Welcome to Illinois

What isn’t it?

Posted in Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on July 17, 2008

It is impossible to know what to make of Crispin Hellion Glover’s film What is it? without having watched it (the trailer certainly left me none the wiser) but I do think he may be on to something interesting given a couple of media reports I’ve read on the subject.

Glover is currently touring Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show, in which he talks for an hour about images from his series of illustrated story books. Following that is a screening of his directing debut What Is It?.

The New York Times reports that “Crispin Glover’s unsettling and often quite absurd directorial debut is inhabited by people with Down syndrome; a man with cerebral palsy; three naked women with monkey faces; a menacing Shirley Temple doll; Mr. Glover himself, as the apparent ruler of an underworld freak show; numerous snails; and a man in blackface who injects the snails’ slime in hopes of becoming one.”

Absurd indeed. What brought this to my attention was the involvement of actors with Down’s syndrome, but what makes this even more interesting is Glover’s assertion that “Most of the actors in the film have Down’s Syndrome, but the film is not about Down’s syndrome at all.” According to The Province he adds that “those actors don’t play characters with Down’s syndrome.”

Not long after we found out our baby has Down’s syndrome I looked up a list of notable individuals to give myself a frame of reference for potential levels of ‘achievement’. It was good to see artists and musicians on the list but it is mainly made up of actors who have become famous for portraying people with Down’s syndrome on TV and film.

Something about that depressed me – which is the fact that Down’s syndrome defined how and why they were famous. I don’t want to sound dismissive of the talent and achievement of these individuals but the fact remains that their achievement is defined by their condition.

It is for that reason that I am interested in Glover’s use of people with Down’s syndrome to play the parts of people without Down’s syndrome. It’s a fascinating concept to ask the audience to suspend their belief in what they are seeing and ignore the disability.

It strikes me that, theoretically at least, there is real value in challenging our perception of disability in this way. Whether Glover’s film was actually able to deliver on that is another matter. Without having seen it, it is impossible to say.


2 Responses

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  1. amy said, on March 23, 2010 at 1:40 am

    i have seen it. i don’t think you’d be crazy about it. but maybe that’s just me. didn’t realize you’d written about this (eloquently as always!) till i was doing some google research for a post i’m writing about glover, vis a vis alice in wonderland what is it….

  2. […] wish you could see “What Is It?” (I really wish Matt, the wise man from Welcome to Illinois, could see it.) If you have seen it, what did you […]

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