Crispin Glover Speaks... Reluctantly
Crispin Glover has a knack for ending up in movies that need Crispin Glover. The 38-year-old actor has been working continuously for over two decades now, in films that, for one reason or another, could be described as strange, even off-putting; his acting merits the same adjectives. He is not, to put it mildly, a matinee idol type. He's slender, even gawky, with a high, soft voice, a broad brow and a Roman nose that might have been carved from sheet rock. He can be energetic or withdrawn, depending on the requirements of the role, yet there's always an awkwardness about him, a gangly, hesitant, conflicted quality that suggests perpetual adolescence?an outsider's sensitivity to hurt, coupled with a painful awareness of his own uniqueness. He can be sweet or frightening, sometimes simultaneously; he seems hell-bent on ensuring that audiences won't know quite what to make of him.
How appropriate that he's cast as the title character in Bartleby, the new film version of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"; the character, a quiet, mysterious, seemingly bland scribe, deeply unsettles his staid, company-man boss by replying to every request with a single phrase: "I prefer not to."
Right now he's in Vancouver shooting another project that needed Glover's participation: a remake of the 1971 cult classic Willard, written and directed by X-Files writer/producer Glen Morgan, about an alienated, lonesome young man who feels more comfortable around rats than people.
"I always have a reason for doing something," says Glover, speaking via cellphone from the set of Willard last week. "I need to work and I'm glad to work. I do not look down upon any kind of work when I'm doing it? You never know what it is that's going to make one do something. I always have stressed that it's a business as well. One needs to work and make money. But I also try to find stuff that I can enjoy to play for one reason for another."
Every actor claims to pursue that strategy, but Glover actually puts it into practice. He's not what you'd call a box office name; notwithstanding his high-flying acrobatics in the fluff smash Charlie's Angels, his name is more likely to be associated with work that's edgy, provocative, willfully grotesque. (Ditto his creative life outside acting: in the past decade, he's written and directed two as-yet-unreleased indie movies, one cast entirely with people who have Down's Syndrome, and another written by and starring a 62-year-old man with cerebral palsy. More on this in a moment.)
When Glover does appear in candy-colored Hollywood fare, he tends to seize his own scenes and transform them into something markedly less conventional. Whether you're watching Charlie's Angels, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? or Nurse Betty, when Glover's onscreen, you're watching a Crispin Glover movie. He's the Anthony Perkins of his day?and remember, Hollywood never knew quite what to do with Perkins, either. (Glover's entry in Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion still lists him as "American juvenile actor.") Whether the films themselves are great, serviceable or just plain bad, you can count on Glover to throw you off-balance and take his scenes in directions the film itself clearly didn't anticipate.
He was George McFly in the first Back to the Future, telling his future wife, "I am your density," and somehow managing, along with equally eccentric costar Christopher Lloyd, to inject true oddness and spontaneity into director Robert Zemeckis' cartoon-clockwork machinery. He was the brooding, elfin ringleader of a gang of soul-dead teens in the 1987 youth drama The River's Edge, punctuating apocalyptic pronouncements with both arms up, palms facing out, index and pinky fingers upraised. In David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990), he had just one scene, but it was one you remembered?a flashback sketch of a demented loner who put cockroaches in his underwear. He had just one scene in Oliver Stone's The Doors (1991), but it, too, was a keeper: he played Andy Warhol in a hellishly grotesque party sequence. Watch that scene again for proof of Glover's genius. Nearly unrecognizable but for his strained, flutish voice, Glover dove past the stereotypical image of Warhol as a self-promoting, passive-aggressive manipulator and consummate New York weirdo, and instead played him as the ultimate groupie?a super-sensitive geek still wowed by fame and still curious about human nature; the only normal person in the room.
In Bartleby, a debut feature from writer-director Jonathan Parker that opens May 24, Glover ends up serving (inexplicably) as a grounding force. The film itself is worthy but flawed by a certain self-aware obviousness?the bright pastel production design cries out "Art house"; ditto the cast, which includes such veteran eccentrics as Glenne Headly, David Paymer, Maury Chaykin and Joe Piscopo. But it's eerie anyway, because Parker and Glover retain the core of Melville's concept: the vague, hesitant, closed-off Bartleby at first seems the ultimate company man?a consummate office drone?but his one-sentence reply to every request throws a kink into the whole operation, exposing the groupthink mentality of American business, and America generally. The line "I prefer not to" is never followed by an explanation, and so could mean almost anything. The way Glover says it, it sounds at once apologetic and profoundly threatening; it's a statement that never pretends to do more than describe one man's feelings, but to Bartleby's bosses and office-mates, it's an affront to their very existence, and a daily reminder of their white-collar slave status.
