He may wear a suit and speak politely to each fan at length, but make no mistake, the well-mannered actor/director, Crispin Hellion Glover (most widely known for his role as George McFly in 1985‘s highest grossing film, Back to the Future) does not leave much room for social graces in his artistic approach to film.
For the past six years, the pioneer director has been touring with his feature films, What is it? and It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE., two viciously honest reactions to what American culture has long tried to avoid. The self-financed, unapologetic masterpieces tap into a wide range of taboo topics long shunned by corporate culture via slug slaughter, blackface, sex lives of the disabled, swastikas and songs of Satan with a cavalier disregard for repercussion. However disturbing and strangely hilarious the scenes may be, Glover’s work is not meant to shock or enrage audiences but instead prompt discussion regarding corporate restrictions foisted onto contemporary filmmakers.
Glover has forever balanced his appetite for the strange and unusual alongside working in the mainstream film industry, successfully profiting off of both. Dressed in full drag playing an unforgettable Olivia Newton John impersonator in Trent Harris’ short film The Orkly Kid, Glover was simultaneously playing father to a spry little actor with softly feathered hair and a puffy, burnt orange vest in the biggest film of the year, if not decade. During his presentations in New York City, I voyeuristically watched as a man, nestled inside the hollows of a giant clam, was “pleasured” by a buxom woman holding a watermelon and wondered how much of this he conjured up while on set rehearsing with the (Charlie’s) Angels. Between scenes of rape, murder and Shirley Temple, my thoughts reflected over the fascinating diversity of his extensive career.
I’ve always adored Glover for his distinctive personal projection onto characters such as Rubin “my cat can eat a whole watermelon” Farr in Trent Harris’ Rubin and Ed, the cousin with cockroach crotch in Wild at Heart, my favorite Andy Warhol portrayal in Oliver Stone’s The Doors and, as I was recently reminded, an epic dancer in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Also, weirdo enthusiasts (like myself) have long garnered Glover with iconic cult status for his roles in River’s Edge, Willard, Dead Man, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
After a fifteen year distance from Back to the Future, a favorite of at least two former (Republican) presidents, the new millennium saw Glover’s surprising return to mainstream Hollywood with significant roles in Charlie’s Angels, Beowulf and Alice in Wonderland. Hardly a sellout, the business minded hero of counterculture began taking on big budget roles with the impetus of funding his personal creative endeavors and distributing his feature films. With two in the can, it appears his parallel enterprises have achieved remarkable synergy.
The Hollywood hustle has allowed for some of the most thought provoking, unrestrained cinematic material from the offbeat character actor turned serious entrepreneur. The eccentric director prefaces each feature a la vaudeville style with a quirky live presentation, Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slideshow (a one hour dramatic narration displaying several of his reinterpreted books, available for purchase). Following the slideshow and film, a courteous – but cunning – Glover gives audience members an opportunity to respond to his work during a lengthy Q&A. Viewers have a chance to ask the notable figure anything their heart desires, or, if they wait in line long enough, they can meet one-on-one to have books signed and pose with the enigmatic star.
Photographer Rosalie Knox and I stood for hours to be last in line in hopes of scheduling a full interview and photo shoot. When we finally had the chance to meet Glover, we found an adorably humble, charming and well-mannered man behind the hours of disturbing imagery we had just enjoyed (a sharp contrast to the plethora of spoiled, egotistical, unapproachable artists in the industry). He was warm to our ideas and kindly created space for us in his jam-packed schedule.
While waiting to be interviewed after-hours in the beautiful, spacious Greene Naftali Gallery, one of the oldest and most well-regarded galleries in Chelsea, the debonair auteur curiously wheeled himself around in a soft leather chair, one leg over the next, creeping into the darkened spaces with the gait of a daddy long legs. The cult cinema legend was incredibly patient and allotted us an entire evening, his only free time before leaving New York, to model a few looks worthy of a “perfect gentleman” and speak in straight-forward fashion about the fire that fueled his first two feature length films and the uncompromising conviction it has taken to promote and distribute them.
Jacquelyn Gallo: You look super sharp in that suit, like a real gentleman! I remember watching this old Johnny Cash prison movie (Johnny Cash in San Quentin, 1969) and all of the inmates in the documentary were so well groomed and extremely well spoken. Even though you make films with very violent and erotic scenes, you come off as very old fashioned and gentlemanly, always in a suit and very polite sort of in that 50s/60s style. Do you feel a sense of nostalgia for the past?
