The Writ and Wisdom of Crispin Glover

Hollywood's ubereccentric rewrites the book on weird

Crispin Glover is not a kook. Never mind the time he almost beheaded David Letterman with a platform-heeled karate kick. And forget the rumors that he hangs upside down from high-rise apartment balconies to relax. We won't discuss Glover's collection of doll eyes neatly arranged according to size, or his Chinese wine bottle that entombs three mouse embryos submerged at the bottom. We won't even get into the wax replicas of diseased eyes he also keeps at home.

Crispin Glover's no geek. He's just a regular guy with an irregular public persona. At least that's how Glover sees it.

"Sometimes people will say, 'Oh, I thought you'd be a lot weirder,'" Glover says by way of a late-night phone call from Toronto. He speaks slowly and clearly, enunciating every word like a calm and unfailingly polite version of his film characters. "It may be that I'm just different than the kind of person some people expect." Glover pauses and laughs a nervous laugh, then pauses, then laughs again. "To a certain extent, I've generated the perception that I'm weird."

No kidding. Glover, 32, has fashioned a considerable career as a human double-take. A list of his movie roles alone reads like the yearbook from Rubber Room High. He made his film debut in the sexploitation flick My Tutor, which led to an appearance in Friday the 13th--The Final Chapter, in which Glover had his hand pierced with a corkscrew. His big break was as the drug-addled gang leader in River's Edge, followed by a crazy-cousin performance in David Lynch's Wild at Heart, an unnerving portrayal of Andy Warhol in Oliver Stone's The Doors, the role of an anxious mortician in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and a chatty railway worker in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. Glover's most famous role was that of Michael J. Fox's nerdish dad in Back to the Future, and his most recent piece of work was in Stone's The People vs. Larry Flynt, playing Flynt's one-eyed assistant, Arlo. The role didn't actually call for Arlo to be vision-impaired. That was Glover's idea. He played the part with one eye taped shut because he felt it fit the character.

Glover's oddities aren't limited to his movie roles. In 1988, he released an oddball CD called THE BIG PROBLEM A the solution. The Solution = LET IT BE, which featured L.A. absurdist rockers Barnes & Barnes as backing musicians and included disquieting covers of "These Boots Are Made for Walking" and the Charles Manson tune "Never Say 'Never' to Always."

Glover's also an author of sorts, having "rewritten" a collection of obscure 19th-century books, and it's his literary work that brings the eclectic eccentric to Valley Art Theatre this week. Glover will ostensibly be doing a book-reading and -signing, but this is no ordinary author stop. The books Glover will present are eight antique tomes he's adapted and taken as his own work. He's altered the books by either adding or erasing words from the text, or by simply embellishing pages with his own drawings or scribbles. The books, with titles like Rat Catching, Oak Mot, Concrete Inspection and What It Is and How It Is Done, weren't copyrighted when Glover found them tucked away in old bookstores, so he published the "reworked" books himself. Which meant Rat Catching went from its original state as an outdated manual on rodent trapping to a twisted tale of, among other things, diseased baby chicks.

"I take these books and rework them into different books," he says. "The story definitely comes through, and the illustrations become their own stories."

Indeed, in "reading" from the books, Glover literally puts on a slide show as he beams the more heavily illustrated pages on a huge screen. He then "narrates" the stories he sees in his drawings and sketches, his face half-lighted by a stark red spotlight.

Prior to this unusual presentation, Glover plans a special, suitably peculiar bonus. He says he's going to show a "test screening" of What Is It?, a film that marks Glover's debut as a director. What Is It? breaks ground in another way, too. It may be the first feature-length film to star a cast made up almost entirely of actors with Down syndrome.

"They have a different thought process," Glover says of Down syndrome thespians. "Their acting is more honest." But is Glover being honest in using these mentally challenged actors? It can be argued that he's exploiting the offbeat cast.

"There's no question I cast them because they had Down syndrome," he says, an edge of defensiveness in his voice. "People may think 'exploitation' when they first hear about it, but I've shown it to audiences and I've heard just the opposite. How could one make a movie exploiting Down syndrome actors? I'm having trouble even defining the word 'exploit' in this case."

Glover adds that Down syndrome is never mentioned in the film, and the actors and characters are treated with respect. He says he's made an ordinary movie that just happens to feature these particular performers. Of course, Glover's sense of the unusual is highly relative. He sees nothing out of the ordinary, for example, in the film's script, which he describes as "the adventure of a young man whose primary interest is in snails, salt and a pipe." Further investigation reveals a story line involving the lead character angrily stepping on a talking snail and then trying to find another snail to lead him back home through a "hubristic, racist monarchy."

Or something like that.
"I wanted to make the film generally intriguing and thoughtful," Glover says. As for reaction to the film: "It's been extremely varied. I talk to people afterward and I'm never worried if they're angry or laughing. I'm more concerned that they're not bored. Once the film starts, people seem to get involved, which is good."

The film was co-produced by two Phoenix screenwriters, Brian Page and Michael Pallaggi. The pair had originally approached Glover with a script, but before long he put them to work producing What Is It?, the first of a trilogy, of which the Phoenicians' film will be number two. David Lynch came in to executive produce.

"A lot of first-time filmmakers approach me to act in their work," Glover says. "But at the time, I wanted to concentrate on directing. There were things I liked about their screenplay, so I told them I was interested, but only if I could direct. [Page and Pallaggi] were very supportive. They were great to work with and they helped get the project completed, which is what good producers do."

Glover says he's eager to become a full-time director. He says he's increasingly displeased with the acting offers Hollywood sends his way. Glover's career ambitions may be evolving, but his oddball persona appears to be intact. A close friend of Glover's once described him as having a "benevolent respect for the bizarre." As such, the weirdo image persists. For the record, Glover says yes, he does indeed have wax replicas of eye diseases ("I have them in this museum-quality-type case from the 1800s that I got from England. It's really quite beautiful"); and he says no, he doesn't hang from balconies ("That must be one of those Internet myths," he says with a laugh). He never gets around to discussing the collection of doll eyes and the mouse embryos, and he politely refrains from expounding on the Letterman escapade, though he says, "I like the myth of it all," in reference to the famously strange 1987 incident. "It's rare when I'm not asked about it, and I enjoy the attention. But at the same time, I know it would all go away if I talked about it too much."

Glover obviously enjoys his cult of curiosity. He also understands it has its hazards.

"I don't worry about people being strange around me," he says. "But there was one time when I was living in an apartment building, and this girl climbed across a ledge to get into my apartment. It was a very high ledge, which made it a genuinely life-threatening act. I wasn't home at the time, so she took some things--a leather jacket, a Polaroid snapshot of me, a page from Rat Catching and some underwear. She was a friend of a friend and she definitely had psychotic tendencies. I later told her I wanted the jacket back, but she could keep the Polaroid and the underwear."

Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show is scheduled on Wednesday, March 12, at Valley Art Theatre in Tempe. Showtime is 7 p.m. (all ages).

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