glover that tells the inner and outer struggles of a young man facing villains and demons on multiple planes.

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(as Crispin Hellion Glover)

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
Michael Blevis ...
The young man (as Michael Bleviss)
Carlos Richardson ...
Lisa Fusco ...
Steven C. Stewart ...
...
John Insinna ...
The Young Man's Outer Sanctum Friend / Inner Sanctum's Choked Victim
Kelly Swiderski ...
Inner Sanctum Concubine / Outer Sanctum Snail Collector
Robin Adams ...
Inner Sanctum Concubine / Outer Sanctum Girl Who Recognizes Burning
Adam Parfrey ...
Rikky Wittman ...
The minstrel's nemesis (as Rickey Wittman)
Lynn Conley ...
The Minstrel's Concubine / Mocking Tormentor / Ultimate Outer Sanctum Victor
Cheryl Brown ...
Outer Sanctum Mocking Tormentor / Walkie-Talkie Grabbing Woman That Cries Later
Tom Carroll ...
Grave Digger / Mocking Tormentor
Eric Yates ...
Inner Sanctum Puppet Show Audience Member / Outer Sanctum Victim / Inner Sanctum Victim
Mary P. Hayes ...
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Storyline

What Is It? is a bewildering, unnerving, surreal, blackly comic film from the visionary mind of Crispin Glover that tells the inner and outer struggles of a young man facing villains and demons on multiple planes.

Add Full Plot | Add Synopsis

Taglines:

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.

Genres:

Drama

Certificate:

Unrated

Parents Guide:

 »
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Details

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Release Date:

27 January 2005 (USA)  »

Company Credits

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Did You Know?

Trivia

Crispin Glover's directorial debut. See more »

Quotes

Snail: NOOOOO! AAHHHHH!
See more »

Crazy Credits

This film has not advocated the assassination of Steven Spielberg in any way. See more »

Connections

Featured in Brows Held High: What Is It? (2012) See more »

Soundtracks

Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)
by Johnny Rebel
Keyboard music for end credits by Anton LaVey
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

See more (Spoiler Alert!) »

User Reviews

 
Sure it's weird; why would you want it to be anything else?
13 May 2005 | by (Ohio, USA) – See all my reviews

This first installment of Crispin Glover's personal magnum opus asks you to think a little, and so can't be recommended for any viewer who doesn't want to sit and puzzle over Glover's imagery or follow the surprisingly simple—but weirdly obfuscated—thread of his narrative. To the more casual viewer, yes, it's probably going to come off as a confusing mish-mash of odd, startling, and disturbing imagery for imagery's sake.

You get the sense that Glover doesn't mind that this is the case, and he'll almost as gladly listen to why someone hated the film as to why they enjoyed it. Glover's innate eagerness for and about his work and how audiences interpret it is strongly communicated not only through the film itself, but also through the unusual question and answer sessions that he frequently conducts following showings; he clearly hopes that people will continue to think about what he has presented.

The easiest way to interpret and dismiss the film is to label it as Dada or nihilist, a juvenile attack on the modern movie industry from an actor who's worked both without and within. But there's a reason why Glover performs his slideshow before showing his movie, and it's not only to sell books; his books juxtapose and create a narrative from images and text that Glover pieced together, and What Is It? does similarly with imagery drawn from Western culture.

What Is It? is an endearing and compelling film in ways one hardly expects while viewing. Much has already been made about Glover's use of actors with Down's syndrome, and indeed that is one of the most initially striking aspects of the film. So jarring, in fact, that many seem to interpret it as some sort of far-reaching crusade to see a more realistic and/or dignified portrayal of the disabled in movies and television—or, on the absolute other end of the spectrum, as a kind of direct exploitation of the disabled. But it's not either, and maybe that's part of what makes this film so uncomfortable for many: the underlying agenda is not a political one or one of hatred, but one of looking beyond the mainstream culture into a kind of outsider ugliness. It's not a film about Down's syndrome, but it is a film that is owned by the actors with Down's syndrome who appear in it.

I'm the sort of person who is entirely gung-ho when it comes to ugliness and strangeness being portrayed so starkly that it is beautiful; happily for me, this is pretty much exactly how What Is It? presents itself to viewers. Glover uses the strange images of snails, death, and the disabled in part because he wants his audience to feel discomfort at either the sheer oddness of the imagery or the visceral reaction one has to the dying screams of an anthropomorphized snail. In some ways, the weirdly compelling (and occasionally downright grotesque) elements of What Is It? remind me of the work of the painter Francis Bacon… he of the infamous popes, yes, and the odd distortions of the human figure that inevitably make viewers cringe and want to look away. Like Bacon's paintings, Glover's film manages to be opulent and humble, grainy and polished, chaotic and well-realized… and the contradictions help to make it all the more disconcerting. But still this is not an entirely serious film, and it largely manages to sidestep the greatest pitfalls of pretension through the use of humor that, for the most part, derives from the use (and juxtaposition) of familiar items, images, and names of popular culture. And when What Is It? is funny, it is very funny.

Overall, What Is It? is an impressive first film from Glover as a director and writer, and his presence as an actor in the film proves not to be nearly the distraction one might expect it to be. Watching it is like being an observer in the kind of dream that isn't exactly good or bad, but just strange… and that leaves you feeling slightly grimy when you wake up. If that's the kind of art you enjoy, What Is It? is likely to exceed your expectations and be well-worth the effort of catching it in the theatre, along with The Big Slide Show and Glover himself. All in all, it's an experience you're unlikely to forget any time soon.


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