Crispin Glover: I was born in 1964 at Lenox Hill Hospital. My first memories of life were of the city. There was one memory I have of a Christmas party. I remember how the people looked. I remember what the women were wearing and what the men were wearing, their fashion, the Christmas tree, and I was sitting in a bedroom looking at The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a nice party…the men were wearing dark suits and had short hair with Bryl Cream. It had a very conservative look, kind of like what the 1950s looked like. I remember when I moved to Los Angeles in 1967, or 1968 I guess, it looked, as I recall, what hippies looked like. I didn’t like it, I have to say. I missed New York and I’ve always felt that to a certain extent. I’ve always planned to own property here, but I own property in Los Angeles and the Czech Republic. I’ve made proper business investments in those properties and as much as I love this city, I think there’s a non-cost effective element. If you rent an apartment, even if you buy an apartment, you’re still paying money to a corporation. You kind of have to have enough money to buy a whole building to make it really cost effective.
Jacquelyn: Where did you pick up your well-mannered behavior? From your parents or your idols?
Crispin: I aspire to be well-mannered and yet I have to admit there have been times where I have gotten angry or lost my temper and I regret those times. That, I think, is just bad business. I read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie… Much of it has to do with hearing somebody else’s thought process and not proving people wrong. That was maybe the main thing that I learned…You know, it’s still somewhat in my nature but I avoid it all costs.
Jacquelyn: I like that you can make really good work and stand firmly behind your convictions without having to be standoffish to your fans. You allot so much time to answer their questions and meet them after the show. You even signed like a hundred pictures for that one guy!
Crispin: Oh, well that was an unusual situation. I was supposed to do a show in Brooklyn but there was a conflict of interest so I had to cancel. This guy said that a whole group of guys who had been first responders on 911 were planning on going to the show in Brooklyn. So he had all of these pictures and like two days from now is like the tenth anniversary. I couldn’t really say, “I can’t sign all these things,” so you know that was an extenuating circumstance. You can kind of understand, if somebody comes up and says that, it’s like, okay, I better do this.
Jacquelyn: It does seem like you have a sort of graciousness about you. Where did you learn it?
Crispin: Well, to be fair, I’m actually being a very good business man. I know it sounds bad, but there’s two sides to that. To be rude is terrible business and I’m very passionate about getting these films out. I mean, I was always nice to people when I did signings. It started from 1993 before I started touring [as an actor] with the films, so I’m being a little bit clinical about it. I believe in being polite, in general, but analytically its very bad business to not be polite. Every person that I talk to has had a genuine interaction with me, and maybe not every single one of them will come back for the next show, but it’s far more likely that they will if I’ve had a genuine interaction with them.
Jacquelyn: Ah, I see. Well, you really did make a good impression on everyone. It’s rare to see an artist who also acts like a gentleman. My friends and I decided you are the type of guy we should be dating. So I’m hoping in reality you really are this person that I’ve created in my head [Glover laughs] that does have these genuine convictions and that you really care about what you do and it’s not at all contrived.
Crispin: Well, I do very much care about my films and going about doing the tours and doing the shows, mainly to get the films out. I have a very strong conviction to the point where it certainly has affected my life. When you talk about it in terms of what that means in relationships with women, it’s not a good lifestyle for that. I’ve been touring for six years. Last year I took a break for three months and stayed in Los Angeles because I think in the previous five years, definitely in the previous two or three years, I hadn’t been in LA, or any city, for more than two or three weeks at a time. And it’s not just the touring, it’s because I own property in the Czech Republic and I act in other people’s films… I started shooting What Is It? in 1996… I never for a second thought I wasn’t going to finish the film. I always knew I was. I felt that I was going to tour the film with my slide show. I didn’t know the specifics of how it would manifest, but I knew I was going to do this. I was willing to do exactly what I’m doing, meaning take the amount of time that I take. If I had a family, if I had a wife and child, I would not be a good father or husband because I just wouldn’t be around enough. It would be bad.
Jacquelyn: Even the fact that you know – and admit – that is important and really admirable.
Crispin: Right, right, and it’s part of the reason I’m not married, and part of the reason I don’t have children, if not the main reason. You know, it’s something to think about but it’s not my main drive. My main drive is to be doing these films that mean something to me and are important to me and I feel like the only way to do that is to be self financing them, self distributing them.
Jacquelyn: Let’s talk about honesty – how important is that for you?