Glover says he instantly responded to Melville's short story, and connected the character of Bartleby to events in Melville's life as a writer. He suggests that perhaps Melville was not mainly satirizing American commerce, but slyly exploring an artist's predicament in a story that has no artist characters. As Glover describes Melville's life circa Bartleby, one can't help sensing a kinship between a writer and an actor separated by more than a century.
"When Melville wrote 'Bartleby the Scrivener,' it was not really well accepted. At that time, he was starting to go in a different direction than the more financially successful novels he was writing before?the ship-faring novels. Even though this is an admittedly more poetic interpretation of the phrase, I believe that somehow the resonance of 'I prefer not to' has something to do with something that was going on in Melville's subconscious as a writer. Melville was refraining from wanting to do these more successful ventures; he needed to express some slightly different things, write different kinds of stories. That kind of artistic temperament resonates throughout the story. 'Bartleby' might have been pretentious if it had been written about that sort of character"?meaning, a Melville-type writer?"so instead, the character was written as more of a cipher."
He goes on: "When you're doing successful things, things that are artistically successful and things that are making money, perhaps both, and one starts to not want to do these things that are making money, supposedly this is considered an artistically correct thing, a correct impulse. Supposedly it's lauded. But it really isn't. People do look at one, or treat one, as if one is crazy or insane. That's manifested in 'Bartleby.' Bartleby comes off as somewhat insane from other people's points of view. And yet I think there's a sane rationale going on behind this, 'I prefer not to.'"
Spelunking for celebrity profile material, I ask Glover if perhaps Bartleby, like Glover the veteran eccentric, has hit on a way of saying "No" without actually saying "No."
Glover answers the question without actually answering the question.
"Melville's publishers were saying, 'Herman, Mr. Melville, we need you to publish this kind of thing, it's what's making money.' And he said, in effect, 'I'll publish this [instead], although it's not really of a type that's making money.' Melville is not really refusing, he's publishing new stuff, but people are still saying, 'What is he doing?'"
For the past few years?he won't say exactly how long?Glover's been working on his two self-financed solo directing projects that make David Lynch sound like Frank Capra. The first, What is it?, is a psychological drama written, directed and edited by Glover, shot on location in Los Angeles and on sets in Salt Lake City, and cast mostly with performers who have Down's Syndrome.
His description of the plot won't please the people who write schedule blurbs at TV Guide: "The adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home as tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche." Asked if it's a film about people with Down's Syndrome, or a film that just happens to be cast with mentally retarded actors, Glover tersely replies, "The latter."
A couple of years ago, Glover shot a sequel to What is it?, titled It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE! Glover describes it as "a psychosexual fantastical autobiographical story," written by and starring Steven C. Stewart, a 62-year-old Salt Lake City resident afflicted with cerebral palsy. The film was shot entirely on sets in Salt Lake City over a year ago; Stewart died last spring less than a month after the film finished shooting. Glover codirected the picture with another Salt Lake City resident, David Brothers, who also served as the movie's production designer.
"One of reasons I shot It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE! before completing the first film is because Steven is in both films, he was getting older, and he had some health issues." Stewart had lung problems due to choking on his own saliva; instead of prolonging his life with operations, he chose to quit accepting food and medical treatment. I ask if Glover's two directorial efforts are realistic in tone, or more fantastic.
"Realism is always subjective in film," Glover says. "There's no such thing as cinema verite. The only true cinema verite would be what Andy Warhol did with his film about the Empire State Building?eight hours or so from one angle, and even then it's not really cinema verite, because you aren't actually there. As soon as anybody puts anything on film, it automatically has a point of view, and it's somebody else's point of view, and it's impossible for it to be yours.
"That said, both the films are quite different from each other in style and feel. What's fascinating about Steve Stewart's movie is that is has such a naive representation of the world?it's his version of what's going on. Ultimately, I think what's most important about any movie is whether it's real or not, and by that I mean whether it's getting into a psychological truth. I suppose one could say that both films are subjective and interior?but every film is, in a certain way. They're both about thinking."