Crispin: It is important, very much to me, for various reasons. I don’t like lies… and it’s interesting you should ask because it’s actually such a central element in my own psychology. Also it has to do with why I do what I do. I do think corporately funded and distributed film essentially is [lies]. Maybe rather than lies you can call it propaganda. There is a different kind of propaganda that exists in the United States. I would heavily argue that the United States is far, far more advanced and accomplished in it’s propagandistic structures than Communist Russia ever was because in Communist Russia the populace knew they were dealing with propaganda and in the United States… barely anybody realizes how heavily propagandized our culture is.
Really, the best thing I’ve been telling people now is to read the book by Edward Bernays titled Propaganda. Edward Bernays is the nephew of Sigmund Freud and he is the literal father of the public relations industry. He came up with the word combination “public relations” to replace the word “propaganda” which had started to have bad connotations after WWI. He wrote the book in 1928, and what’s fascinating about it is it’s not an expose but an instruction manual on how to make propaganda work for various elements in the US government, US academia, meaning education system, and US media. He goes into the specificity of how education needs to be controlled and how media needs to be controlled. It’s such a clear layout of how things work in the United States, once you read that book you cannot see anything else but what it is… As much as 1984 is a nightmarish novel, Propaganda - I don’t know if you call it a nightmare – but it’s a living blueprint of what our culture does. It’s kind of amazing that it’s open to the public and that it’s not as popularly understood. I feel like it should be tenth grade reading, mandatory for every student. Of course, it wouldn’t happen, it wouldn’t happen exactly because of what is outlined in the book. The education system is controlled so people aren’t asking questions and they are being made to not think about things purposefully so control elements are not being questioned. That’s obviously horrible and I do have strong convictions about this.
Jacquelyn: Last night [at IFC] you were talking about dissatisfaction with the overall morality in Back to the Future because at the end of the story, Michael J Fox’s prize or payoff was money and…
Crispin: [interrupts and laughs] Well, it’s a weird crossover right here, because when I go and I do my shows I speak differently than when I do in published media, and maybe I shouldn’t. I’ve been very, very careful about how I talk about Back to the Future since 1984, I almost never talk about the film. Frankly, it’s very difficult for me to talk about it in a fashion that I think is beneficial to myself in the current mood of the culture. I feel that if I say anything, I have to be very careful about it. [hesitates] I’d like to talk about it more openly then I feel like I can. You see, it’s a weird thing, because I should be able to. I should be able to and it does reflect a bit on what we’re talking about because there’s no question that the experience I have with being in that film definitely has a strong impact on what I think about propaganda within this culture. I don’t know that this interview is the best moment for me to go into great detail about it. But [Dossier’s] probably not the kind of publication that is going to have readers that will get angry or upset.
But, that’s the thing that I have to be careful about, [Back to the Future] does have some resonance within this culture, and I’m a part of it, so I have to be careful with my words, because it can have negative impact if I’m not careful. And, to be fair, there are positive aspects about the story structure. Those writers understood story structure well. I have a great fascination for The Hero’s Journey story structure [a basic pattern found globally in narratives]. It is truly powerful and when you’re talking about religion and about government, it is no question one of the most powerful, persuasive forms of communication. If used properly, it’s one of the most beautiful things there can be, and if used improperly, it’s one of the most horrific things there can be.
I’ve had arguments about that kind of thing and I do have strong convictions about that and, like I say, this is probably not the proper place to go into too much detail. But, I feel that Back to the Future definitely had an impact on my thought process about how things should properly or not properly be used in The Hero’s Journey story structure. Now, something that’s very interesting is, I worked with Robert Zemeckis [director and cowriter of Back to the Future] many years later on a film [Beowulf] written by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, who are really both very excellent writers who also understand The Hero’s Journey story structure in a very good way. When you were talking about lies and truth it was a very interesting thing to me because the moral of that film did have to do with truth telling and lying. I strangely have a strong affinity for that film, I think it’s a very well written film. The moral actually has to do with truth and lies. Basically, it’s not a good idea to lie which I think is a very good moral.
Jacquelyn: What are your feelings on gentlemanliness and art, can you be both a true gentleman and a true artist?
Crispin: One can be a gentleman in their private life, but sometimes, and perhaps often, there is nothing gentlemanly about good art. In fact, it could be said that good art may seldom be gentlemanly.
Jacquelyn: Spoken like a true gentleman!
More information on Crispin Hellion Glover’s films, books and live performance dates can be found on his website.
Special thanks to Greene Naftali Gallery