Glover is a fascinating and infuriating interview subject. He does not respond to the standard journalistic cues. He's perceived as an intuitive, impulsive, transparent actor?someone who must be easily accessible, based on his acting choices and his occasional notorious public moments. (Over a decade ago, Glover's spastic, high-kicking guest spot on Late Show With David Letterman prompted the host to publicly declare he was getting too old for this shit. Glover playfully refuses to discuss the incident. "It's important to leave it a mystery," he says.)
Yet he doesn't seem crazy at all?or terribly open, for that matter. He's considerate and intelligent, yet very guarded, very meticulous; his demeanor suggests a man who's trying to be as polite as possible while giving a legal deposition that could destroy him. He pores over an interviewer's questions and his own answers word-by-word, doubling back, cross-examining, making sure every word means what he thinks it means, and that neither the questions nor his answers are being misconstrued.
I asked Glover about an infamous article he wrote a couple years ago for Adam Parfrey's underground book Apocalypse Culture II?a rant consisting entirely of questions, in which Steven Spielberg was singled out as one of the most destructively conformist and perverse forces in American life. The piece suggested (in cryptic question form) that perhaps Michael Jackson, an accused child molester, became friends with Spielberg because Spielberg's movies gave him precisely the magical, idealized images of childhood innocence that Jackson's imagination required. The piece also asks if Spielberg's movies simply reinforce groupthink, reproduce ideology and reassure viewers to relax because things always work out. "Did Joseph Goebbels popularize certain ideals to the mass culture?" the piece asks. "Does Steven Spielberg attempt to do the same thing? Is celebrity more special than actual truth in art?"
The most inflammatory passage refers to the arrest and imprisonment of a man accused of trying to stalk and sexually attack the famous director. "Do Steven Spielberg's passions burn? Do passions burn in the man still imprisoned who wished to anally rape Steven Spielberg? Do our cultural mouthpieces confidently inform us that the wish to anally rape Steven Spielberg is a bad thought? Could the anal rape of Steven Spielberg be simply the manifestation of a cultural mandate?"
Glover refuses to discuss the piece, other than to say that it's "self-explanatory," and that it was written mainly to give readers an insight into the types of films he's been directing. "What the article claims is only that it's the subtext of the film What is it? The article is a reactionary article, and there's a reactionary flavor to the film."
I tell him that perhaps the article should have been titled, "I'd prefer not to work anymore." There is a pause. Glover laughs heartily.
Then comes another pause.
"I'd rather not discuss the article," he says.
This response is par for the course. Glover dodges questions that seek to connect his creative choices with his personality. He refuses to talk in detail about any project, as actor or filmmaker, that isn't a completed "product." (Yes, he does use the word "product.") He prefers not to name his favorite contemporary filmmakers, insisting that due to his workload, he does not see a wide enough variety of films to make an informed choice. ("My tastes run mostly towards older movies, including silent films.") He volunteers nothing about his personal life, his childhood, his habits or his political views. At one point, he specifically asks that I not name or even describe the hotel where he's staying in Vancouver.
"What, you're afraid of bobby soxers gathering under your window?" I ask.
"Well, no," he says. "But believe it or not, I do have people seeking me out. A magazine did a story on me a number of years ago that described my house in some detail, and based on that story, I had people coming by for years afterward to meet me and discuss one thing or another."
Glover is rumored to have written a script set entirely at a Star Wars convention, but while Glover says that description is "not accurate," he won't say whether he's written a script with a similar concept. "I think it's best to leave that as it is. I've probably written eight or nine screenplays, but all the things?I'm talking about currently?are things I've actually been shooting. That's not to say I wouldn't be interested in shooting some of these other screenplays I've written to date. I just mean they're not things I'm publicly speaking about right now, because they're not product."
The four filmmakers to whom he continually returns are Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Buñuel and Stanley Kubrick. Groping for connections, I tell him that although he's named four stylistically different artists, they do share one quality: They're not interested in telling viewers that everything is okay. Glover asks what I mean by that. I reply that none of those four directors seems like a happy-go-lucky optimist.
Glover disagrees. "I've read stuff by Luis Buñuel. I've met Werner Herzog. I've read stuff about Fassbinder. Kubrick is harder to know about. But I don't think of them as pessimists. I think, for instance, when looking at Buñuel's life, he had a certain vigor. He was incredibly productive. Anybody that's taking time to write things and produce things and direct things?I think it takes a certain will to do something, and that in itself is an optimistic act."
Does Glover consider himself an optimist?
"I don't consider myself a pessimist at all," he says.
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